Working Hand in Hand
Alliances between school districts and community-based
organizations are serving students in ways that neither
group can do alone.
TO 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
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
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
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
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
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 www.thejournal.com.
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.