November 1 — 2:09 pm, 2003

Universities and schools network to foster partnerships

The creation of the Penn Alexander school-a PreK-8 neighborhood public school supported by the University of Pennsylvania – reflects a growing trend embraced by many universities and school districts nationwide.

At "From the Ground Up: Building University-Assisted Schools," a conference convened in late October by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn GSE), more than 150 researchers, school administrators, and other public education stakeholders came together to discuss the nuts and bolts of how universities and school districts can work together to create and run high-performing public schools.

While no reliable estimates exist about how many partnerships of this kind currently are in place nationally, more than 35 universities and school districts were represented at the conference. Organizers of the conference described the event as the start of an effort to institutionalize a more visible national network of university-school partnerships.

"One of the real challenges here is to bring people out of the box and have them be willing to share," said Penn GSE Assistant Dean Thomas Kecskemethy. "We’re just in the discovery mode ourselves."

The School District of Philadelphia currently has formal partnerships with eight local universities-six of which were announced last August-and plans to create more. One upcoming project is a Penn-assisted high school, Penn GSE Dean Susan Furhman announced at the conference.

Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania have each been involved in supporting the academic programs at a small cluster of schools since last year, while the six new university partnerships have narrower objectives.

Newly appointed School District Director of University Partnerships Sheila Royal-Moses, who attended the conference, said that the District is looking to form university partnerships that are "more strategic, more focused and more formal" and emphasized that these partnerships would be specifically "geared towards enhancing and expanding the District’s educational goals."

The development of Penn Alexander, which opened in 2001 and moved into its new facility in fall 2002, initially sparked controversy. Some West Philadelphia residents expressed concern that the school would only benefit a small, select number of students, primarily the children of Penn professors, and that other schools in the neighborhood would be left behind.

To date, however, 81 percent of the school’s students are African American, Latino, and Asian, and students come from families with varied incomes, according to Nancy Streim, director of Penn Partnership Schools Network (PPSN), which also assists Bryant, Lea, and Wilson Elementary Schools as one of the District’s university partners.

"We certainly feel that we’re winning the trust of the community over time," said Dean Fuhrman, noting that Penn has made a ten-year financial commitment to the school.

If Penn Alexander proves to be a successful academic model, Streim and others at the conference contended, the school’s proven track record could potentially give District administrators more leverage in advocating for increased financial resources in the fiscally strained District.

"We would like to believe that initiatives such as ours…are helping districts put pressure where it needs to be put in local and state legislatures to make this happen more broadly," Streim said during the conference.

Ultimately, the formation of university-school partnerships, said PPSN co-director Jeanne Vissa, is about making sure schools succeed and develop the capacity to sustain that success on their own.

"When we retreat…we have to feel that the school is a better place even without us," Vissa said.

For more information on the Penn Partnership Schools Network contact Nancy Brokaw at 215-573-0591 or nbrokaw@gse.upenn.edu.

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