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Universities Go to School

Expanding missions and the charter school movement bring research institutions into the K-12 arena.
University Business, Feb 2010
Science students from Polytechnic Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona spent three days on a neighboring Arizona State University campus participating in the universitiy's Mars Imaging Project.

Over the past two years, Arizona State University has opened two new schools at its campuses in the Phoenix area. But these educational additions are not training future social workers, lawyers, or business executives. They'll be turning out qualified future college students, many of whom—ASU officials hope—will populate the state's universities years from now.

ASU has joined the growing ranks of large research institutions—Stanford; the University of California, San Diego; and The University of Chicago among them—that have extended their educational mission by creating local K-12 charter schools.

The 250-student Polytechnic Elementary School began operating in 2008 a mile away from ASU’s campus in Mesa. It currently includes grades K-7. This past summer, ASU launched the University Public School in Phoenix, which enrolls almost 750 students in grades pre-K-8. Both schools plan on adding another grade annually as they expand into the high school grades. "Given our intellectual and physical resources, we can be a player in the community," says Eugene Garcia, ASU's vice president for university-school partnerships. "We needed to roll up our sleeves and get involved."

Kimberly de los Santos, associate vice president for university initiatives, adds that taking on K-12 schools refined a role her school was already playing. "ASU produces more than half the teachers in Arizona. We are responsible for the education those teachers are getting, and we didn't feel like we were living up to the opportunity for changes (in pedagogy and training) that were possible."

The decision by ASU and other universities to develop and run elementary, middle, and high schools has had its roots over the last 10 to 15 years in the burgeoning charter school movement, which eschews the complications of union contracts, keeps enrollment to manageable numbers, and offers the chance to start from scratch.

"There's a whole bunch of headaches to partnering with an existing school that don't happen with your own school," notes Jeffrey Henig, an education professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. Deborah Stipek, the dean of Stanford's School of Education, which runs its own charter schools, has a similar outlook. "There are many collaborative partnerships that universities can have with schools," she says. "But if you're in a position where you're taking complete responsibility, you need to have complete control and that's not available in those other situations."

Still, school start-ups don't come without challenges. Besides having to form a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity to affiliate the schools with the university and providing $500,000 in seed money, Garcia and others involved in creating the new schools for ASU sought faculty involvement across the university. "We wanted some real engagement—people from the English department, law, engineering, the creative writing center," he says, noting that about 30 professors have continued to contribute to the new schools.

"ASU professors sat down with the director of curriculum and instruction and helped write all the curricula," recalls Polytechnic Principal Donna Bullock, adding that university professors from ASU's Polytechnic campus in Mesa still come over for in-services with math teachers, to advise students on science fair projects, and sometimes even to teach science. Fifth- and sixth-grade students spend three days on the ASU campus working with ASU students and professors on the university's Mars Imaging Project.

After its first year, Polytechnic Elementary ranked in the top 10 percent of Arizona schools, and while the largely middle-class student population may have contributed to the impressive start, ASU administrators already are seeing gains in student writing during the first year of the downtown Phoenix school, at which 60 percent of students are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, and 45 percent are identified as non-English speaking. "Demographics are 90 percent of the game," says Garcia. “Who are your kids and families, and what resources do they have? Our writing assessments show that kids downtown are doing as well as the kids at Polytechnic. Do we do it differently at the downtown campus? Yes we do."

In launching its K-12 schools, ASU has been paving a two-way street. "Now that the schools are established, our faculty are seeing them as an opportunity for more meaningful and flexible partnerships, and an opportunity to scale up the work that they've been doing," says de los Santos, noting that ASU professors have been particularly successful in securing grants for research at the university's schools compared to other schools in the area. That research includes topics such as the effects of digital learning, educational gaming, and various math-teaching approaches.

ASU graduate students are focusing their school-based research on the impact of pre-reading programs in kindergarten and using manipulatives—illustrative props during storytelling sessions—to improve student comprehension. "Now we have a place where we can try these things," says Garcia. "Our school downtown is doing some wonderful things with robotics. Our faculty of engineering might not be as welcome at other schools."

One of the universities visited by ASU officials during their planning process was the 10-year-old Preuss School, which was founded as a charter by the University of California, San Diego and continues to leverage UCSD's broad-based involvement.

Associate Chancellor Sandra Daley, who is UCSD's chief diversity officer and chair of the Preuss school board, recalls the university's science outreach programs during her years studying at the medical school in the 1970s, but she says that the 800 students currently enrolled in the K-12 school represent a much larger investment.

"Preuss School is essentially the culmination of that commitment, the ultimate expression of that desire to prepare students for the university," Daley observes.

In creating its own school, UCSD has also changed the dimensions of education as usual. The school was designed with an intensive summer program and lengthened school year. "We're running a school that is a 'school-plus'" Daley insists. "This isn't just another school that's co-located on our campus. It has embedded in it an expanded curriculum and an expanded school year with the goal that you graduate and go to college."

