Rich patrons wooed for the poorest pupils

29th August 2003 at 01:00

AMERICA's fifth-largest education authority has hatched a bold plan for local universities, businesses and cultural institutions to "adopt" cash-strapped schools.

Philadelphia, home to some of America's most dilapidated schools, is enlisting six universities to improve staff development, devise teaching materials and provide extra-curricular tuition, IT support and medical supervision in 16 hand-picked schools.

The authority has also forged a deal with the city's science museum, the Franklin Institute, to create a new science and technology academy under the $1.4bn-a-year (pound;0.9bn) initiative. Partnerships with corporations to build new business-focused high schools will be disclosed next month, Paul Vallas, chief executive of Philadelphia's schools, told The TES.

The scheme is the idea of the authority's new office of development, dedicated to cultivating prospective patrons for the city's 262 schools and more than 200,000 students. Anyone is fair game, said director of university partnerships Sheila Royal-Moses.

Philadelphia's outreach efforts epitomise the creative thinking that US education administrators are having to employ to defray mounting deficits in budgets.

Philadelphia has never fought shy of radical solutions to revitalise its schools. Last year, Pennsylvania's state governor assumed control of the city's debt-ridden schools, farming out management of the most problematic ones to private firms. Results have been mixed, mirroring the fortunes of education management companies across the US, but Mr Vallas said the university partnerships had better prospects.

"When education becomes for profit, it undermines the quality of the programme - things get torn between the need to deliver a quality product educationally and the need to show a profit," he said.

But the new scheme takes its cue from so-called "laboratory schools" run by US universities, which tap the latest pedagogical methods and the support of a steady stream of trainee teachers from campuses, Mr Vallas explained.

"If you have local dynamic institutions it makes sense to partner them with schools," he said.

Drexel university will dispense teacher-training services, technical support, management advice, curriculum coaching and help with school design and space planning to six adjacent schools. "It will provide an incredible learning laboratory for our students," said Ilene Appel Marker, the university's project manager.

Drexel will also put a cadre of 21,000 student volunteers at the disposal of schools to tutor and mentor pupils aspiring to higher education.

University of Pennsylvania education professor Richard Ingersoll billed the initiative as a "particularly broad and deep part of a larger movement to develop ties between schools, business and universities". It could unravel amid squabbling between school officials and outside partners, he cautioned.

But Philadelphia officials said great pains were taken to consult staff.

They will look to partners "strictly for advice and guidance - ultimate decision-making lies with principals", said Ms Royal-Moses.

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