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University-District Alliance Aiming for Seamless K-16 System

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PUEBLO, COLO.--For years, the University of Southern Colorado and School District 60 here have had no more in common than most local school districts and their neighboring universities. Aside from a handful of programs designed to assist students at both levels, the two entities have gone about their business with only perfunctory contact.

Over the past couple of years, however, an unusual effort called the Educational Alliance of Pueblo Inc. has worked to merge the district and campus to create a seamless K-16 educational system here.

As a result, Charlotte Garnett, a science teacher at South High School, says she has noticed a difference in her relations with the university.

For example, the alliance's senior-to-sophomore program has allowed many of her students to receive credit at U.S.C. for their high school work.

"I feel a closer connection with U.S.C.,'' Ms. Garnett said. "I feel like I can call any professor in the science department and ask for his help and his comments.''

On the other hand, Michael Hall, the principal of Pitts Middle School, says the alliance has only created "another layer of bureaucracy'' in the School District 60 system.

"It hasn't had any effect on us at the building level,'' he said. "The alliance has created a situation where any of the monetary gains or resources we get are floating to the top.''

The school was forced to staff a dropout-prevention program with parent volunteers after alliance directors declined to assist, he said, and because the school district's maintenance staff is now merged with the university's, routine repairs and upkeep take much longer.

"There's a lot of mistrust,'' Mr. Hall said. "Right now, I think the district is getting the short end of it.''

The differing views of Ms. Garnett and Mr. Hall are typical of those the alliance elicits.

Breaking Down Barriers

For the past two years, residents and educators in this southeast Colorado community of nearly 100,000 have been debating the merits of the alliance, which was designed to improve the local education system, save money, and break down longstanding barriers between U.S.C. and the school district.

While schools and universities across the country have established programs to meet similar goals, few go beyond the level of simple mentoring programs or teacher exchanges.

But in Pueblo, the experiment is to create a unified K-16 system by merging the district and the university. The two-year-old Educational Alliance of Pueblo is backed by a contract--signed by university and district officials--that outlines the roles of each system as they slowly fuse together.

And at a time when higher education is coming under increasing scrutiny for its perceived unwillingness to concern itself with K-12 education reform, the alliance is seen nationally as one of the boldest moves yet by a higher-education institution to involve itself at the elementary and secondary levels.

"This is, I think, righting a long-term movement of higher education away from K-12 education,'' said John I. Goodlad, the director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington and a member of the alliance's national advisory board. "As a general message, it is a very positive thing to happen. As a model for everyone to follow, probably not.''

Mr. Goodlad and others noted that U.S.C.'s regional mission and its heavy community involvement make the arrangement more feasible in Pueblo than it perhaps would be in other cities.

Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States and another advisory-board member, said: "It's very imaginative and, more importantly, it's very gutsy. It's hard to do; you've got two different cultures.''

District 60 and U.S.C. officials are quick to point out that their effort is much different than the arrangement between the Chelsea, Mass., public schools and Boston University, under which the university actually runs the school system.

In this case, Pueblo educators say, each entity retains its own identity and governing structure.

"We are co-partners in this process,'' said Superintendent Leonard T. Burns.

The Alliance Begins

District 60 enrolls 18,000 students, more than half of whom are members of minority groups. More than 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches under the federal school-lunch program. The University of Southern Colorado is a 4,300-student campus that draws from Pueblo and the surrounding region.

The alliance began in the fall of 1990 as conversations between the university's president, Robert Shirley, members of his staff, and district officials. Mr. Shirley also had meetings with the editorial board of the local newspaper, the Pueblo Chieftain, to enlist its early support.

"I was frustrated not so much with the quality of the K-12 education of our entering students, although that was part of it,'' Mr. Shirley said recently. "But it was more our inability to work together, and we were pointing the finger at ourselves.''

Mr. Shirley said he knew at the time that the district and university "wouldn't get academic integration without administrative integration.''

Discussions about a possible alliance went into high gear when the district's superintendent, Edmund Vallejo, announced that he was about to retire at the end of 1990. Mr. Shirley took the collaboration idea to the Pueblo school board to win its approval before it began the search for a new superintendent. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

Over the next six months, district and university officials, with the support of the state agricultural board, which oversees U.S.C., went public with the idea and developed the policy and legal documents needed to establish the alliance.

"What we made clear was: We don't know what we're doing, and we want everyone to pitch in and help,'' Mr. Shirley said.

Pushing the alliance through without a set plan caused more people to feel a sense of ownership, he said, but opened up the district and the university to criticism.

"You're in a 'Catch-22' with something like this,'' said Steve Bronn, the executive director for planning and budgeting at U.S.C. "If you have the plan in place and you bring it out to people the criticism is 'You have it worked out beforehand.' If you don't have a plan, the criticism is 'How can you do this without a plan?'''

That dilemma also proved to be the first indication that the alliance was trying to merge two highly different cultures, Mr. Shirley said, because the school board felt comfortable proceeding without a plan, while the agricultural board did not.

Meanwhile, the school board hired Mr. Burns as superintendent. As part of the alliance's formation, Mr. Burns was also given the title of vice president of the university.

"What it does is give me--and this is something that's a rare relationship between school districts and universities--direct access to the president, the vice president, and the provost, and it gives them direct access to me,'' Mr. Burns said.

"My role as vice president is to make this thing work,'' he said.

Saving Money

No two players involved in the alliance point to the same forces that led to its formation or even to its ultimate objectives. But the effort appears to be driven by two primary goals: improving educational opportunities for district students and saving money by streamlining administration and sharing costs.

One of the first decisions by the alliance's board of directors was to hire Ed Smith as a facilities manager who would oversee operations for both the university and the district.

