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'Lagniappe' Comes To Education

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If you've visited New Orleans, you no doubt recognize one of our favorite words--"lagniappe." You've seen it on breakfast menus offering country sausage and grits, on dessert menus featuring bread pudding with whisky sauce and pralines, and in our newspapers, listing great jazz performances. Now a school-university partnership is bringing lagniappe--"a little something extra"--to education in New Orleans.

This "something extra" is a dedicated army of psychology and psychiatry professionals; social-work and education professors; undergraduate, graduate, medical, and psychiatric students; administrators from both public and private universities; and local and national funders. Bound together by a common determination to address the needs of inner-city children, they are working in close collaboration with public school teachers, board members, administrators, and parents in a one-of-a-kind undertaking. Their joint efforts have infused some of New Orleans' most distressed schools with new knowledge and vigor, replacing frustration and business-as-usual with reflection, collegiality, and enthusiasm.

Based on the child-development principles of James P. Comer, and built on the structure and operating principles of the Yale University Child Study Center's School Development Program, our school-university venture provides the teacher training customarily offered by such partnerships--and much more. We've learned how to bring multiple benefits to students and schools while at the same time bringing "value added" to the partners and major players. Because this multifaceted approach has worked so well for us, we want to share our observations on what makes it work in order to help others build expanded partnerships that benefit all parties. But first a bit of background on what we are doing.

Among our major players are the New Orleans public schools, Southern University at New Orleans (both the college of education and the school of social work), Tulane University School of Medicine, the Yale Child Study Center, and various community agencies and funders. As the coordinator of the partnership, I am based at Southern University at New Orleans, a historically black university whose mission is to serve, empower, and transform the living conditions of African-Americans. That mission coincides with the needs of the schools that became our partners--schools that serve children who live daily with grinding poverty and violence in run-down, drug-infested neighborhoods.

Some five years ago, Southern University at New Orleans decided it was time for higher education to stop blaming schools and parents for the educational problems we all face. It was time instead to help--and to take a critical look at the way we were preparing the hundreds of minority teachers who graduate from Southern each year and often go on to teach in New Orleans schools. Our twin goals in forming a partnership with the New Orleans public schools were to reassess and restructure our own teacher preparation program and to work with the schools in a collegial manner to improve services to the children.

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, professors, teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents worked together to develop a framework for the new partnership and were later helped to implement their program through training sessions at Yale. Using the Comer school-development structure, participatory management was introduced in the three schools initiating the program. At each building, a team composed of teachers and other staff members, parents, and administrators was set up to govern. In addition, mental-health teams (also known as student-service teams) were established to identify student needs and provide services. As the coordinator, I sit in on the meetings of these teams. Through their work, I learn what is needed and then go out and broker the resources required. The teams decide how and where to target the services. Following are just a few examples of how the partnership has paid off for the major players:

  • College of Education. Southern University at New Orleans' college of education has completely restructured its teacher preparation program based upon our experiences working with the school district and the principles of the School Development Program. To link theory with reality, we now place very heavy emphasis on field experiences. Every professional academic course has a mandated field experience. Our pre-service teachers are in the classrooms of New Orleans tutoring by their sophomore year. Unlike students in many other universities, they learn early and firsthand what it's really like in inner-city classrooms. While providing services, they learn about the intense challenges and what works--and they get to know the children, teachers, and community. Our students become excited, motivated, and committed. They are eager to prepare themselves well to serve the children.
  • School of Social Work. Seniors and graduate students of the university's school of social work benefit, too. While providing a variety of services as interns, they gain firsthand experience in the schools, working with children individually and in groups, participating on teams that identify and address problems, and enjoying the experience of working closely with the psychiatrist and psychologist from Tulane. Commenting on the value of their students' field experiences in the schools, one member of the social-work faculty observed, "If they can be successful here, they can be successful anywhere."
  • Mental Health Professionals. Participation by a psychiatrist and psychologist from the Tulane University medical school is supported by a local funder. These professionals are grateful for the opportunity to break out of the ivory tower and work right in the school with students, teachers, and classes. As the psychiatrist observed, "It's like a breath of fresh air for us." They are now part of a mobile mental-health team that also includes Southern University social workers and interns as well as appropriate school district staff members. In addition to addressing individual needs, the team identifies major student concerns and designs group programs related to topics such as grief counseling, conflict resolution, behavior, drugs, welfare, and self-esteem.

