Where Gown Meets Town

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A small public school on the campus of Clark University is being touted as a national model for partnerships between inner-city school districts and institutions of higher learning.

Worcester, Mass.

Toting their backpacks as they walk to class, Damian Ramsey and Rolando Carino cut across the Clark University campus with all the self-assurance of upperclassmen leading a freshman orientation.

"We have theater class in that building."

"This is the library."

"That's the gym. That's where we have phys ed on Fridays."

But Damian and Rolando aren't Clark students--not yet, anyway. They're among 35 7th graders in the first class of the University Park Campus School, a neighborhood school created through an unusually close partnership between Clark and the 23,000-student Worcester school district.

The students, nearly all of whom live in Main South, a low-income community adjacent to the campus, study with Clark tutors, take special classes with Clark professors, and occasionally eat lunch in Clark's well-stocked cafeteria.

Many of them look forward to a day, six years from now, when their ties to Clark could grow even stronger. If they live in a designated area of Main South and meet Clark's admission requirements, they are guaranteed free tuition to the private, liberal artsuniversity--not a bad deal, considering the $20,500-a-year price tag.

"Going to a University has been my one dream," 13-year-old student Neal Kangal wrote last spring in an essay on why he hoped to go to UPCS. "Without an Education there is no room in this world and no career for me."

To their growing number of supporters, partnerships between universities and inner-city schools offer a bright source of hope to disadvantaged students and their communities.

President Clinton has touted partnerships as a way for universities to help more minority students gain admission without using racial preferences, which are under increasing legal and political challenge.

At a partnership conference in Washington this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley described community and school partnerships as "keys to educational excellence and the only way to achieve sustained improvement over time."

Clark's UPCS, which was featured during the conference, is being watched as a model collaboration between a university and an urban district.

"It's an excellent example of the kind of collaboration our office strives to promote," says John Hartung, a grants specialist in the office of university partnerships, a branch of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides federal funding for various university initiatives.

In its first year, the Clark campus school serves only 7th graders, though it will ultimately grow to include grades 7-12. A mix of Hispanics, blacks, whites, and Asians, UPCS students reflect the diversity of Main South as well as that of Worcester, an industrial city with 170,000 residents. Most of the campus school students qualify for the federal school lunch program.

The 2,700-student university sends work-study students to help the 7th graders during after-school tutorial sessions.

Conceived jointly by Worcester schools Superintendent James Garvey and Clark President Richard Traina, the partnership is different from those of some universities because it is "neighborhood based," says Jack Foley, Traina's executive assistant. "It's not Clark imposing its will on the neighborhood."

And because the school operates under the same board that governs the Worcester district, it is not, as school and university officials frequently note, a charter school.

The University Park Campus School demonstrates that "you don't have to divorce yourself from the school committee as you would with a charter school," says Jim Caradonio, a Worcester deputy superintendent who serves on the steering committee that guided the school's development. "You can sit down at the table and collaborate."

The district pays the salaries of the school's principal and its two senior teachers, and Clark contributes two education students who teach full time while simultaneously pursuing their master's degrees.

The 2,700-student university sends work-study students to help the 7th graders during after-school tutorial sessions, while the district provides the computers and supplies they use.

Even the aging building that houses the school is linked to both Clark and the Worcester district: It belonged to the district for decades until the university purchased it in 1994. Clark students still attend classes on the second floor.

The partnership extends beyond the formal agreements involved in running a school. Early last month, a fire blazed through the second-floor apartment where one UPCS student lived, leaving the boy and his two younger sisters without many of their clothes and Christmas presents. The next school day, Principal Donna Rodriques and Foley talked quietly in the school's hallway, deciding together how to mobilize neighborhood aid for the family.

And when a chartered bus failed to show up to take the 7th graders to a holiday performance of "The Nutcracker," Clark dispatched its own athletic vans so the students could arrive in time for the opening act.

Clark University has not always been so neighborly. Some university officials remember a time when it stood by passively as invisible barriers grew up around campus limits, separating the school from a steadily declining neighborhood.

For decades, Main South residents watched with dismay as the university gobbled up outlying property during a period of expansion, says John Reynolds, a Clark professor of biology and the chairman of the Main South Community Development Corp., an association of local businesses, churches, and foundations. When drug trafficking and gang activity took over the streets in the 1970s, students stayed tucked in their dorms at night, while many Clark faculty and staff members sold their nearby homes and left for the suburbs.

