Universities uneven as guardians of schools

April 27, 2007|By Liz Bowie and Gadi Dechter | Liz Bowie and Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporters

Across the nation, big city school districts have been handing off a few of their most troubled schools to universities, just as Baltimore is turning over five schools to Towson University to oversee.

But the success of such partnerships has varied, with scant evidence that public schools do better under the guardianship of the ivory tower.

"Just because it is a university doesn't guarantee success," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. What seems to matter more, he said, is what the university does.

Towson will try to turn around four schools in Cherry Hill and a fifth in Morrell Park, making them top performers in the system. Other school system-university partnerships in the city provide grounds for optimism, officials said. Coppin State University has run Rosemont Elementary School in Baltimore for nearly 10 years, to positive reviews. Early reports are promising from the Talent Development High School launched by the Johns Hopkins University. The University of Maryland graduate schools are also involved in a new small high school in the city.

However, the record in other areas is much less clear. In a closely watched experiment in Philadelphia, a group of schools run by two different universities did no better in raising achievement than the regular public schools, according to two studies conducted by independent researchers.

The state of Pennsylvania took control of the Philadelphia system and then gave 45 schools to a variety of operators, including for-profit Edison Schools Inc., the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. Five years later, the data show little difference between the schools run by those private operators and other public schools, according to Brian Gill, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corp. who studied the issue.

In fact, he said, the Temple-run schools did not do as well as the rest of the school district.

Historically, universities have seen elementary, middle and high schools primarily as clinical outposts for student-teacher preparation and laboratories for academic research. In the 1970s and 1980s, "lab schools" on college campuses were frequently established as places where faculty could study, in practice, educational theories, and where student teachers could get practical experience.

More recently, colleges have gone off campus to run existing - in many cases failing - public schools. Such arrangements vary from outright takeovers, as with Coppin State, to vaguely worded "partnerships," as is to be the case with Towson. Often, the city school board maintains ultimate authority and the teachers remain members of the union. But the universities do typically participate in the nitty-gritty of what makes the school - the hiring of principals and teachers and choosing the curriculum.

When Coppin State took over the troubled Rosemont Elementary School in 1998, it was the only neighborhood public school in Maryland - and perhaps the country - operated by a state college. After struggling for the first few years, Coppin has successfully transformed the school from a perennial sub-par performer in state tests to one that outperforms most Baltimore schools in reading and math assessments.

"It was an awful place," said Frank Kober, Coppin's retired associate dean of education, who oversaw the takeover. "Students were riding their bicycles in the school hall. Test scores were absolutely dismal."

Kober attributes Coppin's success in part to its authority over Rosemont's personnel and curriculum decisions. "We had a contract that stated we were responsible for management of the school," he said. "We had the authority to select the principal. ... We could have actually said all of the teachers have to reapply for their jobs."

In recent years, Rosemont Elementary added middle school grades, and the university has established a high school, the Coppin Academy, on the college campus. The idea is to build a Coppin-managed educational "pipeline" for underprivileged students in Coppin's West Baltimore neighborhood that will take students from elementary school all the way to college.

About the same time Coppin was opening its school, Clark University helped set up a school in Worcester, Mass., in a community near its campus. The school is now considered one of the best urban public schools in Massachusetts.

Clark was on a steering committee that helped pick the principal and other faculty as well as set high standards for the school, said Jack Foley, vice president for government and community affairs at Clark. Today, Clark offers free tuition to any student who graduates from the school and is admitted to the private university.

One of the earliest experiments in university takeovers of public schools had mixed results.

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