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School partnerships need a push

A PLAN BY five major research universities to adopt 10 public schools in Boston is creaking along, despite school department hopes that the partnerships would be underway in the new year. If college officials are going to make a significant contribution to the city's schools, they must first adopt an urban sense of urgency.

In September, officials from Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Tufts, and Northeastern announced a program to provide $10 million in funds and services to underperforming schools in Boston. The plan stemmed, in part, from intensive meetings over the summer between Mayor Thomas Menino and the presidents of the city's major private universities. Menino argued that university efforts to expand their campuses required a commensurate effort to build up Boston's public schools. Shortly thereafter, the college presidents announced the $10 million "Step Up" program. But last week, Acting School Superintendent Michael Contompasis complained that the campuses were moving too slowly to suit the school system.

Universities operate on their own internal clocks. Months pass between a bright idea and its appearance in a peer-reviewed publication. Urban schools, however, exist in the hurry-up world. In less time than it takes for a new faculty member at a university to be considered for tenure, more than half of the new teachers in the Boston schools will have quit their posts due to confusion or a perceived lack of support. State and federal education officials apply constant pressure in the form of standardized tests. Resources at the city's great universities could be key to better teacher retention and higher student achievement -- provided they arrive in sync with the school calendar.

On Jan. 4, the leaders of 10 struggling schools are scheduled to meet with university experts in the areas of public health, after-school programming, curriculum support, family engagement, and pedagogy. The plan, according to Deputy Superintendent Chris Coxson, is for the universities to step up in their individual fields of expertise and provide help across the board to the following schools: English High School; the Lewenberg and Curley middle schools; and the Agassiz, Winthrop, Chittick, Marshall, Russell, Elihu Greenwood, and Trotter elementary schools.

The advantages of pairing private universities with individual public schools should not be overlooked in this effort to create a wide network of support services. Universities can still be surprisingly agile when it comes to competing for the best graduate students and faculty. Healthy competition among the colleges leads to stronger academic departments, bolder plans, and better-prepared students. Boston's public schools are striving along similar lines. Universities need to accept this new challenge as if their rankings depended on it.

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