Working Hand in Hand


Alliances between school districts and community-based organizations are serving students in ways that neither group can do alone.

Working Hand in HandTO FIND OUT HOW WELL the Get Healthy Harlem program is working with her middle school students, Rafiah Mustafa needs only to walk down to the lunchroom. That's where she can observe firsthand how the lessons of nutrition and diet have affected the kids' attitudes toward food and healthy eating.

"Even on days when I don't have lunch duty, I still will come into the cafeteria because it gives me an opportunity to talk to students outside the classroom," says Mustafa, a science teacher at the Academy of Collaborative Education, a New York City school that offers intensive math and technology instruction. "I hear them talk about the cafeteria's food, how some of it's too greasy or how there should be more servings of vegetables. Normally, they wouldn't even consider that; it wasn't even something they would discuss, even though we had talked about diet."

The Get Healthy Harlem program was launched after Michelle Paterson, the wife of New York Gov. David Paterson, approached New York City's Community School District 5 Superintendent Gale Reeves about developing a program to fight teenage obesity. In the subsequent effort to bring the program to fruition, District 5, which encompasses Central Harlem, turned to The National Urban Technology Center.

Urban Tech, as it is known, is a New York City-based organization that works with schools to teach students the life skills it believes are necessary for academic achievement and workforce readiness. Its Youth Leadership Academy program uses a variety of computer-based, interactive elements to educate students on such topics as personal appearance and substance abuse prevention. By the summer of 2007, Reeves was meeting with District 5 principals about introducing parts of the YLA program, which contains lessons on nutrition and healthy living, into science classes in 11 middle schools at the start of 2008. With a number of elementary school officials expressing interest in the program, Reeves expanded it to 13 elementary schools at the start of the current school year.

Urban Tech is a shining example of the kinds of partnerships developing between school systems and community organizations to provide instructional support to K-12 students, as well as help get computers and internet access to lower-income families where no such resources were before.

Urban Tech Founder and President Patricia Bransford spent 25 years working for IBM before deciding she wanted to use her high-tech background to enrich the education of students from low-income families. She launched the company in 1995 with the mission of installing technology centers in disadvantaged communities. Along the way, she determined that her organization needed to do more to provide a foundation for learning. The YLA program was the result.

The program's curriculum is organized around 11 modules-- "themes," Bransford calls them-- including goal setting, self-discovery, teamwork, and conflict resolution. It began as offline courseware but was moved entirely online in 2000 to make it more appealing to its young users. The curriculum is now delivered through computer animation, interactive exercises, online journaling, and internet-based research. "Technology is the gateway, the real bridge to kids learning," Bransford says. "We made it very interactive, using tech-based activities kids gravitate to."

"Our problem is that there is not pervasive technology in schools. Classrooms may have one or two computers. So we're looking at iPhones and other appliances that students can use to get access to this interactive curriculum." While Urban Tech had previously offered the YLA program in other schools and distrcts in New York and New Jersey, its work with District 5 advocating good nutritional habits is its biggest project to date.

Mustafa says that it's not only the lunchroom where she sees the benefits of the YLA approach. In her own science classroom, she observes a high level of student engagement in the Get Healthy Harlem content, which is all aligned with New York state curriculum standards. "We do the modules together in class, and then we have smaller breakout sessions where students can go to the desktop computers and play some of the different games," she says.

Keys to a Winning Partnership

WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL technology-based partnership between a school district and a community organization? Good intentions are a start, but dedication on many fronts is needed.

Commitment from the top. The National Urban Technology Center (Urban Tech) is the rare organization that can get high-profile support from the likes of the wife of the then lieutenant governor of New York and pop music icon Elton John (who contributed $300,000 to the program's HIV/AIDS awareness effort), but company Founder and President Patricia Bransford asserts that adoption at a level of a mayor or deputy mayor is still salient. "There needs to be a commitment to making sure the right equipment is in the classroom, that it's in working order, that your teachers are trained," she says. "Those are all the important success factors for us, and if we can get that kind of commitment at very high levels, then we know that we can be successful."

Sufficient professional development. "There are a number of organizations that have great ideas that would be great to implement in your classroom, but if you're not trained properly to use the materials, it may not come to fruition," says Rafiah Mustafa, a science teacher whose middle school has adopted Urban Tech's Get Healthy Harlem program. Urban Tech partnered with nearby Bank Street College of Education to provide training for the teachers involved in the program.

The Durham, NC-based Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology program follows a simple principle: If you can't get teachers to come to you for development, you need to go to them. "We found that it was really hard pulling teachers in for regular professional development workshops," says the program's project coordinator, David Stein. "So instead of bringing them to campus, we hired graduate and medical school students as teaching associates, and they were paired up with teachers and provided 100 hours of support and teaching and help with labs and content knowledge in the schools."

