School & District Management

Universities Team Up With Urban Districts to Run Local Schools

By Debra Viadero — January 19, 2005 7 min read
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Amid a sea of teenagers in baggy pants, denim jackets, and white T-shirts, it’s easy to pick out the students from Baltimore Talent Development High School. They’re the ones in the intense yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their school.

What really sets them apart, though, are the words underneath the school name. They read: “A Partnership with Johns Hopkins University.”

That’s because this public high school, which opened in September, is the product of an unusual collaboration between the city’s school system and its premier private university.

Precious Pearson, 15, center, helps Tiffany Gilliam, 16, with an assignment as Devon Little, 14, looks on during a class at the Talent Development High School in Baltimore.

For most universities, running a public school is as foreign an enterprise as operating a gas station. Yet it’s happening in a growing number of cities—including Philadelphia; Chicago; New York City; Worcester, Mass.; and East Palo Alto, Calif.—where universities are venturing out of their ivory towers and into the messy real world of public schools.

“For some period of time—at least since the 1960s—getting involved in K-12 schools was not at the forefront of universities’ missions,” said Nancy W. Streim, the associate dean for educational practice at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. “It’s still not, but I think that began to break down when universities began to find students not coming to them as prepared as they would like them to be.”

The private University of Pennsylvania, which runs the Penn Alexander School, a public pre-K-8 school in its own back yard in Philadelphia, last year hosted what is widely considered to be the first national conference on these new school-university partnerships that run precollegiate schools. It drew 150 participants from 35 universities and school districts.

Shaping a School

For Johns Hopkins, the attraction in getting more deeply involved in school operations was a chance to help shape a school from scratch and use it to try out its own nationally known program for educational improvement. Hopkins researchers developed the program, known as the Talent Development model, more than a decade ago. They had tried it out in Baltimore-area public high schools, but never before in a brand-new school and never with the kind of control they have now over school operations.

Baltimore Talent Development High, one of four schools that the 88,400-student district has opened up to outside operators over the past two years, is not a charter school in the sense that it operates free of city school rules. But the university still has considerable leeway under the terms of its four-year contract with the school system.

“We use Baltimore city public school teachers, but we get to select them,” said Robert Balfanz, the Hopkins education researcher who is co-leading the project. “We use Baltimore principals, but we select them; we can have our own curriculum, and we don’t have to use district professional development. This gives us a chance to marry a whole-school reform model with being able to get a highly motivated faculty.”

The school opened with 150 9th graders. Taking all comers on a first-come, first-served basis, the school will add a grade a year for the next three years, ending up with a small school of no more than 600 students in grades 9-12. The school is housed in a wing of Harlem Park Middle School, a sprawling building constructed in the 1960s that is on the city’s west side, and has seen steadily declining enrollments.

Neighborhood Connections

Colleges and universities elsewhere give different reasons for entering the K-12 arena. The University of Pennsylvania and Clark University in Worcester, Mass., for example, figured that establishing outstanding public schools could revitalize the deteriorating urban neighborhoods that surround them.

As Thomas Del Prete, the director of the Hiatt Center for Urban Education at Clark, put it: “The university recognized some 12 to 15 years ago that its vitality and possibly its future depended on the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood.”

According to Mr. Del Prete, the Main South neighborhood, near where Clark sits, was one of the city’s most impoverished communities, a place plagued by absentee landlords, drug problems, prostitution, and severe housing shortages for families.

Clark began its campaign to improve the area by first promising free tuition to attend Clark for residents who had lived there at least five years. Then, in 1996, it launched a partnership with the Worcester city schools to establish the University Park Campus School, a grade 7-12 public school that now enrolls 215 students.

Across the country at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Linda Darling-Hammond said university educators had two reasons for applying for a charter to open East Palo Alto High School. First, the university felt a moral obligation to replace a public high school that the East Palo Alto community lost when the school system became desegregated 25 years ago. And second, the university was seeking a “teaching hospital” environment where student teachers could observe best practices while getting exposure to the real-world problems of urban schools serving ethnically diverse, mostly poor students.

“Unless you want to prepare students to, in many cases, teach in ways that are less effective than what we know how to do, there aren’t a lot of schools you can turn to,” said Ms. Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor.

The growth of opportunities for charter schooling has also fueled some of the universities’ interest, observers say, as has increasing public pressure on urban higher education institutions to show they are good neighbors.

The University Cachet

For public school systems, university involvement offers a way to tap into desperately needed resources and expertise.

“When I went for the interview, they told me I would have supplies, so that was exciting,” said Edward Bryant Jr. a mathematics teacher at Baltimore Talent Development High School. Mr. Bryant, who is working toward a doctoral degree in math education, also said he believed the new administrators selected by Johns Hopkins “would allow me to be the expert in my subject that I am,” rather than prescribe lessons for him.

Hopkins also pays for facilitators to work at the school and provides professional development that teachers receive in the summer and during the school year. As in many such efforts across the country, the school also gets start-up funds. In the case of Talent Development High, the additional infusion amounts to $400,000 over four years that comes from local and national foundations.

Students say the university’s presence also lends a certain cachet that other public schools lack. Some of the 9th graders travel as much as 1½ hours by city bus to attend the school, which is in a very poor part of Baltimore.

“The kids understand there’s a certain expectation when a college is involved,” said Cheree Davis, a social studies teacher at the school. “They came in with huge expectations of us which we just have to keep up.”

“We already feel like we are in college, anyway,” echoed 9th grader Aleah Stinson, who is hoping the school will give her a foot in the door toward earning a scholarship to attend Hopkins.

But students also pay a price for the choice they make in coming to Talent Development High. With their vivid yellow shirts, they sometimes get singled out for harassment by the regular middle school students who share the building with them.

Still, said Ms. Stinson, “I tell them, getting an education in a uniform is better than getting no education at all in your regular clothes.”

‘A Frightening Thing’

Universities, for their part, are putting their reputations on the line in taking on the responsibility of operating public schools.

“It’s a frightening thing for a university to find itself running schools,” said C. Kent McGuire, the dean of Temple University’s education school and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Clinton administration. “And I can’t suggest that an education school has all the knowledge and skills it needs to pull that off.”

Temple University is providing support to six public schools in its Philadelphia neighborhood. Two years into a contract between the university and the city school district, the Temple-managed public schools are so far keeping pace with the district at large in students’ achievement growth.

And Clark University’s 8-year-old University Park Campus School in 2003 was ranked as the only high-performing urban high school in Massachusetts.

Yet for many such efforts, including Baltimore’s, it may be too soon to tell whether universities can do any better job managing public schools than local districts can.

In Philadelphia, district officials said Temple and the University of Pennsylvania have already shown that “they can do this at the same level we are doing,” said Ellen K. Savitz, the district’s chief development officer. But the next question, she said, is “Can they, in fact, do better on the same amount of money we get?”

“If not,” Ms. Savitz said, “why not give the additional money to our own schools?”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Universities Team Up With Urban Districts to Run Local Schools


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