For the Higher Good
The biting words came just short of name-calling, remembers Judy Seal, who witnessed this argument as the new facilitator of the Long Beach (Calif.) Education Partnership. "It was one of those moments I realized there are incoming missiles and my job is to take them ... and change their direction," she says.
In attendance that day: a small group of K-12 administrators and teachers, the presidents of the school board and the unions, and deans and senior-level administrators from the local community college and university. "This one dean who's no longer there-he just looked like he was going to burst," Seal says. For the dean of the college of education, it was the first complaint he had ever heard about graduating teachers.
the educational system to a better place
Everyone got their thoughts out and Seal reminded them that intentions were good on both sides. The group agreed to move forward with mutual respect.
That was 1992 and the Long Beach community was in economic crisis, explains Carl Cohn, who recently retired as superintendent. The Navy base was closing, the tourism industry was collapsing and the Rodney King riots had caused more property damage there than in Los Angeles. A Navy town no longer, the city assigned itself a new identity as an education town.
Long Beach might also be called a pioneer town today, because its K-12 and higher ed communities acknowledge that they need each other and have partnered to bring about systemic school reform.
Only about 50 to 75 U.S. communities have figured out how to do the same, says Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit committed to making schools and colleges work for all the young people they serve. Born in the 1970s, the partnership movement began with colleges interested in attracting minority and poor students, she says. Partnerships of the '80s were usually single teacher-focused programs aimed at improving school quality. By the end of that decade, small-scale K-16 alliances were everywhere. That's when educators began to realize that systemic, not programmatic, reform is most effective.
So The Ed Trust secured Pew Charitable Trust funds to work out the idea of long-term K-16 collaborations in three cities. From there, the movement grew quickly, Haycock says, as superintendents and mayors throughout the country saw the potential. However, systemic partnerships like Long Beach's are still relatively rare.
Whether it's called K-16 or P-16 to include early childhood education, the movement has been getting a lot of attention at the state level, too. Currently, 26 states have some kind of P-16 legislation or system in place, says Carl Krueger, assistant policy analyst, policy studies and programs at the Education Commission of the States.
"Most states [build] the system piece by piece," he adds. The California Alliance of PreK-18 Partnerships, for example, is gearing up by drafting seven partnership case studies and developing state policy recommendations for supporting collaborations.
The actual local partnerships are driven most often by higher education, experts agree. This may be because university presidents are "seen as having the standing to bring communities together," Haycock says. In addition, K-12 administrators may not view partnerships as a way to meet their primary teaching and learning needs, says Robert J. Baird, director of school/university partnerships at The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which focuses in part on how higher education can assist K-12.
But partnerships can originate both ways, and in some cases businesses have been the ones inviting educators to a discussion.
Why should districts take the lead? "If a local college is turning out not enough or not good enough teachers, there's no substitute for creating a pipeline of better prepared teachers. That just doesn't happen without K-12 stepping forward and saying, 'This is what our teachers need to know, and these are our standards,' " Haycock says.
Aligning college entry and high school graduation requirements are another major reason for partnering. "Right now districts are getting beat up because they're teaching students one thing but the college placement tests have something totally different for expectations," she says. Alignment saves everyone-from the schools to the students-time and energy.
Partnerships are also used for bringing existing teacher skills and content knowledge to a higher level.
Individual motives for collaborating may vary and priorities may shift, but all of these goals typically make their way to the heart of K-16 partnerships.
Accountability, standards, cohort-common education terms like these may get partnerships off on the wrong foot immediately. After all, they're used differently by the K-12 and higher education communities. Take accountability, for instance. In higher ed, it's about credit hours, not results, Haycock says.
But even getting a K-16 conversation started can be a challenge. "States and educators have done things a certain way for a long time. The idea of change doesn't appeal to them," Krueger says. He adds that educators "want to keep doing what they've been doing. They don't want to step on anybody's toes, and they don't want anybody stepping on their toes."
Some administrators regard working with higher ed as a distraction from the priorities created by No Child Left Behind. Haycock has known superintendents to roll their eyes at the thought of approaching college administrators for help in meeting their goals and say, "Oh, God-them! They talk too slow, they take too long to get back to us..."
