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The Benefits of University-Public School Partnerships

At 6:52 one Friday morning last semester, as I was on my way to a local high school to meet my Foundations of Urban Ed class for our weekly field experience, I got the following instructions from one of my students via text message:

Here are your lyrics for the rap. Memorize them and don’t mess it up!

My name is Doc P. and I’m so official

I’m here to regulate and I’ll blow that whistle

So start us up, we’re ticking bombs

Just like Twitter, we’re the

Here’s a little background: The previous week during field observations in a West Philadelphia high school, my seven students had correctly assessed that 10th graders are not very awake and ready to learn at the unethical hour of 7:30 a.m. So my students — some of them being from Philly themselves — decided they should sing, dance, rap and take other creative risks to get the 10th graders up and ready to learn. And as I found out on my way to school that morning, that week I was in on it, too.

I would come to see this pattern for the rest of the semester — not us performing posse cuts for high school students, but my pre-service teachers taking fearless risks to improve the learning of young people in one urban school. All of this was enabled through university-public school partnerships, which got me thinking about all of the incredible benefits that can follow when institutions of higher education make it a priority to connect with public schools in a systematic way. Here are three main benefits that I observed last semester:

1) Seeing firsthand that not all high school students see college as a viable option for them. My students were dumbfounded that one of the most talented 10th graders in class, Dante (a pseudonym), had no interest in going to college. “How is that possible!?” my students exclaimed. “He’s so smart!” Of course, many college students always thought they would go to college, so meeting someone talented enough to do the same but having no such desire is confusing to say the least. Over the semester, my students made it a point to try to understand from Dante’s point of view why college was not necessary or why he had no interest. Naturally, my students also tried to shift his vision to see the long-term benefits of college and that he was “college material.” It was an ongoing struggle and it was an important one for emerging educators to face.

2) Humanizing college for high school students. Many of the 10th graders in our partnered school had never set foot on a college campus, and many would be first-generation students if they decided to go after graduation. In this context, college was as vague for some of them as going to Russia or the moon. But, having actual college students with them every week and bringing them to college for a whole day of activities put the vague notion of college into a human form. At Lincoln, they asked questions like “Do you get enough food?” and “How are the beds in the rooms?” They also asked if you have to pay for college all at once. These questions surprised many of my students, and the answers helped make college seem like an actual, realistic feat.

3) Giving up control. Working in a university-school partnership also made me give up control. As a well-trained control freak, it was nearly impossible to give up the role of puppet master as my students took control in the field teaching and leading. In fact, my first urge upon reading my rap lyrics was to ask my students why on earth they had such a strong desire to embarrass themselves. Instead, I had to humble myself, trust their pedagogical intuition and find a beat on the radio so I could practice my part. (Me go out like a chump? Never that!). The benefits of the partnership for my students would have been minimal if I had given into my urges to control, correct and orchestrate what happened in the field. These were good lessons for me to learn.

The crux of the issue with university-school partnership is that they must be systematic and tailored to the institution. They cannot simply depend on the efforts of individual faculty members going above and beyond the proverbial call of duty. If partnerships are the latter, they certainly will be temporary, fleeting and not produce the kinds of benefits that my students and I experienced last semester.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences and lives.

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