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Education Commentary

Universities, Schools, and the Welfare State

By Ira Harkavy & Lee Benson — April 29, 1992 5 min read

Over the past decade, a torrent of major reports have focused on the problem of improving public education and services to children and families. Resulting from an unprecedented recognition that our nation’s children face unprecedented problems, these reports have generally told us what we know simply by living in America in the 1990’s: That nearly all systems--education, health, human services--are in a state of crisis, unable to provide effective assistance to children and families in need.

Wide recognition exists that the main cause of the crisis in the American Welfare State is the remarkable fragmentation that characterizes its provision of services.

In order to remedy the radical defects built into both the public-school system and the welfare state, we must view and treat them together--not an easy task. But it can best be accomplished if American universities use their great resources to help transform local public schools into comprehensive community schools that function as government-funded, multipurpose community centers, capable of expanding and responsibly supervising the provision of welfare services to residents of their areas. Public schools can only serve in this capacity, however, if they become the center of a broad-based partnership involving an array of government and nongovernment agencies.

If comprehensive community schools are such a good idea, why are there so few of them and why do they tend to rise and fall rather than become a permanent part of the educational- and service-delivery landscape?

First, there has been very little public pressure to radically change from schools and welfare as usual. That is no longer the case. The failures of the public schools and the welfare system have become too visible and horrible to ignore.

Second, public schools have not had the assistance necessary for them to become ongoing, genuine community centers. They have lacked a permanent institutional partner whose own functioning depended upon helping to create, develop, and sustain community schools.

Given its vast resources--intellectual and otherwise--and its educational mission, the American university is the most obvious institutional partner. But as universities are currently oriented and function, they will not and cannot provide the assistance needed to transform schools. Why might they change? The answer is simple: Their institutional self-interest will compel them to do so.

Unless our public-school system is radically transformed for the better, the crisis in cities and in the society at large will only get worse, at an accelerating rate. Universities will suffer for it. Failing public schools, devastated neighborhoods, high crime, and a fortress mentality do little to create a positive campus ambiance and to enhance faculty and student recruitment and retention.

More indirectly, as conditions in society continue to deteriorate, universities will face increased public scrutiny (witness the Congressional hearings chaired by Representative John Dingell of Michigan last year). That scrutiny is bound to intensify as America focuses on resolving its deep and pervasive societal problems amid continuously expanding global competition. Institutions of higher education will increasingly be held to new and demanding standards that evaluate performance on the basis of direct and short-run societal benefit. In addition, public, private, and foundation support will be more than ever based on that standard, and it will become increasingly clear to colleges and universities that “altruism pays’'--in fact, that altruism is practically an imperative for institutional development and improvement.

These “predictions’’ are not based solely on theory, but stem directly from our experiences at the University of Pennsylvania where we, along with other colleagues and students from across the university, have been working with the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, a nearly seven-year effort to help create, develop, and sustain university-assisted, comprehensive community schools in Penn’s economically and socially distressed community of West Philadelphia.

Wåðéã works with nine public schools and involves over 1,000 children, their parents, and community members, in education, cultural studies, recreation, job training, and community improvement and service activities.

The program is coordinated by the West Philadelphia Partnership, a mediating organization composed of West Philadelphia institutions (including Penn) and community groups, together with the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and the Philadelphia school district. Other participants include trade unions, job-training agencies, city, state, and federal agencies and departments, churches, and neighborhood groups.

Penn’s contribution to WEPIC has not been through donating financial resources. In fact, the university has provided no direct financial support to the program. What it has contributed are the ideas, abilities, skills, energy, and personnel resources of its students and faculty members. It has provided both volunteers and academically based public service--service tied to teaching and research. From such service, our students and faculty members inevitably receive as much as they give.

Other colleges and universities throughout the country are engaged in similar efforts to link teaching, research, and service to assist local schools and communities. In the Philadelphia area, for example, Swarthmore College is working actively in its neighboring city of Chester to develop links between the needs of that city and its own academic resources. Nazareth College of Rochester, N.Y., has created an interdisciplinary service program at an urban elementary school through which students and faculty members from five academic departments take courses while working with at-risk students.

The “Titusville 2000'’ project of the University of Alabama at Birmingham brings a wide array of professionals together with residents from an inner-city minority neighborhood and leaders of the neighborhood school. They are confronting what must be done beyond the school--in the community and family--to allow the public school to accomplish its mission effectively.

And the University of California’s Urban Community-School Collaborative works to team up community, school, and university representatives who serve as equal partners in addressing the continuing crisis in urban education. An effort spanning the nine-campus university system, the collaborative mobilizes faculty, staff, and student expertise and energy to respond to problems identified by local communities and schools.

As these examples illustrate, the development of university-assisted, comprehensive community schools is not a utopian notion, but has become a realistic approach for helping transform schools and higher-education institutions for the better. This transformation, in turn, can help construct and sustain genuinely caring, humane, hardworking communities that are the core of a decent, just, and fair society.

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Universities, Schools, and the Welfare State