"We have a strong college-bound curriculum and a single-track curriculum," adds Preuss Principal Scott Barton. "If we have an AP class in a particular subject, everyone takes it." With 100 percent of its students from low-income families, Preuss has lived up to its billing. Of the 2009 graduating class, 95 percent got into four-year colleges. "We accepted almost 30 percent of the graduating students at UCSD, and 40 percent of those elected to come here," says Daley, who notes that the university contributes about $1 million to Preuss' annual budget, as well as provides a wide range of infrastructure support, from financial management to fundraising.

UCSD faculty provide ongoing professional development to Preuss teachers and after-school science enrichment programs to students. More than 100 UCSD students serve as tutors and mentors to their Preuss counterparts. Preuss students serve as interns at 45 UCSD offices to fulfill the requirements of a senior "Professionalism" course. And UCSD education majors completing their student teaching at Preuss often end up as full-time teachers there. "It's a great feeder program," Barton acknowledges.

At Stanford, the School of Education has taken the lead in managing its two neighboring charter schools, East Palo Alto Charter School and the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. "We are deeply committed to reform, and this was a way not just to talk about it but to just do it," says Education Dean Deborah Stipek.

"It also grounds my faculty," Stipek continues. "They're training teachers and school leaders, and I think you learn a lot more when you're running a school than when you're studying other schools. And faculty doing mostly research are more likely to ask questions relevant to what practitioners need answers to."

Stanford Professor Claude Goldenberg works with children from non-English speaking homes. "We're trying to help [schools] figure out what to do with their large population of English-language learners," he says, with an eye to making state-mandated language assessments more instructionally useful. He adds that the easier access he gains at the university charter schools makes a big impression at a time when schools are struggling to meet escalating state and federal standards on declining budgets. "I've never had such a hard time recruiting schools for studies. Resources are so constrained and people [who work] in schools feel like they're in strait jackets."

"The other difference is there is an attempt to coordinate the different research activities so our work will add up to a whole that's greater than its parts," Goldenberg adds, noting that it helps his work on language square with other Stanford studies on classroom management and the effective use of interactive whiteboards.

Not all K-12 endeavors work out. The University of South Florida started the USF Patel Charter School in 1998 with high hopes and an ambitious agenda. Stephanie Jackson, who helped found the school as the associate director for the university's At Risk Institute, recruited students from a Tampa neighborhood nicknamed "Suitcase City" for the transient history of its inhabitants.

"We walked the streets to get people to sign up," recalls Jackson. "We wanted to get kids who had not had much educational opportunity, and needed intensive services, from school psychologists to social workers. We had the best and brightest professors helping the teachers there and South Florida students doing student teaching. There really was a committed effort (led by the university president and the dean of the education school) to do good things for these at-risk kids."

'Because they're public schools, you're accountable to "public meeting" laws. The governance issues are complex and you need to create a governance system that is transparent and meets state and city regulations.' -Timothy Knowles, The University of Chicago Urban Education Institute

That all changed several years later, Jackson says, when the university and education school administrations changed hands. "The new president and new dean didn't do anything. They went from having a lot of people interacting and providing services to kids to turning their backs." Two years ago, USF Patel received an "F" according to the state's school evaluation system, and USF turned the charter over to the city school district.

Jackson notes that within a year, under the district’s management, the school became an "A-rated" school. "What does that say about the university? It was a ready-made laboratory for that university. It was on the campus. Why couldn't they support this place?"

Experts on K-12 education offer some answers. Columbia's Henig cautions about taking a top-down approach to school ownership: "It makes a big difference whether this is something initiated by the president or dean without strong faculty support."

"It's got to be an institutional commitment. There is no exit strategy," adds Timothy Knowles, executive director of The University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, which manages four charter schools.

Those universities that are, so far, succeeding with their charter schools offer plenty of additional advice, starting with the admonition not to underestimate the costs of the undertaking. There's the start-up costs to consider. ASU reports spending about $500,000, and $250,000 to $500,000 is generally estimated for anyone looking to begin a charter school. Stanford's Stipek notes that there's also an ongoing, in-kind contribution from universities to their schools, from financial and informational technology services to the time donated by administrators working directly with the schools. "I spend a huge amount of time with these schools," says Stipek. The university also contributes $2 million annually to their budgets, she adds.

"Universities need to be able to raise money," says Knowles. "To do what we think is right in our schools, we raise money consistently," on the order of $4 million a year to augment the state's per-pupil contribution. Be prepared also to face new kinds of governance and public accountability, he continues. "Because they're public schools, you're accountable to 'public meeting' laws. The governance issues are complex and you need to create a governance system that is transparent and meets state and city regulations."

"It's very scary. It's very public," Stipek admits. "Running schools in an urban community is a very difficult task for anyone. And you're making the university vulnerable in that there's no guarantee of success. The Stanford president and trustees don't want to have a headline that says 'Stanford School Fails.' It's not for the faint of heart."

ASU, meanwhile, is thinking big, with plans to open additional charter schools in south Phoenix in 2011 and at the university's West Campus in 2012, where Garcia plans to tap the expertise of several resident Nobel Laureates. The eventual hope is to take the best practices generated at the new charter schools and scale them across districts throughout Arizona. "The way we will measure our success is not whether we create a successful charter school," Garcia explains, "but to what extent we can make a difference to the surrounding schools."

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer who also covers K-12 education management for University Business' sister publication District Administration.