Public schools in the United States have never faced greater pressure or more difficult challenges. This is particularly true for our nation’s urban centers, but it extends to most communities throughout the country. In an environment of declining enrollments, limited resources, changing demographics, close public scrutiny, charter schools, school choice, and vouchers, our public schools are expected to do more with less while meeting rigorous standards established under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). These are not new challenges, but the imperative to meet NCLB standards is now critical.
Eliminating the academic achievement gap between majority and minority students is the most important, yet most difficult, challenge facing schools today. Despite persistent efforts to reform public schools since the Nation at Risk Report in 1983, little significant progress has been made in reducing the achievement gap. According to Jencks and Phillips, “the typical American black still scores below 75% of American whites on most standardized tests. On some tests the typical American black scores below more than 85% of whites.”1 The achievement gap is also visible in other educational success factors such as grades, test scores, dropout rates, and college entrance/completion rates.2 Consequently, it is not surprising that minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are disproportionately underrepresented in health and science programs and occupations. As an example, Carline and Patterson3 report,
Despite a plethora of programs and a vast amount of resource investment, the proportion of underrepresented minorities entering the health sciences has not dramatically improved. For example, in 1980, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans comprised 11.3 percent of entering medical students. In 2003, the proportion of entering students from these same groups had increased to only 13.2 percent.
Clearly, there remains a great need to effectively increase, assist, and support minority students in their academic and career pursuits.
In 1998, the Ypsilanti Public Schools, under my leadership, began a partnership with the University of Michigan through a grant sponsored by the Health Professions Partnership Initiative. The purpose of the grant was to improve the academic achievement of the school district’s minority students, particularly African Americans, and to increase their interest in pursuing careers in the health professions. The HOPE (Health Occupations Partners in Education) partnership project involved other participants such as Washtenaw Community College; the Minister’s Alliance of Ypsilanti; the Ypsilanti/ Willow Run NAACP; Parke-Davis; the Washtenaw County Black Nurses Association; the Washtenaw County Task Force on African American Health; the Association of Multicultural Scientists; the University of Michigan’s Schools of Dentistry, Education, Social Work, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health; the University of Michigan Medical School; and the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers. Over time, this partnership has become a significant part of the school district’s overall plan to reduce and eliminate the achievement gap.
The initial planning and development of the partnership program took a significant amount of discussion, time, and effort by its members to address the litany of issues that arose. Often, many of these issues and ideas were in conflict with each other. This seemed especially true because of the large number and differing perspectives of the stakeholders involved. There were also a number of factors related to the development and conduct of a partnership that needed to be considered. Carline and Patterson provide an excellent summary and discussion of many of these in “Learning from Others: A Literature Review and How-to Guide from The Health Professions Partnership Initiative.”3 We encountered most of these same factors as Ypsilanti’s HOPE Partnership was being forged. However, there were three critical elements at the governance and leadership level that enabled the HOPE partnership to develop into a strong, effective program for students in the district: governance and policy support, involvement of key leadership in decision making, and use of a systemic change model.
Governance and Policy Support
One of the biggest challenges in the early stages of the partnership development process was addressing governance and policy issues. The two main partners, the University of Michigan and the Ypsilanti Public Schools, have governing boards. These governing boards maintain jurisdiction over all activities and functions of their respective institutions. Therefore, both boards needed to be made aware of the focus of the partnership and feel confident that the direction and implementation of the partnership complied with all policies (written and unwritten) of their institution. For example, common ground needed to be established in relevant policy matters, such as target population to be served, affirmative action initiatives, resource distribution and utilization, use of volunteers, goals and established priorities, and decision-making process. In this case, sufficient policy existed in both institutions to support the HOPE partnership. However, additional new policies could have been written, if needed, to enable the partnership to pursue its goals. Strategically, the president of Ypsilanti Public Schools Board of Education, Martha Taylor, was appointed to the Executive Committee of the HOPE partnership to assist in all matters related to governance and policy.
