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Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as The College Connection

The College Connection

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The students marvel at a setting where there is more grass than graffiti, that for many of them might as well be another country: a college campus.

Separated by some 200 miles that fade from gritty city streets to bucolic rolling hills, Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem and Ithaca College here in upstate New York seem an odd couple to embrace each other in what has become a successful educational marriage.

"Take a look out the window," first-year teacher Deborah Maio tells a handful of students from Frederick Douglass, who are taking a trip in a van from New York City to Ithaca to observe the college's weekend commencement activities. "It's a different life up here."

Fourteen students from the academy's middle and high school left Frederick Douglass, a large brick building across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, at 9 o'clock on this recent Friday morning for the four-hour trip. Drab concrete and rattling subways have given way to grazing cows and pastoral open spaces. Silos stand watch over weathered red barns. Fly fishermen wade knee-deep in pristine lakes that dot the countryside. Dairy stores sell homemade ice cream.

The students, who peer out the van window and marvel at a setting where there is more grass than graffiti, arrive at a place that for many of them might as well be another country: a college campus.

The trip is just a small part of the two schools' extensive, 4-year-old partnership—and a way to introduce students to the world of higher education that in many respects is much farther from these students' lives and experiences than the physical miles that separate Harlem and Ithaca.

For years, educators and policy leaders have called for stronger ties between colleges and K-12 schools. Everyone from U.S. presidents and secretaries of education to state legislators and local high school principals has proposed better collaboration between secondary and postsecondary institutions.

For years, educators and policy leaders have called for stronger ties between colleges and K-12 schools.

The National Commission on the High School Senior Year, a group formed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, released a report in January that urged colleges to become more active partners with the precollegiate education system. "The K-12 system is poorly aligned and has not established reliable lines of communication with postsecondary education and work," it concluded.

But for the most part, public discussion of the issue has lacked concrete notions of who should initiate such partnerships, how extensive those relationships should be, and how to bring them to fruition. Consequently, education experts say, many efforts that have been attempted have been small-scale and scattershot. In a phrase, it's easier to talk the partnership talk than to follow through with the long-term commitment and vision needed to make successful partnerships work.

Without individuals in leadership positions who recognize the value of such partnerships and push for closer relationships, good intentions will inevitably fall short, says Frank Wilbur, an associate vice president at Syracuse University and the director of the National Center for Information and Research on School-College Partnerships.

Other colleges can learn from Ithaca's initiative with Frederick Douglass and the relationship his own university has forged with the High School for Leadership and Public Service in New York City, Wilbur says. ("University's Partnership Draws Upon Alumni Pool," June 6, 2001.)

"You need a principal or superintendent and a college president to say to their community and alumni, 'We value this partnership and support it,' "Wilbur says. "Many traditional colleges and universities, under the gun with budgets and so many other issues, don't seem to take the time to work with their neighbors. Leadership is critical."

After an uncertain initial courting period, Ithaca College and Frederick Douglass Academy have forged an unusual and enduring arrangement that has strengthened both institutions, largely because of the breadth of the partnership. While many such arrangements focus narrowly on student teaching, faculty exchanges, or student tutoring, Ithaca has taken a holistic approach that has enlisted the help of everyone from the college president to administrative staff members.

"Ithaca brings a different understanding of what a partnership can be," says Gregory Hodge, the principal of Frederick Douglass Academy, which has 1,100 students in grades 6-12. "They looked at how they could develop a long- term relationship. When you have a college president that takes time to come down here and visit our school, that says something about the college.

The K-12 system is poorly aligned and has not established reliable lines of communication with postsecondary education and work.

