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UConn working with Hartford schools
to improve education for urban kids
February 16, 1998

Faculty and students interested in conducting research or helping out in urban schools will have expanded opportunities under a new coordinated effort, the Hartford Schools Partnership, led by Judith Meyer.

The concept of the partnership grew out of the Pew Roundtable held last year, Meyer says.

"One of the recommendations was to establish some parallel initiatives within the social and behavioral science faculty to the critical technologies, where faculty in science and engineering work in teams with industry and the state on scholarship and educational programs."

There was an added impetus when Lorraine Aronson, special assistant to the Chancellor, was appointed by Gov. John Rowland and the leadership of the General Assembly to the state board of trustees for the Hartford Public Schools, the first state takeover of a local school system in Connecticut history.

"Clearly the Hartford schools are greatly in need of assistance, and the know-how and dedication of the University are a tremendous asset as we undertake the effort of reforming the school system," says Aronson.

"I was delighted to help connect the University and the Hartford school administration in this new collaboration."

As with the Critical Technolo-gies Program, the partnership represents one of state government's top priorities - education. It also represents one aspect of the University's land grant mission - public service.

One of the first steps was to assemble an inventory of existing collaborations. The list is lengthy. "Nobody really knew the depth of what UConn is doing," says Meyer.

Some of the participants are already well established. For the past 10 years the School of Education has operated a professional development center in five Hartford schools. As well as student teaching, students from the preservice and fifth year programs and faculty from the School of Education work with teachers and school administrators on a variety of projects suggested by the school.

"We believe being involved with such projects allows us to renew our teacher education program at the same time as renewing their classrooms," says Richard Schwab, dean of the School of Education. "Our students are getting experience in the real world of schools."

Schwab says there are some lessons the new partnership can learn from the education school's experience in Hartford. "It's very important to work closely with the district, so it's not just our agenda but the district's," he says. "Both sides have to communicate their needs and abilities so there is a realistic understanding of what each can and can't provide.

"And remember that we're in this for the long haul," Schwab adds. "Real change needs time ... We're not going to change the system overnight."

Another major player is the Cooperative Extension System, which offers a wide range of programs, including food and nutrition education, jobs training, pocket parks, lead poisoning prevention, and a double dutch program.

Associate Director Nancy Bull says many of the problems the schools face are linked to family structure.

"So much of what we do ties around a sense of citizenship, of leadership in the community. All of that comes back to what happens in the home," she says.

The extension system has been involved in Hartford for more than 30 years. Bull says the new University-wide partnership will strengthen the ties.

"One of the challenges we face is that as personnel change, ours or the school system's, one-to-one contacts are quickly lost. A systemwide approach will help institutionalize what we're trying to do," she says.

"Historically, the extension system has been the link between the research of the University and the people of the state. I see this as fostering and building that relationship. It's an excellent way to tie in the total research of the University," Bull adds.

The Health Center also is engaged in a variety of projects in Hartford, including the clinical efforts of the medical school's training program and research. It also runs a 3000 x 2000 initiative, serving Hartford and other areas, that offers high school students interested in medical careers the opportunity to spend time at the medical school several times a year.

In addition, there are a number of researchers working in the schools, such as psychology professor Jeffrey Fisher, who runs a research-based AIDS risk reduction program in three Hartford high schools that is funded by the federal government. Fisher says the partnership will benefit researchers trying to develop new projects in Hartford by providing an entree to the system. "We had to do all the groundwork ourselves," he says.

Meyer also has worked with other higher education institutions in Hartford to compile a list of what they are doing in the Hartford schools. "The system is being inundated with offers of help. They recognize the need for outside help but they can't afford to be overwhelmed," she says.

With some of the initial groundwork established, Meyer has begun meeting Hartford administrators to make matches between scholars and their needs and interests.

"For many faculty the challenge of becoming engaged with a large administrative structure like the Hartford school system is daunting," she says. For school administrators, on the other hand, scholarship may seem more abstract than, say, developing an afterschool program that will serve several hundred kids.

"We hope to help faculty make these connections, so that when a proposal is submitted, the administrative structure will say, 'Oh that's part of the partnership' and sign off without a long delay because they know there's quality control through the partnership."

Meyer says the partnership will also seek to develop collaborative projects between faculty of different disciplines, and will provide seed funding to help faculty develop proposals for external funding.

In addition to research, a new tutoring program is being developed at Kinsella Elementary School. Kathy Usher, director of the scholarship office, and Diane Wright, director of community outreach, are working closely with teachers to help the UConn students get started.

A graduate assistant assigned to the partnership is developing an assessment instrument to evaluate the impact of the program.

Bonnie Strait, coordinator of volunteer programs in the Hartford School System, says she welcomes the new program. "The University is a resource for person-power, as well as development," she says. But she's also delighted that there will be an evaluation component. "No one's really done a study to see what impact the tutoring programs have," she says.

Meyer says the scope of UConn's partnership with the Hartford schools sets it apart from many other university-school partnerships. "Many are tied rather specifically to curriculum and teacher training," she says. "We are trying to tap the full breadth of University resources."

Other prospective UConn projects in Hartford include a Talent Search proposal submitted by the Center for Academic Programs for federal funding to develop afterschool and enrichment programs for Hartford schools, and a proposal to extend to Hartford the University's high school coop program, which offers college-level courses to high school students for credit.

Bonnie Strait, the volunteer coordinator, says that although the University has been a presence before, the partnership represents a stronger commitment. "The partnership is more multifaceted because it's on a number of levels."

She says it's important that people in the Hartford schools identify their needs and don't have solutions imposed from the outside. "We need a commonality of agreement to make this work. Partnerships are two-sided. Everyone has a say in what's happening."

Meyer agrees. "We don't want to come in as potential saviors," she says. "What we very much want to do is work in partnership."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu