Alliance for Learning: El Paso: Crossing the Border

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When Diana Natalicio became the president of the University of Texas at El Paso six years ago, she inherited a campus she viewed as historically isolated from its surroundings. Known as "the school on the hill,'' UTEP remained aloof from the problems of the community--and the public schools--below.

"We really needed to search our souls for a much more authentic role with this region,'' she recalls.

Though the university drew many of its students from the local districts, and fed its graduates back into them as teachers, "it was not a good working relationship,'' agrees Stan Paz, the superintendent of the 65,000-student El Paso school district.

"Rather than sit back and complain about the skills of local high school graduates,'' Natalicio explains, the university "decided to take a personal interest.''

That determination resulted in the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a broad effort to improve teaching and learning from elementary school through college. At a time when school-reform advocates nationwide bemoan the lack of cooperation between higher and K-12 education, many hail the collaborative as an example of what can happen when the two groups work together.

While most university presidents and school superintendents cross paths only occasionally, Natalicio, Paz, and two other local superintendents confer monthly, discussing everything from admissions requirements to course offerings to how to set up a health clinic in a local school.

The president of El Paso Community College and political, business, and community leaders also participate in the collaborative, one of six similar partnerships across the country known as "Community Compacts for Student Success.'' Launched by the Pew Charitable Trusts three years ago, the collaboratives seek to bolster communitywide cooperation to improve educational opportunity, especially for minority students.

'Historically Underserved'

In El Paso, such cooperation is badly needed, and the potential dividends are great.

The population of this southwest Texas border city is 70 percent Hispanic, 4 percent African-American, 1 percent Asian, and the remainder white. Approximately 20 percent of El Paso residents were born outside the United States, and Spanish is the primary language spoken in more than half the city's households.

El Paso "has been historically underserved in every way, shape, and form,'' including education, health care, and infrastructure, Natalicio says. With a per-capita income of $9,150 year, it ranks among the poorest of U.S. metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In unincorporated rural communities just outside El Paso, some 70,000 people live without running water, sewers, or paved roads.

Such pervasive, communitywide problems in cities like El Paso are leading a growing number of educators nationwide to create school-university partnerships to respond to them.

A Syracuse University directory lists some 1,260 such alliances, and there are many more than that, says Bill Newell, a research assistant at the university's Center for Research and Information in School-College Partnerships.

Many universities began their education-reform efforts with narrowly focused projects, much like the "adopt a school'' approaches embraced by corporations in the 1980's.

But this "first wave'' of school-college partnerships was even more limited in scope than the corporate efforts, says Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust at the American Association for Higher Education.

"[They] were almost 'adopt a kid' programs,'' she says. "Colleges and universities were working with [small groups of] high school and junior high kids who, with some extra help, might go on to college.''

While this patchwork collection of programs had some payoffs, Haycock says, the benefits seldom extended beyond the handful of students who participated in them.

In 1991, rather than support the creation of more "add on'' school-college programs, the Pew Charitable Trusts decided to launch the Community Compacts initiative.

The foundation hoped to forge regional superstructures that would unite educators from K-12 schools and higher-education institutions, parents, and business and community leaders to coordinate overall strategic planning in education, as well as specific outreach projects.

Their long-term goal: increasing the number of minority and disadvantaged students who obtain a postsecondary education.

In 1991, Pew awarded a $1.5 million grant to the A.A.H.E.'s Education Trust to administer the compacts program.

Ninety-two cities applied to receive $40,000 planning grants from Pew. Ten were selected: Boston; Birmingham, Ala.; El Paso; Gary, Ind.; Hartford, Conn.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; and Pueblo, Colo.

Pew has awarded three-year, $450,000 implementation grants to five of the cities, including El Paso. The Pew staff expects to recommend within the next couple of months that the foundation continue funding a sixth site.

