U.’s role in public schools to undergo reinvigoration

By
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Brown is gearing up for a substantial overhaul of its outreach efforts in Providence public schools, as evidenced by last spring’s appointment of the University’s first director of education outreach and a focus on local schools in the final recommendations from the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Current outreach efforts, though substantial, are largely disjointed, and the first step of Brown’s renewed focus will yield comprehensive organization of ongoing initiatives for the first time.

All but one of Providence’s 49 public schools currently fail to meet federal minimum standards for academic achievement. According to a Nov. 30 report released by Rhode Island Kids Count, only 72 percent of high school students statewide graduate on time.

Director of Education Outreach Lamont Gordon ’93 is currently evaluating Brown’s involvement with local schools, working in conjunction with Brian Baldizar, the Providence Public School District’s newly appointed university liaison, and Mark Kravatz, Hope High School’s newly appointed facilitator of school support, development and community and family engagement.

Gordon said he plans to provide President Ruth Simmons and the Brown Corporation with suggestions in coming weeks as to how they might best respond to the slavery and justice committee’s recommendation that the University better coordinate and renew its outreach efforts.

The committee recommended specifically that the University bolster professional development opportunities for Rhode Island teachers, expand its current Brown Summer High School program and increase funding for its Master of Arts in Teaching program as well as the new Urban Education Policy Program. The report recommends that Brown coordinate these efforts with an eye toward working with other local higher education institutions that have education outreach programs in Providence public schools.

“As the sheer variety of programs and initiatives suggests, Brown’s efforts have been highly decentralized,” the committee wrote in its report. “If Brown is to make a meaningful impact in local schools, it will require a sustained, substantial commitment of energy and resources over many years.”

Gordon, who agreed that Brown’s current education outreach efforts are “ill-coordinated and poorly funded,” is focusing first simply on organizing the numerous ongoing outreach initiatives that currently fall under the umbrella of the Swearer Center for Public Service, individual academic departments or organizations such as the Education Alliance and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

“They’re really kind of individual, disparate projects – they’re not really connected in any way,” Gordon said. “We’re trying to map out the current reality so we can say, ‘This is what we’re doing.'”

The last time Brown attempted to take inventory of its community outreach efforts was 10 years ago, Gordon said, when the Office of the President came up with a list of over 240 ongoing outreach initiatives that were “not necessarily education but largely so.”

Once current initiatives are organized, Gordon said he hopes to have a Web site functioning by early next semester that will serve as a catalogue of educational outreach opportunities at Brown.

Education outreach in New HavenThough Yale University differs greatly from Brown in terms of resources and the size and number of graduate programs offered, similarities between the public school systems of New Haven, Conn., and Providence make Yale a useful example of how the University can play a more effective role in local public education.

In 1995, Yale President Richard Levin appointed the university’s first director of public schools outreach. The position, which is part of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, was just one aspect of an effort by the school in the early 1990s to become an “institutional citizen” in New Haven, said Claudia Merson, who has held that position since its creation.

“I think (Brown’s current situation) is really typical – you’ve got a lot going on but you don’t really know what it is,” Merson said. “Getting our own resources organized was a Herculean job.”

By virtue of its mission as an educational institution, Brown is well situated to play a major role in improving Providence’s public schools. But it can often be difficult to synchronize long-term efforts in local schools with the short-term mentality of many students who spend just a few years at the University, according to Jack Gillette, director of Yale’s teacher training program.

Since 1995, Yale has spent over $3.6 million each year on education outreach initiatives in New Haven. Yale also offers regular university courses free of charge to New Haven juniors or seniors in high school who are hand-picked by guidance counselors at the public schools.

Currently in its eighth year, Yale’s Public School Intern program demonstrates one way in which a university’s resources can be best aligned with individual public schools’ needs, Merson said.

Through the Public School Intern program, Yale undergraduates apply for paid, two-year internships during which they are assigned to a New Haven public school and serve as Yale’s “point person” for that school, becoming familiar with its specific goals and objectives.

“That’s been, I think, a really huge improvement both in better aiming and firing student resources and helping schools actually get what they want out of the university,” Merson said. “People don’t know each others’ institutions well enough in the beginning to even know how to work with each other.”

Structural components like the intern program are imperative in developing a context for sustained educational outreach, Gillette said.

“You’re managing the intersection of two very different systems – you can’t move quickly enough to take advantage of the energy on campus and you can’t align with the long-term goals that the school districts are trying to put in place,” Gillette said.

Yale recently debuted its Urban Teaching Initiative, a 14-month master’s program through which students earn both a Master of Arts in Urban Education Studies degree and their teaching certificate. In exchange for a full-tuition scholarship and an $18,000 stipend, participants in the program commit to teach in a New Haven public middle or high school for three years following graduation.

Duke University offers a similar graduate program, providing tuition gifts in exchange for commitment to teach in local public schools. In its recommendations, the Slavery and Justice committee called for full tuition waivers for Brown students who agree to make such a commitment.

Gordon and Merson both mentioned National Science Foundation research grants as a potential avenue for increased collaboration between a university like Brown or Yale and local public schools. Many NSF grants require a K-12 education outreach component, but researchers applying for the grants often do not know about the potential ways to get involved with ongoing outreach efforts, Merson said. As a result, researchers “just go and judge a science fair” to fulfill the outreach component of their grant proposals, Merson added.

Melding policy with practiceOne of the slavery and justice committee’s recommendations focuses on dedicating “substantial resources, including dedicated faculty positions” to Brown’s Urban Education Policy Program in an effort to establish the University as “a national leader in this vital field.” Gordon’s position was funded out of the creation of the UEP program.

Eight students are currently enrolled in Brown’s UEP program, and Gordon said there will be about 15 participants next year. He is interested in connecting Brown’s current MAT teacher training program with the research-driven UEP program, which includes a one-year internship component that can be fulfilled through work at the PPSD or the Rhode Island Department of Education, among other places.

Gillette echoed the importance of melding urban education policy with teacher training, citing the benefit of applying research and new knowledge generated by the universities to learning what it takes to be an effective urban teacher.

“Teaching, research and practice – all three of those are very important, I think, for sustainability,” Gillette said. “No new knowledge about urban teaching is going to take place in a university, nor do I think it is going to take place in an isolated classroom – (through the collaboration of programs like these), great theory and practice come together.”