Another issue of governance was also addressed, shared governance. An Executive Committee and Partnership Council were formed to involve various stakeholders of the HOPE partnership, to seek their input, and to garner their support. Quasi-governance and policy-making responsibilities were assumed by both of these committees. The main focus of the partnership, student academic improvement and health career recruitment, was readily understood and agreed upon, but the underlying principles by which these goals would be met were often debated. In many cases these discussions went beyond the scope of the committee structure. This caused some confusion and conflict until the roles, responsibilities, and parameters for their work were clarified and agreed upon. The development of bylaws and guidelines for the operation of these bodies prior to their convening probably would have eased this problem.
Key Leadership in Decision Making
Leadership and the decision-making process was another critical element in the formation and functioning of the HOPE partnership. A commitment by partnership institutions to involve their key leaders in the partnership’s development process was essential. Several issues, such as budget and resource allocation, personnel hiring, accountability and liability for the partnership, scope and structure of the project, and priority setting, were among the critical decisions that needed to be made early in the partnership’s formation. Laying the groundwork to discuss and resolve these kinds of matters requires leaders who can speak with authority on behalf of their institutions. It also requires a constructive and open relationship between and among the leaders and a mutually developed plan to address the partnership’s many challenges.
Key leaders for the HOPE partnership were the superintendent of the Ypsilanti Public Schools (myself) and the vice president and secretary of the University of Michigan (Lisa Tedesco, PhD). In the HOPE partnership’s formative years both of us were visible, active participants in all committee and council meetings and activities. Agenda setting usually required us to communicate before and after meetings. Patience, flexibility, trust and understanding were needed during meetings as partnership members engaged in discussions that often became emotionally charged. Although the University of Michigan is the lead institution for the partnership, a strong bond at the leadership level for both institutions was needed to productively manage committee work in the first few years. Once the basic framework, focus, and parameters of the partnership were established, other key administrators such as building principals took a stronger leadership and decision-making role as it related to implementation of the program.
Two important decisions for the partnership that received a great deal of attention early in the partnership’s formation were the allocation of resources and the scope and focus of services to students. Obviously, these two factors were inextricably related and generated a variety of opinions from partnership members. Given the limited amount of money available through the partnership grant and the school district’s tight budget, it was important to develop a cost-effective approach that would meet the grant’s goals while reaching as many students as possible. Some members argued that the partnership should identify only a handful of academically successful minority students and nurture them through high school in preparation for college and subsequent training in the health professions. Others argued that the partnership should support a program in grades K–12 because students’ academic success needs to be supported beginning in the early years. Still others felt the program should be open to all students regardless of race so as not to discriminate and cast a negative shadow on the program and those receiving the partnership’s support and services. Strong leadership and policy influenced the decision that the HOPE partnership would provide services to all interested middle school and high school students who wished to participate in the program. The school district agreed to target the elementary schools with majority of its Title 1 funds, which subsequently became necessary to comply with NCLB. Importantly, Carline and Patterson3 point out through their research that this kind of approach is characteristic of effective and successful HPPI programs across the country.
Systemic Change Model
Creating change in public schools is difficult. Sustaining that change can be even more difficult. Daniel P. Johnson, a veteran school superintendent, reminds us, “Change is not simply about doing what we do better, changing everything we do, switching those involved in implementing the change, or modifying how the change is implemented. It is about rethinking how goals, programs, and services fit together to keep pace with a changing world. Changing our public schools is a qualitative issue rather than a compliance issue.”4 Meaningful, sustainable change requires a systemic model that must be applicable and implemented district wide.
In 1996, the Ypsilanti Public Schools, under my direction, initiated a system-wide change model to improve students’ academic performance for all students, and to reduce and ultimately eliminate the achievement gap between white and black students in the district. The change model that I developed, called The Ten Point Plan, identified ten factors that directly affect students’ academic achievement. These ten factors, in combination, created the framework for school improvement planning and program implementation for the Ypsilanti Public Schools and the HOPE partnership. The following are the ten factors and some brief examples of their applicability to the HOPE partnership.
- Curriculum alignment. Curriculum must be aligned in each school and across each grade level to ensure that students are being taught the knowledge and skills to be academically successful. The scope and sequencing of subject matter must provide an adequate knowledge base and skill set prior to academic testing. HOPE partners worked with school personnel to ensure that that curriculum offerings and their sequencing in grades six through twelve would enable HOPE students to meet college and university entry requirements.