A crucial part of the compacts' efforts will be gathering information about student achievement at all levels and using it to drive reform. The compacts will supplement such traditional benchmarks as dropout rates and S.A.T. scores with such additional factors as participation in college-preparatory classes by members of minority groups.

A 'Closed Loop'

Nestled beneath the southernmost range of the Rockies, the Franklin Mountains, and within walking distance of Juarez, Mexico, El Paso provides a fertile educational climate for such a school-college partnership.

About 86 percent of UTEP's 17,000 students are graduates of three area school systems: El Paso, Socorro, and Ysleta. At the same time, about 70 percent of the teachers in the districts received their degrees from UTEP.

This demographic context, Paz notes, stands in contrast to cities like Boston, with its dozens of colleges and universities and students who hail from every corner of the country.

"Essentially, we have here a closed loop,'' Natalicio observes. "Anything we do is going to pay back richly.''

Since its inception in 1992, the collaborative has guided a broad range of efforts designed to improve curriculum and governance in the three school districts and the two major higher-education institutions, UTEP and El Paso Community College.

Much of that work has focused on mathematics and the sciences.

Local teachers and administrators "identified [math] as the area where they most needed assistance and [where] test scores showed the children were having the greatest difficulty,'' says M. Susana Navarro, the collaborative's executive director.

To date, the collaborative has sponsored one two-week and three shorter "mathematics institutes'' for K-12 educators from 25 area schools. Teachers learn new instructional practices and work together to redesign math curricula in line with standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the state.

At 9 on a cool Saturday morning in February, about 75 elementary schoolteachers gathered at UTEP's geological-sciences building for the second day of a math workshop.

Sharon Wells, a math consultant from Lubbock, Tex., helped participants explore new ways to teach problem-solving skills.

As part of a lesson on estimation, Wells demonstrated the difficulty of guessing accurately by asking the teachers to guess how many times they could snap their fingers in 30 seconds. When she timed them, many laughed about how far off the mark their approximations had been.

The workshops have convinced many participants of the need to set higher standards for all students, the collaborative reports.

For example, one middle school began enrolling all 7th graders in pre-algebra and all 8th graders in algebra. Another high school teacher decided to merge his honors and regular math classes.

"This has been one of the most exciting experiences in my professional career,'' says Diane Reed, the president of the El Paso affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "I have found myself moving from teaching in the traditional style to being more of a facilitator.''

This summer, the collaborative hopes to launch similar workshops in the sciences as well as another math institute for a new cadre of teachers.

The collaborative also sponsors monthly seminars for principals, as well as bimonthly institutes to develop the leadership capacity of shared-decisionmaking teams at 40 schools.

One participant who believed she was already striving for high standards in her classroom says she found the workshops affirming.

"Sometimes, we have to tell the parents that we can expect a lot more from these kids, and that they also need to expect a lot more,'' says Nicole Phelps, a 1st-grade teacher at South Loop Elementary School.

A Joint Struggle

In its work with the nine Community Compacts, the A.A.H.E. Education Trust emphasizes that both systems, not just K-12, must change.

In a realm where many tenure-hungry professors view even interaction with undergraduates as a distraction from more pressing research concerns, postsecondary institutions can sometimes become "pretty detached from the real world,'' Natalicio, UTEP's president, observes.

However, if they are to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving society, universities must engage in a reform process much like the efforts in K-12 education of the past decade, she asserts.

"Who better to deal with [these issues] than higher education?'' she reasons. "We have such phenomenal resources available. Their struggle has to be our struggle.''

Collaboration's 'Raison D'Etre'

One of the first places where restructuring has begun at UTEP is in its school of education.

Arturo Pacheco, the school's dean, says he draws inspiration from the work of John I. Goodlad, the author and University of Washington professor who founded the Center for Educational Renewal. UTEP is one of 25 institutions that belong to the center's network of teacher education schools.

