Alliance for Learning: Good-Neighbor Policies

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Clipboards in hand, a cadre of social-work students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham worked their way door to door through a section of the neighboring community of North Titusville. Chaufferred by their associate professor, Gayle Wykle, the students were querying residents about their housing needs. Their mission: to help the community get a grant for new housing.

Thanks in part to the students' efforts, North Titusville was able to raze some dilapidated houses and put up new units without dislodging residents. What's more, the data the students gleaned in their survey helped city housing officials reshape the architects' original plan to better meet residents' needs. Neighborhood leaders also took note of astute students' informal observations to monitor "hot spots'' for drug and crime activity.

Wykle's students also have taken to the phones to follow up with parents about hearing and vision screenings that health faculty members and students from the university have conducted at Titusville's Washington Elementary School. The students discuss test results with parents and offer them advice on how to overcome obstacles to getting their children treated.

Other university-linked projects are bringing support services to teenage and mentally retarded mothers and their young children, planning a community health clinic, and pairing U.A.B. faculty members with schools to seek out grants for community projects.

These efforts are part of Titusville 2000, a 10-year endeavor to marshal U.A.B. resources, research, and faculty across disciplines to improve the quality of life and learning for the 6,000 residents of North Titusville, a once robust community now facing urban blight and social woes. Launched three years ago, the community-outreach program has brought together some 60 faculty members and community leaders in projects addressing health, education, recreation, culture, housing, family life, employment, and social well-being.

The projects embody one goal cited in the university's mission statement, which is to provide "public service that focuses primarily on the problems confronting this urban area and the health needs of this state and region.'' Birmingham's place on the front lines of the civil-rights movement has inspired a more visible allegiance to that credo, and a richer tradition of community outreach, than found on many campuses.

Titusville 2000 represents one wedge in a movement many see as vital to fulfilling the promise of higher education. But here and elsewhere, pressure is mounting to do more.

"In addition to trying to be a good neighbor, many of us believe the kinds of activities required to understand complex urban environments and make them more livable are a major challenge for universities,'' says Craig Ramey, a professor of psychology and pediatrics and a co-director of U.A.B.'s Civitan International Research Center. "The time is right to take on this challenge. If we don't, I think we'll be seen as increasingly irrelevant.''

Modern March

Meeting that challenge, many experts agree, will require systemic changes on the nation's college and university campuses. But the march has begun. Examples beyond the University of Alabama at Birmingham include:

  • The West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, a nine-year-old multidisciplinary initiative spearheaded by the University of Pennsylvania, is equipping a network of schools to be hubs for community services and revitalization. The project grew out of a history seminar requiring undergraduates to research community problems and has spurred the Philadelphia school board to pursue more "university assisted'' community schools.
  • The Institute for Educational Renewal, a collaboration between Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and 12 area schools, aims to spur new supports and structures for schools and social-welfare agencies to allow for "inclusion and participation of all kinds of families and their children in schools, community agencies, and the university.''
  • The Nation of Tomorrow Project links faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago from education, human resources, and health fields with elementary schools in four Chicago communities to tackle issues ranging from juvenile crime to academic achievement.
  • The University of Pittsburgh's office of child development, created in the office of the provost in 1986, offers a forum for collaboration for some 800 faculty members working on children's issues and helps interdisciplinary teams secure research funds.

Other universities are reaching out to schools and communities in the interest of safety and self-preservation. Marquette University, the University of Southern California, and Yale University, for example, have all launched integrated-services projects to combat the crime and violence hitting too close to home.

"The universities that do the best job'' on that score, says Sid Gardner, the director of the Center for Collaboration for Children at California State University, Fullerton, "tend to be in urban areas where they simply have to be serious players.''

Although most university-linked community-outreach efforts occur in isolation from one campus to another, a handful of faculty activists are trying to weave the patchwork into a national movement.

Ira Harkavy, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Community Partnerships and a founder of the West Philadelphia project, helped organize a conference for university presidents and faculty members last summer on the role of higher education in "overcoming the problem of the American city.''

"If there is no fundamental engagement of universities in a significant way,'' Harkavy says, "there will be no fundamental change.''

Stumbling Blocks

Experts agree, however, that such community-outreach efforts are long overdue--and only in their infancy. Higher-education institutions, especially public universities, they contend, have a moral imperative to help solve the problems of cities whose tax revenues have helped support them. But, "as a whole,'' Gardner observes, "higher education undervalues that kind of service by faculty and students.''

Reversing that trend will require not only more stable and innovative funding, but a rethinking of disciplinary boundaries, professional-training programs, and traditional reward systems.

Tennant McWilliams, the dean of the U.A.B. school of social and behavioral sciences, speaks eloquently about the need for a funding stream on the scale of the Morrill Act of 1862, which fueled the growth of land-grant colleges by providing federal lands to states to support colleges committed to promoting improvements in the agricultural and mechanical arts.

Funding agencies from the National Science Foundation to the Pew Charitable Trusts are becoming more interested in the relationship between colleges and schools as a way to spur not only school reform but also social action. Indeed, many of the most notable integrated-service projects do receive some foundation support.

But, over all, such organizations still target "just a tiny percent'' of their funds in that direction, McWilliams notes, and "faculty-reward structures tend to respond to where the funding agencies are putting their money.''

One way to weave community work into the fabric of scholarship is to tie it directly to funding. U.A.B. and the Birmingham city schools, for example, jointly put up $40,000 in seed money reserved for proposals that bring together a university faculty member and a teacher to carry out a community project.

While recognizing the pressure to yield "publications, dollars, and scholarly products in a timely fashion,'' says Craig Ramey, the Titusville 2000 project is already spurring more professors--like Gayle Wykle--to incorporate community work into their teaching, which, in turn, "tends to up teacher ratings.''