- Test-taking and study skills. Students must be taught the methods and strategies needed for taking academic achievement tests, and taught in ways that model testing standards and expectations. Students must be taught effective ways in which to study and prepare for academic achievement testing. The HOPE program provided all students with study skills instruction and assisted students with test preparation.
- Instructional strategies. Students construct meaning in different ways. These differences are exhibited through different learning styles. Instructional strategies must be varied and targeted to meet individuals’ learning-style needs, congruent with desired levels of cognition, and relevant to cultural experiences and meaning for each student. The HOPE program collaborated with teachers to provide a variety of culturally relevant, hands-on experiences and activities for HOPE students that reinforced classroom instruction.
- Reteaching. Students learn in different ways and at different paces. Despite varied and multiple opportunities for learning, some students still need more time than do their peers to develop knowledge and skills. Some may forget what was once learned. Students must have opportunities to relearn and review prior knowledge and skills or be given additional instruction to learn the required curriculum. The HOPE program provided students with tutoring and instruction after school and during the summer to assist them in their classes. Often, classroom teachers would provide this instruction in cooperation with HOPE partnership members and staff.
- High expectations and standards. High expectations and standards for all students were found to be one of the correlates of Ronald Edmonds’ “Effective Schools” research.5 A commitment to the belief that all students can learn, and that all students learn differently, is essential. Clear and concise expectations and high standards must be established and communicated. All students must be held to these high standards and expectations. HOPE partners and staff worked with students and their families to establish high academic standards and career goals. Individual student’s plans were developed in cooperation with school counselors to meet these expectations. In addition, standards and expectations were established for students to entitle them to full participation and services in the HOPE program.
- Diversity. Students and teachers tend to adhere to distinct, culturally based ways in the school setting. This can often lead to misunderstandings and barriers in the teaching and learning process. Teachers must find ways to recognize the culture of their students and incorporate it into their teaching. The school district must recognize that role models are critically important to the psychological, social, and academic development of students. HOPE staff members were recruited and hired with diversity in mind. Tutors, guest speakers, and others represented positive role models for the diverse student population served through the HOPE program.
- Staff development. Research has shown a direct relationship between staff development activities, improved quality and effectiveness of teaching, and improved achievement in students. Research-based “best practices” must be employed in the teaching and learning process. HOPE staff received continuous training in how to best assist students in their educational and career endeavors. Teaching staff was also provided opportunities for staff development and training through our university and community partners.
- Parents’ involvement. Parents and schools are partners that share responsibility in the education and development of students. Research has shown a direct relationship between parents’ involvement in their child’s education and improved academic performance. The HOPE program expects parents to participate in many of its activities. Parents play a key role in the membership of committees and in the council, and they may also serve as guest speakers for student programs. Many HOPE partnership programs are designed specifically for joint participation by students and parents.
- Community involvement. The quality of life within a community largely depends on the health of its public schools. Investment in our schools is an investment in our communities’ futures. Schools must find ways to involve their community to help build better programs and opportunities for students. Community members, organizations, and businesses are an integral part of the make up of the HOPE partnership. Various organizations, departments, and businesses contribute time, resources, and input into the operation and administration of the HOPE partnership. Learning opportunities are provided for students in many community settings. Mentoring of students by adults from the community is also provided.
- Time on task. Schools must find more time and use time more effectively to improve the academic achievement of all of its students. The HOPE program provides students with academic assistance after school, on weekends, and during the summer. Regular school attendance and participation in HOPE activities is expected of all HOPE students.
The HOPE partnership has become an important part of the Ypsilanti school district’s overall student achievement improvement plan. The partnership’s success is due to the collective vision, knowledge, dedication, and commitment of all of its partners. The HOPE partnership would not be possible without the support, assistance, and funding from outside sources. Experience in the HOPE partnership has shown us that it is critical to involve key leaders and policymakers in the formation of these partnerships, especially those who are able to be effective in a shared-leadership environment. Establishing a partnership that has a clearly defined focus, is supported by policy and guiding principles, and is embedded in a systemic plan has proven to be an effective approach able to withstand leadership and other personnel changes and the continuous barrage of new mandates and initiatives from local, state, and federal agencies.