Goodlad's vision of a "simultaneous renewal'' of K-12 schools and teacher education is "the raison d'etre of collaboration,'' says Pacheco, who is married to Navarro, the collaborative's executive director. "You can't do one or the other, you have to do them both at the same time.''

Under the old model of teacher education, students "graduate, we stamp 'teacher' on their forehead, they get out to the schools, and the teachers say, 'Welcome to the real world,''' Pacheco says.

But now, UTEP's school of education is moving toward a professional-development model of teacher preparation. Student-teachers will have more frequent and more intensive field experiences, and they will begin them earlier, in their junior year.

In addition, Pacheco says, schools of education must train future teachers to look beyond the classroom to promote community and parent involvement in schools. "We're trying real hard to figure out how to make teachers more effective leaders in their communities,'' he explains.

Engaging the public in the reform process is a critical component of the broader Community Compacts initiative, Haycock of the A.A.H.E. says.

"It's easy to sit in Washington and think everyone understands what systemic reform is and what the key elements are,'' she observes. "But those are foreign notions around the country.''

In El Paso, a vital partner in this effort has been the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization.

The organization is a unit of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group founded in the 1940's to help poor people gain control over how public resources are distributed.

One of the interreligious organization's principal objectives in education is to help parents who are often alienated or intimidated by the schools take a more active role in their child's education, says Sister Mary Beth Larkin, the group's executive director.

One of the group's tools for establishing and maintaining contact with parents is "house meetings,'' at which half a dozen or so parents, most of them mothers, meet informally with school representatives.

At a recent house meeting, Terry Hagan, a 4th-grade math teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, reviewed a long-division lesson with a group of mothers in a small but cheerful kitchen. Like most such meetings, it was conducted in Spanish.

Many parents find the house meetings helpful, Navarro says, because language barriers frustrate their efforts to help their children with schoolwork.

Greater Communication

At the collegiate level, the collaborative formed an admissions task force of university, community college, and school district representatives to re-examine entrance requirements.

"What's unusual about our relationship with school districts,'' Natalicio says, "is we have invited them to participate in the process ... rather than announce [new requirements] and let the school system figure out how to do it.''

Such greater communication--from parents meeting with teachers to teachers talking with professors--is most often cited as the key element of the collaborative's success in its first two years. Though it's too early to credit the collaborative with specific, measurable achievements--such as improved test scores--participants on all sides say it's making a difference.

"I think it's gone terrifically well,'' Navarro says. "I'm enormously pleased with the progress we've made.''

But she and others also realize that there is still much work to be done.

While some members of the math faculty have been very involved in and supportive of the collaborative work, Navarro hopes in the future "to find a way of adding more explicitly postsecondary faculty and incorporating them more in what we're doing.''

Interviews with teachers at several public schools involved in the collaborative indicate that they haven't yet established a working relationship with their higher-education counterparts. Most say they're not yet to the point where they can regularly call professors to discuss professional issues.

"Have they reached a point where faculty members routinely do that? No,'' Haycock says, adding that it's "way too early'' to expect such drastic changes.

"But,'' she adds, "given both the energy the president brings to it and some of the deans and the department chairs ... it suggests to me there's potential there.''

While the El Paso collaborative has received less attention than what Haycock refers to as "designer projects'' and "boutique reform efforts,'' she also believes it is "doing some of the most exciting things in reform in the country.''

"I don't think it's even possible at this point to say what works and what doesn't,'' says Ellen Burbank, a program officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts who oversees the Community Compacts initiative. Instead, she says, she asks questions like, "Are people working together? Do they know where they're going? Is their plan clear?''

"I think El Paso has done an incredible job,'' she continues. "They've gotten several new leaders, all with the same view of wanting to improve the education of their poor and minority kids. And they have put in enormous energy, and that's something in a community where there was a not a lot happening before."

Vol. 13, Issue 29, Page S12-S14

Published in Print: April 13, 1994, as Alliance for Learning: El Paso: Crossing the Border
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