Having historically envisioned itself as a progressive institution devoted to "making the world a better place," says Traina, the university eventually faced the inconsistency of tolerating "terrible neglect and deteriorating relations within our own neighborhood."

The university tries to make the campus feel like a backyard to Main South residents—opening up the pool to families for a Saturday-evening swim.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that Clark officials began preliminary efforts to rehabilitate Main South, realizing their own students would be better served by improved town-gown relations. What started with small improvements in parking and noise control gradually blossomed into an aggressive, multipronged initiative through which Clark hopes to help enhance the neighborhood's quality of life on five fronts: public safety, economic development and job creation, physical renovation, education, and recreational activities.

Symbolizing this change of heart, Clark's president even sold his home in a posh neighborhood and moved into a renovated Victorian less than two blocks from the campus.

"It got to the point where it was odd to have to bus students to the president's house," Traina says. "Who would take our efforts with the community seriously if the president lives two miles away?"

Now, the university tries to make the campus feel like a backyard to Main South residents--opening up the pool to families for a Saturday-evening swim and providing space for free adult education classes.

As a member of the Main South Community Development Corp., Clark was able to obtain $2.4 million in grant funds from the HUD office of university partnerships in 1994. That money, along with funds from other sources, has helped pay for a slew of neighborhood-renewal initiatives.

Encouraging community stability, the group purchased eight run-down three-decker homes, restored them, and resold them at a discount to first-time homebuyers. Clark employees are buying up homes in Main South thanks to university incentives.

The development organization also took on landscaping projects, planting 200 trees in the neighborhood last year.

And a number of Main South children, even those who don't go to the campus school, participate in university programs available to them for free. Last year, Clark sponsored two three-week-long summer camps that gave more than 90 youngsters ages 9 to 12 an activity-filled respite from the streets. A group of area 3rd and 4th graders receive musical instruments and weekly instruction from a university music professor. Clark work-study students help run an after-school program at a local high school.

No longer skeptical, the neighborhood perked up as soon as people started seeing visible changes, says Rodriques, the UCPS principal. "They got happy when they could look out the window and see more lights, more police on the streets," she says.

Thanks in part to the federal grant, the school's steering committee hired Rodriques in 1996 to give her a year to plan before the school doors opened. A 28-year educator and a native of Main South, Rodriques says she used that time to apply her "best thinking of what a school should be."

The federal grant money also bought some extras that gave the students a jump on the school year.

What resulted is a school as unusual as the partnership that created it.

The students take science and math and humanities classes in two separate, 2 1/2-hour blocks, with an hour at the end of the day for targeted review. Clark professors teach special filmmaking and theater classes on Wednesdays, when the 7th graders learn alongside college students. Time is set aside for community-service projects. And everyone, including the teachers, must read during a half-hour of silent time each morning.

Rodriques herself teaches all of the students Spanish three times a week. "I'll say 'hasta luego,' and they look up and say, 'We're not done yet,'" Rodriques says.

The federal grant money also bought some extras that gave the students a jump on the school year. In June, they received matching backpacks filled with books to read over the summer. In August, school opened a full month early for students who wanted extra enrichment. Attendance was optional, but when the doors opened, all of them showed up.

Likewise, most of the students arrive early every morning and stay for an optional hour of after-school tutoring three days a week. Given the school's already extended day, that means that many of the pupils are in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., eating three meals--breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack--with their teachers.

The students say they like it that way.

"The teachers here don't act like teachers," says Damian Ramsey. "They act like people."

Classmate Taryn Kobel agrees. "In this school, it's like we're a family," she says. "We can pick on each other."

The students' pictures--colorful self-portraits painted in August--hang prominently from an arch in the school's hallway. A nearby "family room" holds shelves full of reading books and a small kitchen where a parent volunteer prepares lunch for the students every day.

The students eat in an adjacent room, where a sweeping, student-painted blue-and-gold mural of "Starry Night" decorates one wall.

"It's Van Gogh," one student proudly tells a recent guest.

The homey feel is far removed from the chaotic structure in many junior high schools that "turns kids into animals," says science teacher Dermot Shea.

"I've seen the best, most beautiful kids end up in just horrific environments," Shea says. "This is a buffer zone. These kids get education, they get nurturing, and they feel comfortable here."

