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Menino's college try

MAYOR THOMAS Menino is turning up the pressure on the city's leading universities in an effort to eliminate the barrier between Boston's 145 public schools and the city's major institutions of higher education. Recent changes in leadership at Northeastern University and Boston University and the current search for a new president at Harvard make this an opportune time to redefine town-gown partnerships.

The mayor has convened a series of recent ``come to Jesus" meetings at the Parkman House with the heads of the above universities as well as the presidents of Tufts University and Boston College. Menino says he wants to encourage more ``hands-on" help not only from the universities' schools of education but also from on-campus medical and social service experts. He cited Trinity College in Hartford, which provides academic and support programs for four public magnet schools operating near the college campus, as one example of his thinking.

University-school cooperation
Boston's universities already work extensively with the city's school district, but many of those efforts focus more heavily on research projects, teacher training, and publication of classroom materials than on direct contact with public school students. Some of the local schools of education have carved out urban education as a specialty. BU even manages the public schools in Chelsea, a city with many low-income families whose frequent moves challenge efforts at school improvement. But Menino's sense that the overall commitment of the universities is too theoretical is probably right. Why, he wants to know, can't universities as selective as those in Boston do more to advance the quality of public education in a city where many public schools are snubbed by families?

In some cities, enlightened self-interest drives the partnerships between public schools and higher education. Clark University in Worcester, for example, provides hands-on tutoring and classroom instruction to more than 200 students at the nearby University Park Campus School. The better the educational prospects in this mostly low-income section of the city, say Clark officials, the more likely that the neighborhood will be stable and attractive to prospective university students. This year, Clark is adding a second neighborhood school to its partnership portfolio.

Training that works
In other cities, successful partnerships have been driven by visionaries. Leroy Hood, an early advocate of the Human Genome Project and former head of the Department of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington, led the college's role in K-12 education in the early 1990s. Hood and his colleagues trained local high school teachers how to sequence DNA in the classroom and secured a $4.2 million National Science Foundation grant to bring 100 hours of hands-on science instruction to each of Seattle's 1,400 elementary school educators. And once a leading scientist took interest in an area rarely noticed by faculty members outside the school of education, other academic departments soon followed suit.

In 1975, during the tumultuous efforts to desegregate Boston's schools, the late Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. called on the city's universities to improve the lives of local students. One outgrowth of that appeal, the Boston Higher Education Partnership, now represents 33 institutions of higher learning that work with the city's schools. Some colleges offer generous scholarships. Others conduct research on drop outs, college retention and other pertinent topics. But the greatest efforts seem to focus on professional development and mentoring of teachers. It's a natural concentration, given the colleges' collective expertise in instructing adults. But Menino wants to know if the skills found on university campuses, especially in schools of medicine and social work, can be used in a better and more coordinated fashion to work directly with children.

The Boston Connects program at Boston College probably comes closest to what the mayor has in mind. Roughly 50 BC faculty members and graduate students from the schools of education, social work, and nursing work regularly to identify students who need social services and health services in five schools in Allston/Brighton and three schools in Mission Hill. Working with staffers at the YMCA and other community groups, the BC contingent works every day to eliminate what BC Professor Mary Walsh of the Lynch School of Education calls ``the nonacademic barriers to learning." BC's ability to provide counseling experts and trainees in the elementary schools is especially important given the dearth of such on-site positions.

Problems children carry to school
Urban educators often complain that their job is made more difficult by the social and behavioral problems that many children bring to school. Boston College, at least, seems to be listening. The Jesuit campus also seems less prone than others to concerns that practical programs might somehow diminish academic reputations. Other college presidents could help by communicating the value of linking theory and practice in Boston's schools.

Little may come of new partnerships if university officials try to impose their ideas on the local schools. The teacher training, professional development, and mentoring programs now offered by the colleges work reasonably well because Boston school officials made clear what was needed. Now that Menino has the attention of the college presidents, the city needs to elaborate on what it expects from the universities in terms of hands-on help to students.

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