Penn project boosts inner-city expectations

January 9, 2004

At a school on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus in the low-income West Philadelphia neighbourhood, seven-year-olds learn foreign languages and play musical instruments.

The contrast with most US schools, which teach languages only in higher grades and hardly offer music at any level, is striking.

Class sizes are capped at 17 for the youngest students and 23 for older ones, compared with an average of 30 at most US schools. Students score above the national average on standard tests in reading, writing, maths and science.

The Penn Alexander School is part of the Philadelphia Public Schools system, the sixth-largest district in America, with 200,000 students. Some 200 of the city's 260-plus schools fall short of government requirements for reading and maths. Sixty-three per cent of black ten-year-olds in the system cannot read proficiently.

The school was set up and partly underwritten by the University of Pennsylvania, in the same way that many other American universities have forged partnerships with primary schools in their neighbourhoods.

The Penn project appears to be the first in which a university has helped to develop a new public school in collaboration with the local school district and the teachers' union. It took more than a year to hammer out the details. The student body is 57 per cent black, 19 per cent white, 18 per cent Asian and 6 per cent Hispanic.

"We have an interest in having this school be a demonstration of how a public school could be successful," said Nancy Streim, associate dean of the university's Graduate School of Education. "We have a moral responsibility to strengthen the pipeline so that there are more young people who are prepared to be contributing citizens to our society."

Penn's location in a high-crime neighbourhood has deterred applicants.

Judith Rodin, the university's president, said the deterioration of the neighbourhood "presented both a moral challenge to a university that was founded to serve humanity, as well as a general threat to Penn's safety".

The university supplied and landscaped the site for the school, and granted an operating stipend of $1,000 a year (£559) for each of the 700 students. Faculty and staff helped devise the curriculum and designed the $19 million school building.

Dr Streim said: "Universities do it for different reasons. In some cases it is to strengthen their teacher education programme, some are looking for good research sites. In some cases it is to stabilise their community. That was part of the interest at Penn."

University support for community schools takes many forms. The University of California responded to cuts in arts programmes in state schools by providing scholarships to advanced arts students, who are then expected to return and work with schoolchildren. Berea College in Kentucky helped set up an entire independent school district. Columbia University in New York opened a private school.

In about 40 per cent of these projects, the universities themselves provide the largest share of the funding, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Public school districts and private donors underwrite the rest.

Not all of these collaborations work smoothly. The independent college association found that nearly half the partnerships report a lack of funding and communication.

But Ms Rodin called the trend "a hopeful sign", especially in low-income inner-city areas. Universities' involvement in local schools would reverse "decades of erosion in the quality of urban public education", she said.

Details: www.phila.k12.pa.us/schools/pennalexander/

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