Public Schools, Colleges Form Urban Alliances
Urban superintendents generally agree that the past decade of fiscal austerity, falling enrollments, disintegrating institutional morale, and waning public support has left public education in a severely weakened state. And they acknowledge that troubled schools, in turn, have contributed to the decline of many of the nation's cities.
In an effort to bring fresh approaches to these vexing problems, school-district superintendents and university presidents in three of the nation's major urban areas have agreed to collaborate on programs to revive education in their cities through the creation of formal alliances between themselves, business leaders, and local governments.
The pilot programs, which are being developed simultaneously in Cincinnati, Detroit, and Milwaukee, have been instituted in order to promote the notion that "the economic health of a community is very directly related to the health and viability of public education," said Arthur Jefferson, superintendent of Detroit's public schools.
Example of Solidarity
The venture, according to several persons involved in its planning, represents an unusual example of solidarity between urban-school heads and higher-education leaders.
"The two groups typically have not been di-rectly competitive with each other, but they haven't been mutually supportive, either," explained Robert Schwartz, a professor at Brandeis University and supervisor of the project.
"But in light of the current fiscal and political environment, it soon became apparent to them that they both faced some common problems,'' he said.
That conclusion was reached during a meeting of urban superintendents and university presidents last June that was sponsored by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
Mr. Schwartz said the purpose of the meeting was to define areas of mutual interest and potential collaboration between the schools and the universities.
''One of the basic principles that emerged
from the meeting is that as resources dwindle, the need for cooperative ventures like this one increases tremendously," said James Jacobs, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools.
"We simply have to look at new ways to share resources in order to keep down costs," Mr. Jacobs said. "There's no more room for our old institutional jealousies because, quite honestly, we're all losing money."
According to Mr. Jefferson, another point of agreement among participants was that improvement efforts should be focused primarily on the cities' high schools.
"The universities are beginning to realize that they cannot remain isolated from what is happening in the high schools," he said. "Enrollments in urban universities are dropping, forcing them to develop new strategies to draw qualified students to their institutions. The cities' economic revival also depends, in large part, on a well-educated labor force."
Participants in the June meeting agreed to return to their respective cities and create joint political agendas designed to minimize competition for funds and other limited resources, according to Mr. Schwartz.
A main component of each of those agendas, he added, was the creation of alliances with business and local government, primarily in order to investigate the transition from high school to both post-secondary education and the labor force.
"The concept, at least in Cincinnati, is to involve all three segments of the community in an assessment of the area's job market, and to make decisions that would best fill the market's need," explained Mr. Jacobs.
"We have already formed a private-industry council consisting of representatives of industry, government, and the public schools whose purpose is to identify vocational areas where there is definitely a demand for workers," he said. "Students have the incentive to receive proper training while in school because they know that there's a job waiting for them at the end of the trail."
According to Robert C. Wood, a former superintendent of Boston public schools and former president of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, a similar theory of planning would also apply to college-bound high-school seniors.
"Right now the job of coordinating the transition from high school to college is handled primarily by guidance counselors and admissions officers, and it's well-known that neither of those two are central to the decision-making process," said Mr. Wood, who is a member of the project's advisory council. "A specific project that the groups could undertake is a thorough review of graduation and admissions requirements in order to streamline the way to college for high-school seniors.''
Another goal of the program, Mr. Schwartz said, was the expansion of all other collaborative efforts already underway in the three cities.
"Right now we have 22 businesses that have formed partnerships with individual schools in Cincinnati," said Mr. Jacobs. "One large electronics firm in the city reviewed the vocational-education program in electronics in one of our high schools. They pretty much re-wrote the entire curriculum so it would more closely correspond to the demands of the marketplace."
According to Mr. Jefferson, the program could be replicated in other areas of the country if the pilot efforts are successful in the three test cities.
"Efforts like these will probably become more common," he predicted. "Right now, our three cities are taking the leadership in this field, and I hope others will follow our example."
Launch of the project has been supported by a small planning grant from the Ford Foundation to the land-grant universities and colleges group.