    Together, the two universities and the school district have forged a strong focus on positive school climate. This shift has allowed them to concentrate on preventive programs and community education as well as treating abnormality. As an added benefit, both universities are also expanding their own related curricula, and Tulane is considering offering a rotation in the schools for its medical students and psychiatric residents.

  • Teachers. The Comer participatory-governance structure and guiding principles focus on collegiality, consensus building, and searching for solutions rather than placing blame. The result has been an exciting, productive new environment in which teachers are thriving and parents and the community are increasingly involved. Furthermore, in the midst of an extremely resource-poor school district, these teachers now enjoy a variety of services and resources that they identified as needed. The resources range from math, reading, and art tutors who are trained education students to stress-management workshops for teachers, in-class modeling of "timeout" techniques, and mental-health interventions. Many teachers also cite the School Development Program itself as a blessing for them as professionals.

    "It really works," one 1st-grade teacher told me. "There is a very positive environment for everyone involved--teachers, parents, and students. All of us have a say about what goes on in the school, and if something goes wrong, there's no finger-pointing. We all work together to find a better way."

  • Students. Students are the bottom line for this partnership. The children in our schools who have serious emotional problems no longer have to wait six months to a year for evaluation as they did before. Moreover, many students enjoy the benefits of group social and psychological programs designed specifically to meet their needs. The children also benefit from academic services, such as well-prepared student-teachers and trained tutors. Teachers tell us their students love the personal attention and watch the clock eagerly, looking forward to their individual and small-group sessions with tutors and counselors.

The partnership between the New Orleans school district and Southern University at New Orleans has brought dramatic change for everyone. Before, young teachers were thrust into classrooms unprepared for the challenges they would face; now, field experiences help them link theory to reality. Before, professionals were isolated in the classroom and on the campus; now, there is productive cross-pollination among teachers, colleges, and universities.

Before, overwhelmed teachers could provide little individual attention to students; now, students enjoy the attention of tutors, interns, and counselors. Before, psychological efforts focused only on individual children with severe problems; now there are also psychological, social, and educational programs that benefit all students.

Based on our experience in New Orleans, we think we can pinpoint what makes such a partnership successful. From our professors, mental-health professionals, teachers, administrators, social workers, and pre-service teachers, we offer these guidelines for making a multifaceted school-university partnership produce lagniappe for your schools:

  • The central focus of all the adults must be on the needs of the children.
  • The partners must be willing to look critically at their own missions and programs. No thin skins or sacred cows allowed.
  • The partnership should be carefully planned and implemented. Players with varied roles from each partner institution should participate in the planning process.
  • Without a structure, players are likely to remain locked into their own institutional frameworks. A structure such as the Comer program helps the players transcend business-as-usual.
  • Senior leaders, such as the superintendent and his or her cabinet, and deans and their senior administrators must publicly demonstrate their support for the partnership. Through their active participation they send signals to all that this is the agenda.
  • No one has all the answers. There must be mutual recognition that new knowledge will be needed by both partners to make the partnership work.
  • Flexibility should be built in, so that action research can inform shifts in thinking and adjustments to programs.
  • Players must be prepared in advance through training and must work together in accordance with Comer-type rules of collegiality.
  • Programs should be tailored to the needs of students and schools, rather than someone else's research or marketing agenda.
  • A partnership coordinator is needed to facilitate, cut red tape, and avoid roadblocks.
  • Mutual professional respect, collaboration, trust, and commitment are absolutely essential.

How can I fully convey the value of our partnership? Maybe it's the excitement of watching one school's 3rd-grade test scores soar from the bottom to the top of the districtwide barrel as partnership resources are focused where they are needed. Or it might be a group of teachers enthusiastically describing how the Comer structure finally helped them "click in" and "come together." Or perhaps it's the waiting list of 10 schools in our district committed to investing their meager funds to join the partnership. That says a lot in a resource-poor district.

But for me the message comes through most dramatically in classrooms. Recently, I watched a Tulane psychologist working with a troubled class. As the students interacted with him and with each other, they began to comprehend--in many cases for the first time--that they are not alone in their fears, their anger, and their problems. As I observed them, they started to open up, began to trust each other and their teacher. It was truly moving to watch them learn that others share their needs and feelings and that it's OK to seek understanding and support.

For me, moments like this demonstrate clearly the "something extra" of our multifaceted partnership.

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