The New College Try

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Student teacher Roland Dirks works on math skills with Alex Harris

At the Rosemont Elementary School in Baltimore, college prep begins early. How early? Starting in prekindergarten, students take some of their lessons from tenured university faculty. Undergraduates serve as teachers' aides, and kids spend their summer vacations studying on the campus of a nearby college. When students graduate from the fifth grade, they get a handshake and a diploma from a university president. So it was understandable that when a visitor recently toured the school, a bespectacled third-grader asked, "Excuse me, Miss? Are you a professor?"

Not long ago, few Rosemont students were considered college material. Reared in downtown Baltimore's roughest ZIP code, almost all of them live in poverty. The lucky ones could expect to take classes someday at a community college, but nearly two-thirds of students in this troubled district don't make it through high school. On standardized tests conducted three years ago, not a single Rosemont student read at grade level.

But after a poor showing on a state exam landed Rosemont on Maryland's list of failing schools, a neighbor volunteered to help. Though Rosemont is still part of Baltimore's public school system, the school is now managed by Coppin State College, a public institution situated just down the street. The college does everything from hiring Rosemont's principal to wiring its classrooms to giving its students their annual immunizations. Result: last year more than 90% of Rosemont first-graders read at grade level or above. Says Frank Kober, a professor of education at Coppin State: "We had to ask ourselves, 'If we didn't help, who would?'"

That question drives what may be the next big thing in education reform: so-called K-16 partnerships, in which colleges work to improve K-12 schools. More than a century ago, universities and their local public schools talked at every turn. In those days before the SAT, many colleges designed their entrance exams, down to which passages from Homer students ought to be able to translate, and high schools tailored their lessons accordingly. But as the nation's public schools swelled and colleges started recruiting applicants from farther afield, universities lost touch with their neighborhood schools. Over time, the relations became icier, with schoolteachers carping that all they got from colleges were airy theories of school reform, spun from on high.

But in more and more places today, the connections are palpable and practical. Colleges are once again helping neighborhood schools by designing curriculums and training teachers, helping write academic standards, and mounting capital campaigns. Some universities are starting charter schools from scratch on their campuses. Five years ago, just two states ran K-16 programs. Today 24 do, according to the Education Commission of the States. That's on top of scores of partnerships involving private colleges.

Universities are using more than conscience as their guide. When students show up for freshman year ill prepared, colleges pay the price. Today half of all college students must take at least one remedial course, at an annual cost of $1 billion to the nation's public universities. And with the recent ban on affirmative-action programs in Texas and California, outreach is no longer optional. Universities in those states now go door to door not only to recruit minorities but also to ensure that they complete all the necessary course work and paperwork to get admitted. And with many public schools complaining that their new teachers are poorly trained, K-16 partnerships give universities a proving ground for their education students.

In Maryland's university system, educators credit K-16 outreach for a drop in remediation rates and a rise in SAT scores and minority enrollment. In a pilot program in Oregon, high school and state-college educators are redesigning college-entrance requirements so that admission will hinge on a portfolio of student work graded on a uniform scale. In the California State University system, 54% of freshmen had to take remedial math courses in 1998; the following year only 48% did so.

The payoffs have been even greater on the local level. Consider El Paso, Texas, where one-third of the adult residents cannot read English and last year only 75% graduated from high school. Ten years ago, the University of Texas at El Paso joined with that city's community leaders and three of its largest and lowest-performing school districts. Today UTEP's mark is apparent everywhere, from the schools' cheery hallways (the once drab corridors are papered over with student artwork) to test scores.

University and local officials secured more than $30 million in grants and helped overhaul the district's curriculum and teaching methods. Some schools wiped out uninspired drills and work sheets in the younger grades, and high schools began pushing students to take three years each of rigorous college preparatory math and science. Before UTEP stepped in, just a small percentage of students took Algebra II and Chemistry; now more than half do. Compared with 1994, when just one school in the university-aided districts netted an exemplary rating on state exams, last year 18 did. Most important, the university ascribes this year's 3% increase in student enrollment to the partnership's efforts.

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