The parents of UPCS students know their good fortune.

Before learning of the school and Clark's tuition offer, college costs were a big concern for Nancy Perez, who now takes adult classes offered in the evenings at UPCS, and whose son, Rolando, attends the school.

"I've always wanted [college] for my kids," she says. "And now I don't have to worry that he's going to have problems or get into fights. He walks through the door, gets his books out, and does homework for two or three hours every day."

Another parent says her daughter, Merissa, is already plotting for dorm space.

Many parents volunteer regularly at UCPS, says Principal Rodriques, who sought their involvement in the school last spring.

"She's working it all out in her little 12-year-old mind," Georgia Young says. "She came up to me the other day and said, 'Mom, you're going to save a lot of money with me going to Clark, so will you pay for me to live in the dorms?'"

Many parents volunteer regularly at UPCS, says Principal Rodriques, who sought their involvement in the school during required informational sessions last spring.

"I knew I couldn't send two hours of homework home every night without help from the parents," she says.

With the student population at the school so small, and its adult support so strong, teachers say the youngsters are far less likely to slip through the cracks than they would be in a larger school. Some of the students are clearly college bound, but regular, one-on-one help is offered to those who are struggling academically.

"We aren't going to lose any of them for any academic reasons here," Rodriques vows. "We'll meet them where they are."

But the school's smallness does have its disadvantages. As it comes time to select the next incoming class, Rodriques and Clark University liaison Lisa Lemerise know they'll have to leave some potential UPCS students behind.

Last year, there was adequate space for each of the Main South student residents who completed preliminary entrance requirements to enter the campus school in August. But with student demand greater this spring, the school will likely fall back on a lottery system to decide which students will win slots.

And because of the university's strict requirements on neighborhood residence, students who live just one house outside the boundaries won't receive the free-tuition offer. They also won't be accepted to the campus school unless there are openings after children in the designated neighborhood have had a chance to apply.

After making a presentation about UPCS at a nearby elementary school, Lemerise says she was approached by a young boy who asked whether having an aunt who lived within the boundaries might qualify him for admission to the school.

"I said she would have to be his legal guardian," Lemerise says. "Then he kind of just slumped away. It was heartbreaking."

The university has not yet done extensive fund raising to pay the tuitions of UPCS students. But Clark officials say they're not worried. Contributions from local foundations pleased with the school's efforts are already filling its coffers, says Foley, the aide to President Traina.

The question is not how the university can afford to pay for its neighborhood programs, he adds, but how it could afford not to.

Clark and school district officials hope to persuade other universities to create similar partnerships in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Beyond Clark's admitted self-interest in making its surrounding area more attractive, the university's education students are also gaining classroom experience by means of a comprehensive professional-development program throughout the Worcester district.

And the university will benefit from having a more racially and ethnically varied student population, says Shirley Wright, a member of the Worcester school board.

"But it's not about affirmative action," Wright continues. "It's about getting these kids qualified to be on an even playing field."

And as Clark University students take classes with UPCS students, tutor them after school, and pair up with them through the campus branch of Big Brothers, Big Sisters, they, too, are learning, Foley says.

"We're temporary inhabitants of this community," says Larraine Wilson, a Clark student who volunteers at the school. "We can choose to make a difference in it, or we can choose to just be college students."

For their part, the 7th graders blend easily with the undergrads, teasing their tutors after school and critiquing their Clark classmates during theater class.

If they ever viewed the "Clarkies" through the wistful eyes of pre-adolescence, the mystique has by now eroded.

College, they say, has become a graspable goal, something they walk through every day.

"I know that my mom will be proud of me," Damian says. "Not a lot of people in my family have been to college."

Clark and school district officials, meanwhile, say they hope the nine other colleges and universities in the Worcester area will take a cue from their efforts and work with other neighborhoods besides Main South.

There's still plenty of opportunity to stake out partnerships, the district's Caradonio says.

"What we're doing is to pound on the other colleges, and say, 'Come on, guys. Let's be more forthcoming with scholarships,'" he says.

"The idea here," adds Foley, "is that if you get other colleges to do something, you can start to create pockets. It's all about breaking down barriers, creating the best neighborhood in Worcester."

Vol. 17, Issue 20, Page 26-30

Published in Print: January 28, 1998, as Where Gown Meets Town
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