This raises the larger issues of mistrust, as administrators in Long Beach felt early on. "We were all fairly skeptical at the start about the extent to which higher ed could make a significant contribution," says Cohn. "I was wrong about that."
"There [have] been a lot of experiences with university faculty coming in with 'the answer,' " Baird says. District administrators have also told him they're not interested in university faculty working with their teachers, because their math is not relevant to K-12 standards.
But it's at the center of a college-its content academic areas, not the college of education-that partnerships of the future lie, says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York. In 2001, Bard partnered with the New York City Board of Education to create an alternative high school, the Bard High School Early College.
With any partnership, "you're bringing the bureaucracies of two systems together, and most bureaucracies are troublesome. The greatest challenge is getting two systems that have their own dynasties to blend," says Bob Stein, assistant superintendent, educational services for Grossmont Union High School District in La Mesa, Calif., which has an alternative high school program on a local college campus.
Bob Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, cautions that finding a way to work together can be tougher than it seems. "Mending the rifts and combining the two different cultures will have enormous benefits, but it also constitutes a huge challenge. It requires conviction and persistence, and, most of all, courage," he says.
And then there's the money to worry about. While there's very little funding for partnerships, grants are a good start-up source. When that money runs out, the support structure often collapses, Baird says. That's why he recommends thinking about resources to sustain the partnership right from the beginning.
Cohn, now a professor of clinical education policy analysis at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is experiencing an additional challenge to K-16 partnerships firsthand-lack of university faculty incentives to get involved. He notes a lot of head nodding during discussions about changing reward structures to give outreach equal status to research. But there's no action. "We've got to come up with a way that shifts these priorities," he says.
Baird suggests that K-12 administrators help by talking to deans and provosts about the new realities in this age of standards and asking them for help in dealing with a raised academic bar.
Location, Location, Location
Back in 1991, when Estanislado "Stan" Paz started his job as superintendent in El Paso, Texas, he knew one thing for sure-that district reform would take support from the entire community. On board with the idea, which became the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, was not only the city's K-12 and higher education leaders and faculty, but also business and civic leaders. These partners helped create the urgency to bring about change, Paz says.
And change the district did. When Texas began its accountability system, El Paso had about a dozen low-performing schools. A year of targeted reform later, the city had none. When Paz left the district in 1998, most schools were labeled exemplary or recognized by the state. In fact, El Paso was the first large urban Texas district to maintain recognized status for a school. "We were all proud as peacocks about that accomplishment," Paz says. The collaborative, he adds, "was clearly the highlight of my professional career."
It's no accident that the city was chosen to receive a Pew grant to launch the partnership. With about 80 percent of students going on to college enrolling in the two local colleges and 70 percent to 80 percent of teachers coming out of the University of El Paso, Haycock says the self-interest was there on both sides of the education coin. "These people have every reason in the world to collaborate," she says.
In cities with several colleges competing for students and turning out teachers, as well as many students leaving the area for college, broad K-16 partnerships may simply be inappropriate, she says. But for small cities and rural towns where a large university is not too far away, an alliance may be just what the reform doctor ordered.
State support is also a plus. When he was appointed superintendent in Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District in 2000, Paz immediately aligned himself with the governor and state superintendent of instruction and was soon appointed to a state accountability system task force. Once such a system is in place, the urgency for change is created in the education community, he says. Paz now meets with university leaders on a P-20 collaborative, putting the structures in place for expansion.
Seal, whose title is now executive director of K-18 collaborations/ seamless education in Long Beach, acknowledges that state conversations can make or break the partnership trend. So she's helping to form California's PreK-18 alliance. "Even if it's just a nod [from state leaders], that nod is very important. If they were to shake their heads against it, we would be facing a real uphill battle."
Groundwork for Success
Whether educators follow an established partnership model, such as The Ed Trust's P-16 leadership council idea, or create an alliance on their own, experts say it's the carefully coordinated and planned alliances that stand the best chance of becoming mainstays.
Illinois' Regional Office of Education #26 created the P-16 Partnership for Scientific and Mathematical Achievement in 1997 with 12 school districts and four post-secondary institutions; now it's grown to include seven ROE areas. To prepare for a National Science Foundation grant that would expand the partnership statewide, Grant Coordinator Mary Leach says there have been three major pre-work focus areas:
--Data collection of student enrollment in math classes. Laying the groundwork for a modeling course covering applied math for seniors, it would encourage a four-year math sequence and offer career connections, Leach says.
