College’s School Endeavors To Help Students Use Their Skills and

March 06, 1991 7 min read

Knowledge ‘for a Purpose’ By Debra Viadero

New York City--Three signs in Brian Newburger’s 7th-grade classroom here at the College of Human Services Junior High School help explain the unusual public-school program in which he teaches.

The first sign, a computer printout tacked above the blackboard, reads, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

The second sign displays a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

And the third, a hand-lettered chart, shows the kinds of verbal and nonverbal social skills needed for group work.

The signs offer important clues because, in this classroom in the heart of a depressed East Harlem neighborhood, teachers are doing something more than feeding their students facts about the cardiovascular system of the frog or the countries of Western Europe. They have taken the traditional curriculum and reorganized it in ways designed to help students see that learning--like most projects they will undertake one day in the workplace--is a collective enterprise, that knowledge in one subject can be related to knowledge in another, and that learning has a purpose.

Students in the program are expected to use what they learn to undertake social-action projects, such as helping tutor younger children. At the same time, as the communication-skills chart shows, they also learn the practical skills needed to carry out those projects and to function in jobs that will demand more of them than the ability to regurgitate facts.

“American schools cut knowledge into subjects that are unrelated not only to each other but to real life,” says Audrey C. Cohen, the college president whose ideas have shaped this program. “They teach information, but not the ability to use it. They foster competition and individual achievement, not cooperation and teamwork.”

Ms. Cohen is founder and president of the College of Human Services here, a higher-education institution that pioneered the curricular approach governing its namesake school. Mr. Newburger’s classroom is one of 11 public-school sites around the country in which the college, with support from private foundations, is piloting that approach. And Ms. Cohen says she hopes her “whole new way” of teaching will spur wholesale changes in schools nationwide.

All of the schools share some distinctive features. First, classrooms are organized around a purpose. In Mr. Newburger’s class, for example, the theme this year is: “I take charge of my learning.” The purpose for the school’s 8th-grade pupils is, “I provide effective service.”

“Having a purpose is why people learn,” says Ingrid Lorch, a spokesman for the college. “You have to do something, so you go out and find out how to do it.”

The students work at internship sites, where they are expected to find and develop “constructive actions.” For their projects, for example, the 8th graders at the East Harlem school compiled examples of bias in the kindergarten classrooms where they volunteer. They pointed out to the primary-school teachers that dolls and toys in the classroom overwhelmingly portrayed white children, and wrote to the publishers of books in which they found examples of bias.

The teachers also meet weekly to find ways to interweave subject-area knowledge and relate the students’ classroom learning to their internship activities.

The students tie all of this together in what is known as a “purpose class,” a course in which students develop constructive actions and learn the kinds of practical skills they will need in their internships. In such classes, they hone observation and communications skills; learn to weigh ethical questions; and develop an understanding of how an organization works and how change affects the people in an organization.

“The purpose class,” says Linda Hill, director of the East Harlem school, “is really what our school is all about.”

‘Piecing It Together’

The program at Mr. Newburger’s school serves 60 children--a 7th-grade class and an 8th-grade class of 30 students each. On a recent visit to the school, the young teacher demonstrated how one such “purpose class” works.

The teacher was preparing the 7th graders for their first internship experience as volunteers in kindergarten classes at a nearby primary school.

Drawing on a story the children had read about a blind man who identified anelephant by feeling parts of it, the teacher was attempting to show the students how to be acute observers on their internships.

“Let’s think about the five senses,” he says to the class. “What will you see? What will you hear?”

“You’ll hear someone say, ‘Stop taking my train,”’ one boy volunteers.

“You’ll hear buses and cars outside the window,” another one says.

“What about at night when the kids are gone?” asks the teacher.

“There’ll probably be rats,” another student says.

“What are you going to feel?” the teacher asks.

“You’ll feel kids tugging at your clothes,” a boy says.

“When you go to your internships, you will not be seeing the kids,” the teacher says, winding down the discussion. “The kids are part of the whole structure and you need to understand the whole structure to get a good feel for that internship experience.”

“It’s like the blind man who felt the elephant by looking at one particular part at a time,” he explains. “You’re going to piece it all together.”

These students will get “a good feel” for their internships in about six visits to the kindergarten classes this year, says Ms. Hill. As 8th graders, they will spend one day a week with the kindergartners and develop constructive actions in their weekly purpose class.

“It gives them a real sense of the complexity of the construction,” says Ms. Hill. “Because they have a responsibility for working with small children, they have to impart some of the values we teach them, like being responsible or being on time.”

Victor Mathurin, an 8th-grade student currently working in a kindergarten class, says the internship has given him useful insight for what he hopes will be his future career: publishing children’s books.

“It gives me a better understanding to see what little kids like and don’t like,” says Mr. Mathurin, a softspoken 15-year-old.

Ms. Hill says that sense of having some kind of a future is common among students in the program. Such an outlook, she adds, is unusual for this East Harlem neighborhood, where nearby housing projects are marred by graffiti and drug problems are rampant.

She estimates three-fourths of the children at the school live with grandparents or foster families. And, while the students’ academic abilities vary widely, a few pupils came into the program several years behind grade level. Some had missed 30 or more days of school the previous year.

“They may not know what they want to do, but at the very least, they seem to have a vision of themselves now as a productive person in the community,” she says.

Changing Economy

The need to help disadvantaged youths from neighborhoods much like this one find a path out of poverty is what led Ms. Cohen to develop her curricular approach in the first place.

While working in the early 1960’s as director of a job-training center for poor women, Ms. Cohen was searching for new jobs offering her graduates a promising career path. She lobbied teachers’ unions to accept paraprofessionals in the classroom and pushed for the creation of jobs for mental-health workers in that field, among others.

Even with the advent of such jobs, however, Ms. Cohen found, demand for the college’s graduates was fierce.

“It made us realize that something enormous was happening to the way in which we earned our living,” she says.

That “something enormous” was a movement away from an economy based on manufacturing to one in which service industries predominate.

“We thought, ‘Don’t we have to think about a new kind of education to prepare people for these new jobs?”’ says Ms. Cohen.

The center, which, later become an accredited college for men and women, spent four years researching that question and developed its curricular approach to produce workers competent to meet the needs of that new workplace.

“We found everybody had to know how to communicate effectively or manage human resources,” she says. “We thought, ‘Maybe we ought to teach one of these skills at a time and give each semester a focus, or a purpose, so that students know why they’re coming to school and let the great ideas inform them.”’

With funding from the Edwin Gould Foundation and approval from the city school board, the East Harlem school was set up as a pilot program in 1983. The college extended the concept to seven other public schools here and in Pensacola, Fla., in 1988. The Hasbro Foundation recently provided $1.3 million to transplant the program to schools in four other states: Illinois, California, Mississippi, and Texas.

So far, educators can offer only anecdotal evidence that the approach is working. At P.S. 38 in Brooklyn, where some 5th- and 6th-grade classes are using the program, the principal contends that attendance is better among children in the program than it is schoolwide. She also says that 6th-grade scores on standardized mathematics and reading tests have increased schoolwide in the two years the program has been used by two 6th-grade classes there.

At the College of Human Services Junior High School, Ms. Hill says some of the students who had had 30 or more absences did not miss a day of class in their first year in the program.

“I know it’s working,” she says, “because they come back. Some are in college or have completed high school, and they still come back.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as College’s School Endeavors To Help Students Use Their Skills and