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SUNY launches plan to link K-12 schools and social services

A new effort to improve public elementary and secondary education in New York State is coming not from the government, but its state university.

State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, who has been in office for less than a year, unveiled the university’s plans to create an approximation of the “community schools” that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan champions. These schools offer not only classes, but also health care, after-school programs and services for parents all in the same building. The model of connecting schools to social services may ring a bell to New York City residents familiar with the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Zimpher said.

But rather than uniting many services under one roof or through one over-arching organization, as the Harlem project does, SUNY plans to help disparate community and government groups coordinate their efforts and judge their outcomes. For example, programs for toddlers would work with elementary schools to make sure their programs prepares the children for school.

“This is about using the community resources that already exist, but connecting them in a way that maximizes their impact,” said Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the SUNY deputy chancellor charged with identifying where the program will launch.

SUNY officials expect the program to launch in three to six sites, selected through a competitive process, Duncan-Poitier said. And while the university plans to look statewide for possible sites, “New York City is a real possibility,” she said.

The university’s plan fits into wider state and national policy initiatives that emphasize using data to follow students through the stages of their education and measure college-readiness. “Our interventions [will be] data-driven, our outcomes evidence-based and our progress publicly reported,” Zimpher said in an overview of the plan presented this morning in Lower Manhattan.

Zimpher helped develop a similar program, called “Strive,” in Ohio and northern Kentucky in her previous job as president of the University of Cincinnati. The program has already begun to be replicated by several universities in cities around the country, including in Houston, Indianapolis and Richmond, Va.

Community organizations partner with schools and school districts all the time. But Zimpher and Duncan-Poitier said that it was unusual for such a wide variety of groups to coordinate towards the singular goal of raising student achievement and graduation rates.

Another project Zimpher wants to take on is improving the state’s pool of teachers. With that in mind, the university system is planning to overhaul its existing teacher training programs with a new “urban-rural teacher corps,” a program that will train teachers for classrooms in needy districts through a heavier emphasis on in-class instruction.

Duncan-Poitier acknowledged it will be a challenge to marshal the resources required for overhauling its large teacher training program, which prepares more teachers than any other institution in the state. Similar residency programs that have launched in New York and around the country have been notably small and labor-intensive, and SUNY has faced large budget cuts for several years running and is likely to see more hefty cuts this year. But Duncan-Poitier insisted that the university system has the capacity to ramp up its teacher training overhaul quickly, and launch its new fast-track master’s program as early as the fall.

“We’re going to do this,” Duncan-Poitier said. “And if it means reinvesting our resources in different ways, that’s what we’re going to do.”