--A promotional campaign. The community at large doesn’t realize that two levels of math or science, while enough to graduate from high school, are likely not enough for students planning for college, Leach says. So the partnership is creating brochures and an online video, as well as sending teachers directly to school board meetings to present their case for better alignment between K-12 and higher ed.
--Professional development. This course offers training in teaching real-world problems. Taught by Western Illinois University faculty, high school teachers work as assistant instructors.
Also necessary for successful K-16 alliances is strong leadership capable of getting others excited about the changes ahead. Seal says Cohn had a knack for motivating the partnership team, saying things like, "If public education isn't about truth and honesty and service, what is it about?" She points to the stability of leadership at all levels of the educational system as a success factor, too.
Experts urge districts to include not just education leaders, but also business, government and community executives. In partnerships where non-educators are overlooked, "you can be very sure that they'll accomplish little. You need outside, independent thinkers," Haycock says. In addition, a full-time staff person is needed to nurture the connections and coordinate the efforts.
As for motivating the larger troops, Long Beach has invited some VIPs to speak at partnership events. Bob Chase from the National Education Association and then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley visited the city in 1998, for example, at a back-to-school event that filled the California State Long Beach sports arena. "There was no budget line item to reward us for working extra hours, extra days, weekends, summers. There's still no budget line items for this extra work," Seal says. "Having outside people validate that hard work was crucial to us." These events "provide a lot in terms of a symbolic relationship-being together," Cohn adds.
Sealing the Connection
Events also remind administrators that teacher commitment runs deep. About a year into the Long Beach partnership, Cohn remembers an evening event for hundreds of teachers. He was certain that, after a full day at school and the dinner, they would want to head home. The event organizers convinced him to try a different approach, encouraging conversations of teachers across disciplines at each education level. "I was wrong and the organizers were right," Cohn says. "As I was walking around the room ... I really started to wonder if we hadn't tapped into something."
How much do teachers in Prince George's County Schools appreciate the staff development from a local K-16 partnership? Here's an indication: One teacher changed her wedding date when she realized it would conflict.
Called The Bladensburg Project, the partnership involves four district schools and the University of Maryland's College of Education, explains instructional leader Marjorie Spirer. Two elementary schools, a middle school and Bladensburg High School, where Spirer works, participate. This level of commitment across grade levels, experts say, is another sign of partnership success.
Last year, the entire staff worked with university faculty on infusing reading and writing strategies across the curriculum. This year's math initiative is a course on content standards and accompanying classroom strategies. Once every quarter, teachers from all disciplines meet with university faculty to go over curriculum content and develop lesson plans.
The partnership also gets students involved. For example, a two-week summer camp was held on the UM campus last year. Besides getting a tour and meeting with admissions staff, the incoming ninth graders attended classes with university students. "A lot of our kids have never been on a university campus. ... [For some] it's the first time they stayed away from home," Spirer says. The experience taught team-building, reading and math skills and college study survival strategies-such as that professors don't chase down student homework assignments.
Now in its third year, the partnership has not only brought together K-16, but also the district itself, Spirer says. It gets teachers at all levels of the district talking, which helps in transitioning students. "The money isn't going to go forever, but we're hoping that the partnerships will last forever, how we share and do things," she says.
Part of what has made the Long Beach partnership sustain itself lies in its design. "We are not static. We evolve based on student needs at all levels," Seal says. "We designed it so we would not become a bureaucracy. The steering committee would take ... recommendations from the levels below it."
And while it took about three years, Seal says that there's an atmosphere of trust between all parties involved, and they've become like a family. "We argue and we debate, like family members debate. ... Debate is good, because it helps us examine the issues."
So is the partnership trend likely to stick around? "A lot of people ... think [it's] just a fad and that it will go away. I think there's just too much interest out there," says Krueger.
The partnerships that survive and thrive are those that take "the best of two different academic cultures, K-12 and higher education, bringing each to bear upon the other," says Weisbuch. He hopes to see an end to the gap between these education levels, which is "greater in this country arguably than in any other-a gap that makes no real sense and causes real mischief."
Melissa Ezarik, email@example.com, is features editor.