"There is no reason Harlem should have bad schools," Hodge says. "You have schools like Columbia University and [New York University] right around here. Colleges need to become more involved. Some of these education professors in their ivory towers haven't been in a classroom in 20 years. You can't sit in an ivory tower and say, 'This is the latest theory.' "

Peggy R. Williams, the president of Ithaca College, doesn't like the idea of a college "adopting" a school. "It makes it seem like higher education has the truth," Williams says as she sits in her spacious office overlooking Ithaca's campus the day before the college's graduation ceremony. "We wanted this to be a partnership, not an adoption. We wanted it to be long-term. We weren't just going to come in one day and leave the next.

"We don't feel like we are bringing the basket of knowledge to them," she says. "There is a sense that Frederick Douglass is our home in the city, and Ithaca is their home up here."

Indeed, the program has become so successful that there is a waiting list at Ithaca for faculty members who want to participate. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the two institutions' partnership is that it is so extensive, given that it runs on a minimal budget—about $75,000 this year.

"The whole educational system can be so disjointed," says Patricia Tempesta, who coordinates the partnership for Ithaca College and made the first contact with Frederick Douglass administrators. "Colleges and high schools have important things to learn and share with one another.

"Just think of the difference we could make in the public education system if every college partnered with one high school," Tempesta says. "When we work side by side with our students and our public school colleagues, we model what we believe to be important."

She adds: "We can make a difference, and it is the responsibility of each one of us to make it happen."


The road trip to Ithaca includes 6th graders who have never been to the 5,900- student college, along with a few high school students who have spent time on campus during the summer and worked at their school in Harlem with visiting Ithaca faculty members. The students spend part of the afternoon on a "treasure hunt," tracking down college buildings, introducing themselves to students and professors, and snacking on pizza later that evening.

In the evening, they are seated as guests of honor at a concert that features jazz, gospel, and blues music to tell the story of how African rhythms and sounds influence music throughout the world. After the concert, they congratulate Steve Brown, an Ithaca music professor who produced the concert and has visited Frederick Douglass to teach jazz workshops. A spectacular fireworks show follows before the students head off to bed in the college dormitories.

"You need a principal or superintendent and a college president to say to their community and alumni, 'We value this partnership and support it.'"

Frank Wilbur,
associate vice president,
Syracuse University and
director of the National
Center for Information
Research on School-
College Partnerships

The next morning, they attend Ithaca's commencement ceremony—soaking up the pomp and pageantry of the outdoor occasion.

Williams, the president of Ithaca College, argues that having the students attend college graduation "reinforces in a concrete and ceremonial way that this is within your reach and hard work pays off."

Dorothy Haime, an assistant principal at Frederick Douglass who helps coordinate the partnership from the academy's side, sees this type of trip as a way to awaken students to experiences outside their typical perspective. "This helps them see there is a life beyond Harlem," she says. "A lot of our kids are first-generation high school graduates—let alone college graduates."

A Harlem native, Haime says many of the students have never before left New York City. She compares the students' experience with Plato's analogy of the cave—the shock of discovering that the world is more than the shadows you see in front of you.

But Frederick Douglass' students have persisted and achieved, despite being in one of the lowest- performing community districts within the New York City school system. This year's valedictorian will be attending Columbia University. Almost every student in the 110-member class of 2001 plans to attend college.

For Ashley Peterson, 11, an outgoing girl who holds her own with the boys she sometimes bosses around, the opportunity to spend time at Ithaca College motivates her to stay focused on remaining in school and thinking about going to college once she graduates.

"I'm learning what college is all about," the 6th grader says after enjoying pizza in a college lounge. "I've never been to college before. I will apply here if things go well. Just because you live in a community where there are gangs and fights, doesn't mean you can't make it to where you want to be. You got to strive for what you want."


When the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" profiled Lorraine Monroe, Frederick Douglass Academy's former principal, in 1996, officials at Ithaca College took notice. Monroe had founded the academy and carved out a sanctuary of success for urban students. Before Monroe arrived with a mission to hold inner-city students to high expectations, the city school system closed what was then Intermediate School No. 10 because of poor test scores, disengaged faculty members, and a building where fights, graffiti, and drug use were common. Today, Frederick Douglass students wear uniforms, follow a strict code of non- negotiable rules, and post strong test scores.

