Where Gown Meets Town

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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."

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