What’s “Radical” About Colleges Supporting K-12?

I was fortunate enough to be on leave during the spring semester and so was surprised to learn at the first faculty meeting that Trinity College, where I teach, had launched a new initiative to partner with the Hartford Magnet Middle School (HMMS).  The Hartford Magnet Middle School, located right across Broad Street from the College, is one of the nation’s most successful.  About half its students, selected strictly by lottery, come from Hartford, one of the nation’s poorest and largely minority cities; the other half come from the surrounding towns.  Trinity is a small, selective, and expensive liberal arts college, one of only two or three located within a substantial city; its campus is on the edge of Hartford’s Latino/a barrio, about a mile from the Connecticut State Capitol, in the middle of Hartford.  A decade or more ago, Trinity had been instrumental in developing a plan to turn an ancient trolley and bus barn across the street into a Learning Corridor containing a small group of schools, including the HMMS.  Now the College was challenged to take a next step in its relationship to educational institutions in the city of Hartford.

The center of the new plan is the extension of the middle school (grades 6-8) into high school (grades 9-12).  The new school is to be called the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy.   College faculty are being deployed to help teachers and others design the curriculum to insure that it is aimed at preparing students to enter college, whether at Trinity or elsewhere.  That’s the big goal: work with the students so that they will be able to enter and succeed in college.  Trinity faculty have already been co-teaching, with Academy teachers, pre- 9th grade writing and study skills in summer classes.  The plan is for College faculty next year to co-teach, with Academy teachers, pre-10th grade science and technology skills in summer classes.  There are a number of other elements to the plan, including the idea that Academy students will be able to take college level courses for credit in their senior year of high school, assuming they are qualified for them, and the like.

But my objective in this brief blog is not to lay out all the interesting details of the plan—and they do seem to me hopeful and even visionary.  It is, rather, to raise the question of the roles of colleges AND universities in supporting schools.  I come at this question with some skepticism.  Back in 1967-68 I was director of the first functioning community-controlled school in the nation, at the Morgan elementary school in Washington, DC.  I worked for the Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education, which had been brought into the process of taking on a public elementary school by well-meaning Antioch College alumni in the Adams-Morgan area of DC.  The title of the article I wrote about that project, “The Short Happy Life of the Adams-Morgan Community School Project” (Harvard Educational Review, 1968), expresses something of my feelings about the problems that arose, especially because the College’s priorities and those of the dominantly black community were not—to say the least of it—always consonant.

The situation in Hartford appears markedly different: the College is situated across the street from the school; there are no conflicts within the community as there were in DC about our “black power” curriculum; the middle school is already a successful, well-led enterprise rather than a failing place in a corrupt system, as was the case in Washington.  But I’m curious to what extent other post-secondary institutions have succeeded in becoming significant parts of, especially, urban school development, where the shoes have pinched, where the limits of volunterism and college student learning processes in fact interfere with secondary education.  I’m also interested, since this is the Radical Teacher blog, in asking whether the kinds of reforms implicit in this project are in any meaningful sense “radical,” or whether they constitute just one more mechanism by which American political entities are shifting responsibility for implementing useful educational change to third parties.

I am not in this instance a doubting Thomas.  It does seem to me that the HMMS-Trinity project provides a useful opening for looking at such partnerships and assessing their future.

By Paul Lauter

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