‘Think Tank’ Links Phoenix Schools, Colleges To Help Low-Income Youths

By Mark Pitsch — June 17, 1992 5 min read

When Genaro Bueno was in high school, he was having trouble and never thought he would find the means to pay for college.

But last month, thanks to an innovative school-college partnership, Mr. Bueno claimed his associate’s degree from South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. He now plans to continue his studies at Arizona State University and pursue a teaching degree.

“Without the program, I would not be in college right now, I can tell you that,’' says Mr. Bueno, 20. “I’d probably be working where I am working right now, a warehouse.’'

Mr. Bueno and eight of his classmates are among the more dramatic and concrete examples of a program designed to shepherd at-risk students--single parents, the low-income, those with discipline or academic problems--through high school and college by getting them to take college courses while in high school.

The program is one of several unusual ideas launched by the Think Tank, a partnership created in 1988 by the city of Phoenix, the city’s surrounding community-college system, a local four-year university, Phoenix’s high schools, and seven surrounding urban school districts. The partnership was designed to improve the educational opportunities for the largely low-income, minority students who attend the elementary and secondary schools by breaking down the barriers that separate levels of education.

Latching on to an eclectic set of school-reform ideas, the Think Tank has attracted the participation of a city social worker, who coordinates health and welfare services for students; the dean of the college of education at Arizona State, who monitors a program to encourage school workers to become teachers; and a computer company that has developed a student-tracking system that is considered one of the most sophisticated in the country.

The partnership also includes programs that guide at-risk students through high-school and college, use the German “Cologne School’’ model to restructure an elementary school, and link high-school students with social, medical, and employment services.

“You couldn’t say something couldn’t be done,’' says Nancy Jordan, the first executive director of the Think Tank. “You did it.’'

Now, the Think Tank is about to embark on a more ambitious plan. According to Janet Beauchamp, the current executive director, it proposes to restructure a large part of the city’s educational system, and plans to announce later this month that it will join two national restructuring efforts.

“We’re beginning to look at programs as almost Band-Aid solutions,’' she says. “I think we’re in an evolutionary state.’'

Held up as one of the most highly successful partnerships in the country--the Think Tank won the 1991 Anderson Medal of the Business-Higher Education Forum, which honors partnerships of higher education, public schools, and business--the project’s new reform effort could well serve as a national model for school-college partnerships and for school restructuring, Ms. Beauchamp notes.

“We very well could create a national model,’' she says. "[But] that’s not our prime, driving reason.’'

‘This Is Important’

While many school-college partnerships are small-scale and ad hoc, the Think Tank has managed to develop a foothold in the city by attracting support from a broad range of organizations.

A policy-setting board of directors that draws from all of the educational groups helps minimize turf battles. Funding is spread among the partners.

Funds for the Think Tank’s day-to-day operations have come from the Maricopa Community College District, a network of 10 community colleges in the Phoenix area. The participating school districts and the high-school district have contributed in-kind support. Numerous businesses and foundations have financially supported the various programs.

According to those who helped oversee the development of the Think Tank, Timothy Dyer--then the superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District--and Paul Elsner, the chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District, deserve credit for taking a leading role in its formation, and for making the collaborative effort a front-burner issue.

Mr. Dyer sought community support and backing from his principals, and brought an initial five elementary districts on board. Mr. Elsner solidified support within the community-college system, which was seen as the primary vehicle for the urban students to achieve a higher education.

“Our responsibility didn’t end at the perimeter of our campus, and the only way we were going to survive would be to get involved,’' says Ms. Jordan, Mr. Elsner’s former executive assistant.

According to Mr. Dyer, who is now the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Think Tank should be seen as an example of how schools and colleges can work together to address systemic shortfalls--something he said colleges are slowly coming around to realize is in their best interest.

“There’s a lot of talk among the college people about working with the school but not an awful lot being done,’' he says. “It takes institutional commitment.’'

"[Mr. Elsner] and I were very busy people. You’ve got people coming at you from all sides, and you just have to make up your minds that this is important,’' Mr. Dyer continues. “Paul did leave one of the meetings because his house was on fire, and I thought that was a pretty good reason to leave a meeting.’'

For his part, Mr. Elsner says the Think Tank’s operations are still “marginalized.’'

“It’s daunting to maintain these projects and these interventions and these strategies in the Think Tank, because they’re so overwhelming,’' he says.

Success Stories

For those involved in the Think Tank, the effort has been worth it--even to the skeptics.

“When I first heard about this I said, ‘Oh, great. Another think tank. All we’re going to do is think and nothing is going to get done,’ '' says Robert Donofrio, the superintendent of the Murphy Elementary School District. “But this group is really proactive.’'

Mr. Donofrio and others point to Mr. Bueno and the 670 other students who have entered the Achieving a College Education program since 1988. Of the original 113 enrollees, 98 percent graduated from high school, compared with Phoenix’s 57 percent graduation rate; 64 percent of those in the program pursued higher education.

Nine of the 113 were on track and graduated from South Mountain last month, according to the program director, Stella Torres, and there may be more who graduated recently from other community colleges in the Maricopa system.

Advocates also point to people like Linda Webster, a secretary in the Phoenix Elementary District for five years, who is taking college courses to become a teacher. She is one of 160 minority school workers or teacher aides who have been tapped as having the potential to become teachers.

School districts will help pay expenses and give the employees leave time to pursue their studies, while the community college manages the program.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as ‘Think Tank’ Links Phoenix Schools, Colleges To Help Low-Income Youths