You can't sit in an ivory tower and say, 'This is the latest theory.'

Tempesta, the interim director of Ithaca College's Center for Teacher Education, saw potential in working with the transformed Harlem school. Ithaca students interested in teaching, she knew, needed opportunities to work in an urban school. And as a college-prep academy, Frederick Douglass had needs the college could help meet.

"We didn't want to take a scattered approach," Tempesta says. "We wanted to be in this for the long run. When I first called, they thought we were just another group who wanted to come in and take a tour of the school."

Gary Fountain, an assistant professor of English at Ithaca who supervises English majors who want to be teachers, says building trust with the academy didn't happen overnight. "We had to be there for almost three years before we felt it really clicked and we weren't just seen as people coming to visit," says Fountain, a former high school teacher. "You have to spend a lot of time just listening and finding out what they need."

But academy officials' concerns over geographical distance and being cast in the role of what some suspected was a predominantly white college's token approach to racial diversity proved irrelevant when Ithaca administrators, students, professors, and staff members didn't disappear. "When I first went up there, I said, 'This will never work,' " Haime says. "But then you begin to see their sincerity and commitment."

Others, including potential donors, also were skeptical. The 3M Corp., the Minnesota-based global technology company, initially decided not to help fund the partnership because of the difficulties in maintaining a long-distance relationship.

But the company, too, has become a convert. Last summer the company promised the college $32,000 a year for three years to run a series of summer programs for minority students that will teach them about mathematics and computer technology. Most of the students will come from Frederick Douglass, whose enrollment is 80 percent African- American. Last summer, 12 students from the academy participated. This summer, 20 students will attend.

Ithaca faculty members also were adamant about making sure that the academy staff knew the college wasn't getting involved at Frederick Douglass simply to recruit students. In fact, Ithaca administrators wouldn't even allow the college's admissions officers to go to the academy in the first two years of the partnership.

Those restrictions have loosened since, and the first student to come from Frederick Douglass will graduate from Ithaca next year. And eight students from this year's senior class have been accepted to the college for the fall semester.

More than 100 Frederick Douglass students have participated in summer programs at Ithaca.

Hodge, Frederick Douglass Academy's principal, wears the exhausted look of an administrator juggling the demands of a school where the mundane concerns of morning announcements collide with welcoming visitors from Japan, Sweden, France, and Denmark who have come to the academy to learn from its success. He sometimes sleeps on the couch in his office, where a drawing of the academy's namesake, the black abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass, overlooks a room cramped with boxes and files.

"This partnership allows us to look at learning in a different way," Hodge says. "It's not the traditional chalk and talk. Some of the professors who have come here have been unbelievable."

He cites the work of Fountain, the Ithaca English professor, who has taken Frederick Douglass students to the New York Metropolitan Opera. The professor also spent part of his spring break at the academy, teaching students about opera and how The Great Gatsby, which students were reading in class, could be analyzed and interpreted when set to music. Hodge also praises Ithaca faculty members who worked over the summer with students interested in journalism. The students interviewed migrant workers in the area and produced videos of their work.


A high-energy throng of 7th graders makes its way into English class at Frederick Douglass Academy. At the door, 22-year-old Maya Roth greets each student individually. The students begin working on a project that has them translating William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into modern English. Various groups of students have been assigned to act out sections of the play.

Roth, in her second year of teaching at the academy, did her student teaching at Frederick Douglass three years ago while she was a student at Ithaca College. She says that she knew she had found the place where she wanted to start her career.

"I just fell in love with the energy here," the Dalton, Pa., native says. "The students seemed to be so engaged."

Last summer, Roth returned to her alma mater with a dozen students from Frederick Douglass, who took part in a media workshop at the college. "The opportunity they have to work with college professors at such a young age is great for them," she says. "They loved it. Many of them didn't want to leave."

