William Raspberry's column " 'What It Takes' to Deliver Social Services" {op-ed, Jan. 30} delivered a message to all of us who are concerned with America's social problems. It is not, Raspberry asserts, that America has stopped caring about poor people, small children or troubled families. Rather, we have become painfully aware that isolated "programs" simply don't alleviate the problems they are designed to combat.

Raspberry points with satisfaction to a monograph just published by the Education and Human Services Consortium that argues for the solution: fragmented and depersonalized social service programs must become connected and collaborative. They must stop treating their clients as a collection of unrelated problems and begin to see them holistically as human beings, so that "a truly seamless web of services" may be woven for them.

I first heard this message almost 20 years ago from a man named Bill Milliken. He is now the president of Cities In Schools Inc. (CIS), the nation's largest non-profit dropout prevention program, and since 1986 I have had the privilege of serving on CIS's national board of directors. Reading Raspberry's column was in some respects an eerie experience, because Milliken and the dedicated staff of Cities In Schools have been singing the same song loud and clear for many years -- and it appears that the nation is now ready to listen.

Milliken and CIS argue that most social services for "at-risk" youth are already in place -- but they are in the wrong place. As Raspberry and the consortium note, students and their families are asked to seek out the help they so badly need -- health care, drug rehabilitation, career planning -- from a confusing variety of disconnected agencies scattered throughout a typical community. The consortium's monograph points out that to expect troubled youth or their parents to negotiate this maze "is truly to ask the impossible."

Bill Milliken puts it this way: "You'd need a PhD in systems to figure it out. I couldn't do it. How can I expect it of a young kid who's about to drop out?" CIS instead reverses this process and brings repositioned social service providers into the school itself, where they can serve alongside teachers in the battle to give young people education, direction and hope.

This approach emphasizes building personal relationships with young people and their families. The repositioned personnel function as a team, so all information is shared, and each student's needs are examined in relation to his or her overall situation. This team process also "models" for youngsters a way of cooperating and working together -- a model often sadly lacking in their communities.

The 50 Cities In Schools programs currently operational across the country served almost 30,000 young people and their families last year. CIS programs consistently report excellent results in areas such as retention, academic improvement and amelioration of behavior problems. The overall goal of the CIS effort -- reduction of the dropout rate for these youth -- is well within reach. But Milliken emphasizes that any social problem can be effectively addressed with this same combination of coordinated social services and personalized team-building to help those at risk -- the very model that Raspberry and the Education and Human Services Consortium endorse.

"Ultimately," says Milliken, "we're talking about institutional change, a change in the way society views its problems. We've got to stop encouraging, even rewarding, competition between helping agencies. Collaboration should be the aim; both government and private philanthropies have to begin putting their resources behind cooperative efforts instead of demanding that social service groups with different agendas engage in a destructive fight for the few funds available."

The CIS approach has another virtue, which is also directly pertinent to Raspberry's column. "If I have any criticism of this excellent paper {the Consortium monograph}," he writes, "it is that it focuses almost exclusively in improving the delivery of government services and hardly at all on the importance of strengthening communities in order to prevent or ameliorate problems before they come to agency attention."

Cities In Schools is aware of the danger to local leadership posed by constant reliance on government resources. To counteract this, CIS has evolved two important guidelines: all CIS programs must rely primarily on private sector leadership, especially from the businesses that are part of the school system's community, and each CIS program is formed as a privately incorporated organization independent of any authority outside the community itself. A local CIS board of directors typically comprises educators, religious leaders, health and social service providers, business persons, Private Industry Council members and community activities, and it is always chaired by a representative from the private sector. Thus the board members are stakeholders and have a vested interest in seeing the effort succeed.

This approach ensures that the community will assume responsibility for solving its children's problems -- and it also provides a model for community empowerment. In the long run, "parachuting in the experts" may no longer be necessary, and the crippling reliance on paternalistic "helping" can be brought to an end.

Bill Milliken has worked for more than 30 years in disadvantaged communities, and his reflections are somber and important for us to understand. "Since World War II," he says, "our sense of community has deteriorated. Religious institutions and extended families used to be the mediating structure of any healthy community. Now, in many areas, that's no longer true. In a way, the schools are the last place left for a community to rally behind. But in the process, we wind up asking schools, and teachers, to do so much more than they're able to do. The only effective solution is to reorganize and empower the community around the school, to make it a rallying point and to bring community resources into the schools."

I can only hope that more and more individuals in our communities, businesses and government alike, will hear Milliken's and Raspberry's message. We haven't stopped caring, nor have we run out of resources to help troubled families. Whether it is through our educational support efforts at C&P Telephone or through organizations like Cities In Schools, I am convinced business must be an active partner. The writer is president and chief executive officer of C&P Telephone.