A Seamless System

A unique partnership bridges the gaps between the various levels of education

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Several years ago, Genaro Bueno was having trouble in high school and never thought he would find a way or the means to go to college. But last spring, thanks to an innovative school college partnership, Bueno claimed his associate's degree from South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. He now plans to continue his studies at Arizona State University; his goal is to become a teacher. “Without the program, I would not be in college right now, I can tell you that,” says the 20-year-old Bueno.

Bueno and eight of his classmates are among the more dramatic and concrete examples of a program designed to shepherd at-risk students—single parents, the low income, and those with discipline or academic problems—through high school and college by getting them to take college courses while in high school.

The program is one of several unusual ideas launched by an organization known simply as the Think Tank, a partnership created in 1988 by the city of Phoenix, the local community-college system, a four-year university, the city's high schools, and seven surrounding elementary school districts. This educational dream team was designed to improve the educational opportunities for the area's largely low-income, minority students by breaking down the barriers that separate the various levels of education.

Latching on to an eclectic set of school reform ideas, the Think Tank has attracted the participation of a city social worker, who coordinates health and welfare services for students; the dean of the college of education at Arizona State University, who monitors a program to encourage school workers to become teachers; and a computer company that has developed a system for tracking student progress that is considered one of the most sophisticated in the country. It has also launched programs that guide at-risk students through high school and college and link high school students with social, medical, and employment services.

“You didn't say something couldn't be done,” says Nancy Jordan, the first executive director of the Think Tank. “You did it.”

Now, the Think Tank is about to embark on a more ambitious plan: to restructure a large part of the city's educational system. According to Janet Beauchamp, the current executive director, the organization has joined two national restructuring efforts.

Held up as one of the most highly successful partnerships in the country—the Think Tank won the 1991 Anderson Medal of the Business-Higher Education Forum, which honors partnerships of higher education, public schools, and business—the project's new reform effort could well serve as a national model for school-college partnerships and for school restructuring.

While many such partnerships are small scale and ad hoc, the Think Tank has managed to develop a foothold in the city by attracting support from a broad range of organizations. A policy-setting board of directors that draws from all of the educational groups helps minimize turf battles. Funding is spread among the partners.

Money for the Think Tank's day-to-day operations has come from the Maricopa Community College District, a network of 10 community colleges in the Phoenix area. The participating elementary school districts and the high school district have contributed in-kind support. And numerous businesses and foundations have financially supported the various programs.

Most people involved with the Think Tank agree that Timothy Dyer, formerly the superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District, and Paul Elsner, the chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District, deserve the credit for getting the project up and running and for making the collaborative effort a front-burner issue. Dyer sought community support and backing from his principals and brought an initial five elementary districts on board. Elsner solidified support within the community-college system, which was seen as the primary vehicle for the urban students to achieve a higher education.

According to Dyer, who is now the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Think Tank should be seen as an example of how schools and colleges can work together to address systemic shortfalls—something he says colleges are slowly coming around to realize is in their best interest. “There's a lot of talk among the college people about working with the school but not an awful lot being done,” he says. “It takes institutional commitment. You've got people coming at you from all sides, and you just have to make up your minds that this is important.”

For his part, Elsner says the Think Tank's operations still are “marginalized.”

“It's daunting to maintain these projects and these interventions and these strategies in the Think Tank because they're so overwhelming,” he says.

Still, participants believe the effort has been worth it—even those who were skeptics at the onset. “When I first heard about this I said: `Oh, great. Another think tank. All we're going to do is think and nothing is going to get done,' says Robert Donofrio, superintendent of the Murphy Elementary School District. “But this group is really pro-active.”

Donofrio and others point to Bueno and the 670 other students who have entered the partnership's Achieving a College Education program since 1988. Of the original 113 enrollees, 98 percent graduated from high school, this in a district with a 57 percent graduation rate; 64 percent of the ACE graduates have gone on to higher education.

They also point to people like Linda Webster, a secretary in the Phoenix Elementary District for five years, who is now pursuing a college education with financial support from her school system. She is one of 160 minority school workers or paraprofessionals who have been tapped through a Think Tank project as having the potential to become teachers.

Vol. 04, Issue 02, Pages 14-15

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