Sharon Ramey, a professor of psychiatry and psychology who co-directs U.A.B.'s Civitan International Research Center with her husband, also argues that important steps can be taken by marshaling existing resources. University faculty members involved in Titusville 2000, for example, thought to donate a set of computer terminals that were about to be discarded to the Titusville Library, where they have become a valuable source of after-school learning and entertainment.

"The vast majority of things we have accomplished did not cost more than a thousand here and there,'' says Sharon Ramey, who stresses that viable community partnerships hinge on "building a long-term infrastructure'' that is self-sustaining.

Integrated Training

The Danforth Foundation, which funds four campus-community partnerships, has zeroed in on another stumbling block: the need to restructure professional training to equip graduates to implement integrated services.

The Association of Teacher Educators has taken a lead role in that fight. In 1992, it launched a commission on "interprofessional'' education to help develop "the capacity of future leaders in education, health, and human services to view education and social problems in a broader, community-based, collaborative perspective.'' The project so far has drawn 50 experts from diverse fields who have paid their own way to brainstorming sessions on how to resculpt professional training and engage colleges and universities in forging more responsive human-services systems.

On the campus front, Gardner notes, the Center for Collaboration for Children has identified some 30 universities "in various stages of trying to get the professions across disciplines to work with children and families.''

The children's bureau of the federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, meanwhile, has funded schools of social work at 11higher-education institutions to develop interdisciplinary child-welfare training. The goal is to forge links not only within postsecondary institutions, says program manager Marc Mannes, but also "between the professional schools and the public child-welfare agencies that would utilize the graduates.''

Just Rewards

Yet another obstacle many high-profile colleges and universities face is a mindset that does not hold community service in high regard as a realm for scholarly research.

"Unfortunately, when most faculty use the term 'service,' they associate it with an unrewarded but necessary activity distinct from teaching and research or scholarship,'' Charles A. McCallum, a former U.A.B. president, pointed out in a speech at Ira Harkavy's conference.

But that has not always been true, asserts McWilliams, the U.A.B. dean, who points to the first universities of late-medieval and early-Renaissance Europe. Their faculty members, McCallum noted in his speech, "while not engaged in the specific types of projects we are urging today, nevertheless spent great and rewarded time ... out on the street teaching and helping solve problems of immediate importance to the surrounding society.''

Ironically, McWilliams says, educators from American universities (Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, for example) who went to Europe for doctoral training in the late 1800's came back promoting the concept of "extension services'' targeted at community work. But because of the Morrill Act, the concept "got pigeonholed into agriculture.''

Also at the turn of the century, observes Katharine Hooper Briar, a visiting distinguished professor in the Institute for Educational Renewal at Ohio's Miami University, the birth of the "helping disciplines'' and emergence of community schools and settlement houses put universities at an important crossroads. But academia missed an opportunity to fuel the "child-saving era,'' she argues, by splitting the disciplines up into separate departments and adopting "an accountability structure that makes it possible to become increasingly less relevant to the problems of the day.''

"It is not enough to have a demonstration project or to have one school or one department making a change,'' Briar insists. Change, she says, must be "at the highest levels of commitment of the university and its resources so faculty get rewarded for relevant, responsive problem-solving, students get service-based learning,'' and communities get practical help.

A central element of the projects at Miami University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham is "participatory research,'' which focuses on studying problems in a campus's own backyard and using the findings to solve them. Such work promises a better payoff in terms of impact than "the traditional ways of doing research, where universities share research with their colleagues but have never been near a poor kid,'' says Dean Corrigan, the chairman of the A.T.E. interprofessional commission and a professor of education at Texas A&M University.

Hal Lawson, a professor in the school of education and allied professions at Miami University who is helping to develop an undergraduate program combining liberal arts and interprofessional education, says funding and rewards are no less important than "structural changes in the way business is done'' at universities. Such changes, he maintains, include not only much wider collaboration between faculty members but also "different types of work responsibilities'' that free up their time for community work.

"Junior faculty in particular are at risk,'' Briar adds, "if they are expected to serve on traditional committees and at the same time be out in communities, and at the same time publish in traditional ways.''

One hopeful sign, says McWilliams, is that "more and more of the people who were college students in the 1960's are now senior professors at well-known universities ... and their votes on tenure decisions are often affected by the belief that service research is a more than legitimate enterprise for faculty members as long as it's peer reviewed and that it comes in with funding.''

Cultural Fusion

Even under ideal campus conditions, however, "one of the biggest problems is getting two vastly different cultures''--the university and the community--to understand each other, says Ann Shelly, who chairs the curriculum and instruction department at U.A.B. and is helping coordinate school-based Titusville projects.

Bridging that gap, she says, means overcoming "suspicion'' aroused by university research and skepticism about its long-term commitment.

It also means allowing ample time for the community to set its agenda--and supporting it gradually and consistently, the Rameys emphasize.

At the community level, observes Linda Mitchell, the neighborhood coordinator of Titusville 2000, building trust means "keeping people up to date on what's happening and planning things so residents see something going on.'' U.A.B. recently played host to a "gala'' evening of dining and mingling among faculty and community members, for example, followed the next day by a Titusville neighborhood tour, health and education fair, and oral histories.

"My hope,'' reflects Whitlyn Battle, a fourth-generation Titusville resident and community activist who helps coordinate neighborhood programs, "is that there's an even exchange--that a child growing up in this neighborhood knows what the world is because U.A.B. helped show him, and that a U.A.B. student knows what the world is because Titusville 2000 helped show him.''

Vol. 13, Issue 29

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