Parental involvement. By providing poor families with computers and free online access through the Palm Beach County Broadband Initiative, The Mentoring Center in Palm Beach County, FL, extends the value of technology deeper into the community. "Parents have said that they and their children will be able to be competitive and access the resources that are available online as a result of this [initiative]," says Debi Stewart, a communications specialist for the School District of Palm Beach County. "And every single one of them sees it as a gift."

One such game is called Cause and Effects. Explains Craig Patches, Urban Tech's multimedia development manager and the creator of all of its interactive content, students drag food onto the skeletal structure of a cartoon mannequin, delivering to each body part the most appropriate food item. For example, drag milk onto the bones and a narrative voice explains calcium and its benefits.

Patches believes the component that is central to the YLA program's ability to engage students is its user interface, which has the appearance of a media player, offering students the opportunity to choose from several different icons and then navigate to the material. He says that Urban Tech's pitch to districts is simple: "Here's how we can integrate our program with your mandated health curriculum to make it more engaging for your students."

Superintendent Reeves attests to the change in attitude Get Healthy Harlem has created. She says, "I've heard many more of our students really talking about paying attention to making life choices pertaining to the food that they select."

Shrinking the Digital Divide

Like Bransford, Lisa Wilson, who had stints at 3Com and USRobotics, opted to bring her professional high-tech expertise to bear on the education of lower-income students. That decision led her to found The Mentoring Center, which mostly serves students in Florida's School District of Palm Beach County.

The cornerstone of the center's partnership with SDPBC is the shared effort of the two organizations to bring computers and internet access to poorer families. As part of a "digital divide" initiative to provide poorer students with the same access to technology that students from more affluent families enjoy, the center acts as a clearinghouse for the surplus of old computers the district has no further use for and delivers them to nonprofit organizations in the community, which then use them in the instruction of lower-income students.

Wilson says that the impetus for the project was a survey performed nearly three years ago by Rich Contartesi, director of educational technology for SDPBC, which found that at least 50,000 of Palm Beach County's 170,000 students did not have computers in their homes.

Contartesi approached The Mentoring Center with his idea of refurbishing the thousands of computers that are retired from Palm Beach County classrooms every five years and shelved in a district warehouse. The PCs would be spruced up by Palm Beach County technology students and then redistributed by Wilson's organization. "The kids work through a refurbishing agenda that we created for them," Wilson says. "They upgrade operating systems, add freeware, clean and run quality assurance checks. They learn key job skills that can be included on their resumes or college applications."

The Mentoring Center and the district entered into a formal agreement on the initiative in January 2006. "We determined that over the next five years we would have 29,000 computers to retire, refurbish, and redistribute," Wilson says.

The next year, Wilson's group joined with the Palm Beach County Wireless Broadband Initiative, a collaboration among local agencies to provide free wireless access and computer and internet training to lowincome county residents. The move gave the digital divide project free access to the county's fiber network. "Now when we give out free computers," Wilson says, "families within the mile radius of our antenna also have internet access. The students now have access to all of the tools that the higherincome students do, so they can use online learning tools, research their science projects, or use PowerPoint, Excel, and Word to complete written assignments."

Another aspect of The Mentoring Center is its tutoring program. The center is a stateapproved supplemental educational service, provided for in the No Child Left Behind Act as a means of offering free tutoring to students in schools that consistently fall short of state standards. Wilson says the tutoring is grounded in technology-based drills, using digitally animated lessons, virtual manipulatives, speed reading software, and online role-playing games that provide interactive instruction in the format students respond to today.

Wilson says a county study comparing the performance of the various tutoring companies employed by the school district rated The Mentoring Center in the top three. "I have to attribute that to not just the environment we create in our labs and the way we deliver the materials, but to the fact that [our program] is animated and interactive and uses gaming," she says. "If we don't start teaching the way our kids think and play today, we will continue to keep the entire nation behind in developing the innovative, first-to-market, high-tech tools of tomorrow." Bringing Teachers up to Speed Increasing the availability of software tools for students who generally have the least access to them is also the goal of the Adobe Youth Voices program. Established in 2006, the program provides training in the software company's mediacreation programs, such as Photoshop and Premiere, for educators from six major North American cities.

"If we don't start teaching the way our kids think and play today, we will continue to keep the entire nation behind in developing the innovative, first-to-market, high-tech tools of tomorrow."

Adobe's offices in Boston; New York City; Ottawa, ON; San Francisco; San Jose, CA; and Seattle work with local groups to determine which school and community projects will be funded. Educators from each city are then selected to receive a week's worth of intensive training in the software tools so they can return to their communities and integrate the technology into their classrooms and programs. The teachers also return to their students with software and media-making hardware (digital cameras, video cameras, tripods, and microphones) donated by Adobe.