Myra Greenup, a nine-year veteran at Frederick Douglass who now coordinates staff development, says the help she has received from Fountain, the Ithaca English professor, has been immeasurable. Fountain, an energetic bear of a man who greets students with handshakes and hugs in the hallways of the academy, is helping the school's English department develop a sequential English language arts curriculum that outlines a series of reading and writing goals for each grade.

It's the type of job high school teachers overwhelmed by daily demands have a hard time addressing. Officials from the New York City school system have expressed interest in replicating the initiative.

"There is such a disconnect now, particularly in an urban setting, between what is happening in high school and college," Ms. Greenup said. "Having someone from college keep you on a strategic mission has been helpful."

Fountain also worked with students to establish the academy's first literary magazine, Harlem Too, which Ithaca College's school of communication helped produce. In addition, he launched a video project in which Frederick Douglass students wrote and delivered their own speeches and used video-production equipment donated to the school from Ithaca.

An exchange of e-mails and phone calls between Fountain and Roth also led to a project called "Ballads From Harlem: Responses to the Work of Langston Hughes." Roth had wanted to have her students work on a multi- media project, but the school lacked the resources. To help, Ithaca provided a digital camera for students to use to take pictures of their neighborhoods in Harlem.

Meanwhile, the students also read and responded in writing to the poetry of Hughes, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The final product—students' photography and responses to the poetry—was joined together on a Web site with the help of an Ithaca communications student.

"This is a perfect example of the partnership," Fountain says on a recent morning he spent at Frederick Douglass. "It's kids doing work about their own lives in Harlem with help from Ithaca."


More than 100 Frederick Douglass students have participated in summer programs at Ithaca, whose summer college for high school students allows them to take college-level courses and use computer and science labs on campus. The students also attend lectures and workshops on choosing a career, applying for college, securing financial aid, and improving their time management.

For Aaron Adams, a 15-year-old sophomore, having a close connection with a college has opened up opportunities he doesn't have in high school. Like a number of his peers, Adams has worked with music professors and a graduate student at Ithaca, all accomplished performers who he says have helped him develop his trombone and keyboard skills.

"Being on a college campus, I feel mature," he says. "When I was up there, I was able to have mature conversations with people about education and music."

'Being on a college campus, I feel mature.'

Aaron Adams,
Frederick Douglass student

The relationship that the school and the college share has helped attract substantial support from organizations interested in helping Frederick Douglass Academy. Private funding has helped pay for groups of academy students to globetrot to such places as England, South Africa, Japan, France, and Israel.

Verizon Communications, formerly Bell Atlantic, and the Independent College Fund of New York are underwriting a $10,000 science and technology project for middle school students at the academy that enabled some students to perform a statistical study about how geographic location shapes students' perceptions of violence.

The American Chemical Society, meanwhile, finances a summer program that gives Frederick Douglass students interested in pursuing the sciences in college five weeks of chemistry-research opportunities at Ithaca College.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Producers is supporting a $12,000 jazz and instrumental-music education program for Frederick Douglass students that allows them to work with Ithaca music- education faculty members and students.

Among other programs provided by Ithaca College itself, the college's dining-services staff has been helping the academy as it begins to set up a culinary-arts program. The college's program has donated kitchen utensils and had faculty members meet with students at Frederick Douglass to prepare their favorite dishes.

At the end of every school year, the director of the college bookstore at Ithaca ships down extra coffee mugs, sweatshirts, and other merchandise to a working store at Frederick Douglass financed by The Gap and called "The Little Shop of Scholars." Frederick Douglass students sell those products to raise money for their school.

"It's good to have a partnership with Ithaca because we are a college- prep school," says 16-year-old Diamond Strickland, who has visited Ithaca twice. "College is a difficult place. I got an understanding of how college life is going to be."

Asked how Frederick Douglass students are received on the college campus, she smiles widely and says: "They kind of treat us like royalty."

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Pages 30-33, 35

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