Town-gown triumph

In poorest part of Worcester, Clark helps put children on path to college

From left, University Park Campus School seniors Leidy Restrepo, Karen Benitez, and Patricia Sanchez walked to nearby Clark University to attend a Spanish literature class.
From left, University Park Campus School seniors Leidy Restrepo, Karen Benitez, and Patricia Sanchez walked to nearby Clark University to attend a Spanish literature class. (Mark Wilson/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / November 22, 2007

WORCESTER - The lush, main quad of Clark University stretches just beyond the hard-edged Main South neighborhood. Yet for children who grow up here, many in broken homes on glass-strewn streets, college, especially a selective one that costs nearly $40,000 a year, often seems like another world.

But at the University Park Campus School, a small, brick middle and high school in the poorest part of the city, students all but grow up on the Clark campus, just a block away. The grade 7-12 school is the centerpiece of Clark's determined campaign to revive a neighborhood long blighted by poverty and gang- and drug-related violence.

In the past four years, nearly every graduate has gone on to college, radically defying the odds for inner-city students. In turn, the neighborhood is rebounding, stabi lized by working families drawn by the promise of a college education for their children.

University Park, which Clark helped found a decade ago and oversees in a partnership with the city, has earned national recognition for its striking success in overcoming the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools, among the most persistent and pervasive problems in American education.

With a relentless culture of high standards and tough love, and intensive personal instruction, the school has outpaced all expectations. In the past six years, it has boasted the highest cumulative MCAS scores among the state's non-exam urban schools.

"It's an extraordinary success story," said Paul Reville, a Harvard University education policy researcher who is chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. "These are students who have not traditionally done well in the public school system, and here they are all going on to college. There's a steady stream of people wanting to see how the school has done what it's done."

Its partnership with Clark, which allows University Park students to take college classes and then receive free tuition if they are admitted there, is widely praised as a model for town-gown collaboration, particularly for colleges in low-income neighborhoods. Working closely with a coalition of neighborhood groups, Clark has led an effort to replace dilapidated buildings with affordable housing, and encouraged faculty and staff to move into the neighborhood through home-buying incentive programs the school subsidizes.

Faculty and staff who buy a home in Main South receive a $5,000 interest-free loan, which is reduced by $1,000 each year they live there. They also receive a 12 percent salary bonus annually for the first seven years they live there, with a $4,000 yearly maximum. In the past decade, about 30 faculty and staff have signed up.

Clark has also worked closely with a community development group to attract $120 million in public and private funding to revive the neighborhood. Today, homeownership and property values are on the rise, and crime is down. Families are moving in, and staying, for the chance to send their children to University Park, and, perhaps someday, Clark.

"A lot of kids in this neighborhood think college is just for rich kids," said Jack Foley, Clark's vice president for government and community affairs. "But when they hear they can go here for free, going to college becomes real."

Foley described the partnership as "enlightened self-interest," because it has improved the neighborhood while attracting more civic-minded students and faculty to Clark.

Other colleges in urban areas - Brown University in Providence, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Trinity College in Hartford, to name a few - have worked to improve the neighborhoods around their campuses. But Clark's effort is unusual in its scope and success, and Foley said he believes it is the only university in the country to offer free tuition to its neighbors.

Defying demographics

Three-quarters of University Park students are poor, and many come from troubled homes. A lot of them do not grow up speaking English and some arrive in seventh grade barely able to read or write. Many had assumed they would drop out of high school.

But the 240 students at University Park are categorically told that no one drops out, everyone passes the MCAS, and everyone goes to college. They spend countless hours at Clark using the library and gym, and attending dances and assemblies. Many juniors and seniors are allowed to take university classes for credit. Their teacher aides are Clark students, as are their after-school mentors. They proudly own Clark IDs.

"They tell you straight out that college is where you're headed, where you belong," said Patricia Sanchez, a 17-year-old senior. "Clark's like our big brother."

University Park has no entry requirements, and admission is by lottery, although siblings of current students are guaranteed spots. But small classes, intensive remedial work, and a demanding college-prep curriculum have spurred students to attend an array of top colleges, including Brown, Dartmouth, and Georgetown.

Each college acceptance is announced over the intercom, then roundly celebrated. Most students are the first in their family to attend college.

Since University Park was launched, more than a dozen students have gone on to Clark.

Inner-city schools, despite countless teaching strategies, accountability measures, and millions of dollars, have generally failed. But University Park officials reject the notion that demographics are destiny.

"Desire beats adversity every time," said principal June Eressy, who took over in 2003. "I get real tired of people making excuses for the kids because of their circumstances. I know a lot of them have things tough at home, and that can be very difficult. But you can't let them off the hook here because their lives outside of here are chaotic."

Eressy said students learn quickly that teachers do not tolerate misbehavior, slacking off, or skipping classes. Family turmoil, no matter how intense, is no excuse.

Teachers phone parents often, and, with all their students living nearby, aren't afraid to pay house calls.

Street talk is strictly taboo, and students are urged to speak formal English. Many students show up at 7 a.m. for breakfast, followed by tutoring, and remain after classes end to study at the school's homework center until 5:30 p.m.

"For a lot of them, this is the only structure they have," Eressy said.

A sign of hope

University Park's small student body and smaller building, a former elementary school built in 1885 with no library, gym, or assembly hall, fosters a close-knit group, teachers and students say.

"You can never feel badly for them because they're growing up in poverty," Donna Rodrigues, the school's founding principal, who grew up in Main South and who now works for Jobs For the Future, a Boston education advocacy group that touts the school as a role model. "If anything, you have to be more demanding because they're coming in at a deficit."

The school takes dead aim at that deficit with an "August Academy" for entering seventh-graders, who receive intensive remedial instruction in reading and writing for two years. Starting in ninth grade, they embark on a rigorous college-prep curriculum, supplementing their last two years with Clark courses ranging from Spanish to chemistry.

Classes at University Park are at least an hour long, with 90-minute blocks for 10th-grade high school math and English, and there are few electives. All students take the same courses, regardless of their academic level. Eighth-graders read Mark Twain and selected Shakespeare; juniors and seniors read Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Frederick Douglass.

Outside educators come to University Park looking for answers, but those who have seen the school firsthand are divided on whether other low-achieving urban schools can emulate it.

Tom Del Prete, director of Clark University's Hiatt Center for Urban Education, acknowledged the school has a "culture of achievement that is not simple to duplicate."

But Reville takes his graduate students to University Park each spring as an example of hope for other urban schools.

Kimberly Surrette, a senior at Clark, said when she started as a student at University Park she cried in frustration over the hours of homework. When she was a sophomore, her family was evicted from their apartment because they couldn't pay the rent. She stayed with friends, and didn't miss a day of school.

When she was accepted at Clark, she cried again - this time out of happiness.

"You can't really have excuses," she said. "A lot of students come from broken families, but you have a family here."

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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