According to Tony Streit, senior project director for the Boston area-based Education Development Center, which provides the teacher training for Youth Voices, the educators he has worked with for the program are grateful to get up to speed on the technology that their students use regularly away from school. "Some of them feel like young people are a leap ahead of them-- actively involved in music making and podcasting and texting," he says. "Inserting these media-making tools into the classroom gives teachers a chance to make that part of the [academic] experience for young people."

Streit says mixing school teachers and community educators at the training sessions has proven key, allowing both groups "to share ideas and explore the various ways that they can synthesize this media making into their respective environments."

Lori Leberer can speak directly to the impact the program is having. As a teacher at Seattle's Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, a school serving immigrant newcomers in grades 6 to 12, she works with students whose starting level of English proficiency is measured as "nonspeaker." That makes implementing her Youth Voices training particularly challenging. Not only are the children learning a new language, but Leberer says many also have never even seen a pencil before, much less encountered multimedia software. "Some kids lack the manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination to make [the technology] really work well," she says.

Leberer says a classroom of her higher-level students struggled with last year's project, which was to create a multimedia piece around a community issue of their choice. Nonetheless, the projects did leave a substantial impression. A student's video about the Sichuan earthquake in China was played in the school lunchroom for a week and helped to raise $600 for the American Red Cross.

Leberer also says the number of school volunteers jumped after the projects were viewed in the surrounding neighborhood. Leberer believes this year's project, which entails students reading poems they've written in their literacy classes in front of a video camera and then editing the footage, should be even more effective. "They're going to have to become a lot more confident speakers in front of the camera," she says. "It will be a challenge for them, but I think it will be really good for their self-esteem when they're done with it."

Providing a BOOST

While many community partnerships bring technology into classrooms, there are other programs that take students to the technology. That's a major goal of the Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology (BOOST) program that the Duke University School of Medicine has undertaken with Durham Public Schools (NC).

According to David Stein, the program's project coordinator, BOOST has responded to Durham principals' concerns over the transition from fifth grade to sixth grade. Students' academic performance was suffering in the move to middle school, and there was also concern that underrepresented minorities were losing interest in a number of areas, including science.

"We put together a program that would start to catch students right as they're finishing fifth grade," Stein says, "get them together with cohorts and mentors in the summer before they start middle school, and then work with them throughout the year on research projects."

BOOST starts with a five-day immersion program that introduces the students to Duke's science facilities. They visit the labs of the graduate and medical students who serve as mentors, as well as experience the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DIVE), a six-sided virtual reality chamber that lets the children examine DNA molecules and human-patient simulator labs, in which they can perform virtual operations.

Twenty incoming sixth-graders are selected for the program every year, based on teacher suggestions and informal staff interactions with program candidates. The students meet a certain profile, according to Stein: "They may not have been strong achievers in the past, but their teachers think they have tremendous potential to excel with the right support. We actually don't even look at their grades. But we'll use teacher recommendations and go out and visit the schools and bring all sorts of science challenges and see how they approach problems."

Two students in the program are paired with the same mentor, and each student receives a refurbished Duke computer. The students meet with their mentors every other week to explore the research environment, do their own research, and visit museums, along with taking monthly science-based outings.

Though BOOST was conceived as a yearlong program, many participants do not want to leave when the year is up, which resulted in the development of adhoc programs to keep them involved. This year, BOOST was able to secure additional funding that allowed for 45 older students to stay on. "We are [now] looking at the bridge from fifth grade through ninth grade," Stein says, "feeling if we can get them through both the transition to middle school and to high school, there are a lot more programs that are available for promising kids."

A second element of the program is strengthening science teaching. Most of BOOST's professional development takes place during the one-week summer immersion experience at Duke. Participating Durham science teachers receive training as well as access to the same high-tech labs and facilities that the students visit. For Durham teacher Treva Fitts, who teaches science at E.K. Power Elementary School, the professional development program enables her to keep up with students who would otherwise move on to middle school and out of her life.

"I have some kids who are going into high school whom I'm still involved with," she says. "I actually worked with them last year, training them on how to teach science investigation." Fitts says that the students then took what they learned from her into a community center and worked with the students there, "so they became the mentors."

She cites one student, who wants to be an obstetrician, as an especially meaningful example of how the program can make an impact. "She's brilliant, but she doesn't have the resources," Fitts says. "BOOST has provided her with the resources, and she has hit the ground running. She had a chance to see an ultrasound machine and actually use it on herself. Now she can actualize her dream."

For more information on K-12/community partnerships, visit our website at Enter the keywords community partnerships.

Sean Portnoy is a freelance writer based in Voorhees, NJ.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.