Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Changing Urban Schools is Essential to America's Future

Closing the educational gap in this country has been rightly called "the civil rights issue of the 21st century." The drop out rate for Latinos and African Americans in many American cities is nearly twice that of whites. Fewer Latinos and African Americans attend college. Fewer still graduate from college. For example, for 100 Latino students who begin 9th grade only 53 will graduate from high school (compared to 75 whites) and only 10 of those will graduate from college in six years (compared to 23 whites). This achievement gap endangers our economy and our future.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, by 2020, the net loss to the U.S., if we don't close the achievement gap, is estimated to be $850 billion in lost income, revenues, and GDP. That number will grow to over $1 trillion by 2030, unless we eliminate the achievement gap.

President Obama's Race to the Top, seeks to simultaneously encourage schools to improve and raise the number of Americans completing some college education. Critical to success in this effort is the transformation of schools in the 50 biggest cities in America.

Houston, like any of the biggest cities in the country, needs to dramatically reduce high school dropout rates. Houston Independent School District and other districts also need to increase the number and percentage of students who graduate from high school ready for college.

We in higher education have an interest in ensuring that public schools are successful. After all, we receive the vast majority of our students from the public schools. And, in our case, the majority of them need remediation. Also, higher education institutions can do something about it, with high quality teacher education programs, K-12 partnerships, and community partnerships. At the University of Houston-Downtown, we take this responsibility seriously.

Urban schools have very distinct problems: crowded schools, little money or resources, and dangerous and deteriorating neighborhoods. Urban schools often lack basic resources that are common in suburban schools. Teachers need special skills to survive and succeed in urban schools.

A week ago, I visited with the faculty of the Urban Education Department at University of Houston-Downtown. The UHD Urban Education Department specializes in the problems of urban schools. UHD faculty research the specific problems and address the needs of schools in Houston.

The department focuses on creating teachers ready for the challenges they will confront in Houston schools. Our student teachers work in classrooms throughout Houston. Faculty help them develop curricula, they also provide on-going professional development for teachers in Houston schools. The department also produces excellent bilingual teachers, a must for Houston. Recently, the Urban Education department re-established the undergraduate high school teacher preparation program to focus on the special needs of urban high school teachers.

UHD Urban Education take a holistic approach. They not only focus on teachers and schools, but also engage the entire family to increase student success. For example, Urban Education faculty and students provide literacy nights and math nights in several schools. In partnership with the Fifth Ward Enrichment Center at Weatley High School, for example, they offer a special literacy program with teen fathers and their families to help them develop self-expression and clear educational goals.

UHD students apply what they learn in the classroom to real life. At Houston's House of Tiny Treasures, UHD faculty and early education students work in service learning projects and literacy programs with homeless toddlers, pre-schoolers, and their families.

UHD seems to be doing a pretty good job. According to HISD staff, teachers trained by UHD are more likely to stay in the profession than those of other several other nearby teacher education programs. They enjoy their profession and are more likely to pursue further education.

Also, UHD students and faculty are involved in service learning and community engagement efforts to improve K-12 performance. UHD partners with Project Grad Houston in five Houston schools. During the summer, middle school and high school students from the Project Grad schools attend special classes at UHD. The summer sessions help prepare students for college. The students attend classes, meet and study under regular UHD faculty, and they begin to realize they can and will succeed in college. UHD students mentor middle school and high school students in the five Project Grad schools.

Once the Project Grad students graduate from high school (having taken college preparatory courses and having achieved at least a 2.5 GPA) they get a scholarship from UHD along with a $4,000 from Project Grad. The result: more students from Project Grad Houston’s partner schools graduate ready for college and more students go on to college. Project Grad schools have reduced dropout rates by 26% and one of them, Jeff Davis High School, had the third lowest dropout rate in Houston this past year.

A large portion of those Project Grad students enter UHD because they’ve already been to our campus, studied with our faculty, and met our students. They know the quality of UHD programs and the close interaction UHD faculty have with their students.

UHD faculty and staff also partner with GEAR UP/Project Grad in offering an annual symposium for approximately 135 teachers from HISD teachers in the GEAR UP schools. This year, on December 5th, the symposium will bring high school teachers to UHD for professional development associated with College Readiness and assessment.

I have been very impressed by how UHD faculty, staff, and students are working to improve Houston's schools and student achievement through a variety of strategies: preparing better teachers with curricula and pedagogy designed for urban schools; encouraging undergraduate students to tutor and mentor high school and middle school through service learning courses and civic engagement projects; and partnering with community-based programs like Project Grad, GEAR UP, and Communities in the Schools.

And, from what I've seen, they are making a real difference. Keep up the great work!

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