Since Mr. Smith was hired 18 months ago, the university has collapsed its print shop into the district's, merged its safety office with the district's, and contracted out such functions as vehicle maintenance and glass replacement to the district.

Those and other business decisions have saved the district and the university each at least $25,000 a year, according to Henry Roman, the district's associate superintendent for transition activities.

More collaboration is on the way, Mr. Smith said, but it remains unclear exactly what or how.

For fiscal 1994, Mr. Smith said he hopes to bring $40,000 worth of work from the university, which has only 42 maintenance employees, to the district, which has 300.

The district board also accepted numerous recommendations of a restructuring and reallocation task force--made up of district officials, university officials, and community members--that would trim $4.7 million in district administrative costs by mid-1994 and distribute that money to schools.

The schools that qualify for money are required to establish site-based/shared-decisionmaking councils comprising administrators, teachers, and parents.

Although not formally part of the alliance, the restructuring and reallocation effort is viewed by district officials as being supported and facilitated by the alliance.

"It would have happened eventually,'' said Mr. Roman, "but because of the alliance it moved along earlier and got packaged and marketed better.''

Going After Grants

Included in the expected savings are $138,000 from eliminating the central-office divisions of elementary and secondary education; $750,000 from closing schools and selling unneeded buildings; $244,000 from trimming high school and middle school athletics budgets by 20 percent; $1.1 million from creating a self-insurance fund for worker's compensation and property and liability insurance; $217,000 from eliminating the district's early-retirement program; and $300,000 from instituting energy-conservation efforts.

About $700,000 was set aside in fiscal 1993 for distribution to schools.

For example, $8,000 in reallocation money for Central High School was used to send parents and school officials to investigate a Paideia school in Tennessee. Another $7,000 was used as start-up money for an after-school tutoring center that was proposed by teachers.

"At the building level, we're realizing those savings,'' said Samuel Pantleo, the Central High principal.

As teachers see how the reallocation dollars are used, and continue to have a say in how they are used, Mr. Pantleo said, they will come to further believe in the alliance.

But some principals who have received funds through the restructuring and reallocation process say that the money would be available without the alliance.

"I personally don't see [the alliance and the reallocation money] connected, but that's an opinion,'' said Diana J. Johnson, the principal of Hellbeck Elementary School. "Other people do.''

The alliance has also brought in more than $3 million in grants, according to district and university officials.

That money includes $1.2 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts to improve graduation, college-going, and retention rates of district students; $750,000 from the U.S. Education Department for dropout prevention; and $402,139 from the National Science Foundation to increase the number of women and minorities entering science fields. Those funds would not be in the hands of local researchers and officials had the alliance not been in place, alliance proponents argue.

Improving Student Learning

To improve student learning, the school district has engaged in 19 partnerships with the university.

Officials say the partnerships could have been established without the alliance. But, said Mr. Bronn, the university's planning director, "the fact is, they weren't.''

Two of the partnerships are seen as critical to the development of a K-16 curriculum, improved student-learning levels, and a revamped teacher-training program at the university.

The new Center for Teaching and Learning at the university consists of four district curriculum specialists and 10 university faculty members. Its mission is to produce high-quality teachers who will be trained in the district and in surrounding schools and to create an integrated, interdisciplinary, "world class,'' curriculum for preschool through college.

The center is expected to produce its curriculum within three years and eventually will exchange faculty members between the district and the university. The four district curriculum specialists are already on the U.S.C. faculty.

"We think this is going to tremendously impact the students we certify who are going to be teachers,'' said Bruce Grube, the university provost.

The center already seems to be having an effect.

Lucia Martinez, the principal of Bradford Elementary School, said several teacher education students have already made it into her classrooms.

"We've gotten a lot of one-on-one attention, especially for those students who need extra help,'' Ms. Martinez said.

The center is working to develop a curriculum that matches outcomes identified by the district and the university and to devise an assessment system.

While the center looks broadly at the curriculum of the district and the university, a band of district and university educators is in the process of clarifying the content and expectations for science curricula at the transition levels from elementary school through college.

At the Center for the Advancement of Teaching Science, Mathematics, and Technology at U.S.C., district teachers are able to earn master's degrees in elementary education through enrollment at the university and nearby Adams State College.

Once teachers complete the three-year program, they will become team leaders in their schools and train their colleagues in the techniques they have learned.

Although the new center is financed by U.S.C., Jack Seilheimer, the dean of the college of science and mathematics, said: "With the alliance, we're not looking at a quid pro quo. ... Where we may be making an emphasis in one area, the district will make one in another.''

Center officials say their work could serve as a model for the curriculum efforts at the teaching center.

Can It Survive?

Officials here acknowledge that the alliance is still in its early stages, making it difficult to evaluate its effectiveness. The first evaluation will not be conducted until 1994, when both parties have the right to terminate the agreement, which is up for renewal in 1998.

But it remains to be seen whether the alliance lasts that long.

The district school board, its administration, and U.S.C. officials are all committed to making the effort work.

But whether it is institutionalized enough within the structures of both systems to survive the loss of a leader is unclear.

"If Bob Shirley were to leave or if some of the key board members who have been involved in the alliance were to leave, it would take a concerted effort on the part of those who remain to insure that the alliance survives and continues to grow the way we want it to grow,'' said Mr. Roman.

In addition, the alliance must survive fiscal crises facing the district.

The school board recently closed an $11 million deficit for fiscal 1994, and drew $200,000 from the money set aside for restructuring and reallocation.

And even if the alliance survives all of that, it must battle the perception on the part of some Pueblo residents that the district is giving up its autonomy to U.S.C., or that the financial savings realized under the joint venture are going to the university.

"We do have a major job in terms of communications,'' said Superintendent Burns. "We have a lot of people who think that the university has taken over the school district. Like Steve Bronn said, that's sort of like the mouse taking over the elephant.''

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