- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

Five years ago, Coppin State College, a historically black college in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, took on the challenge of managing an elementary school that had some of the lowest student scores in Maryland. Discipline in the school was almost nonexistent. Students fought and cursed in class and sometimes ran bicycles through the halls. Reform efforts were random at best.

The college’s contract with the city’s public school system to run Rosemont Elementary, located a mile away in the city’s blighted Northwest, allowed them to hire teachers and administrators in an arrangement with the local teachers’ union. Coppin provided staff development programs, computers, a librarian and annual immunizations, among other badly needed assistance. Funding came from the city, from grants and from donations.

The move, a risky one, was judged a success. When school test scores went up, the college reaped a whirlwind of local and national publicity far beyond what an institution of higher learning of its modest size normally could expect: a feature on CBS News “Sunday Morning,” the lead in a January 2001 Time magazine cover story called “The New College Try” about university-assisted public school projects.

Then in September, the elementary school was named one of the top 10 most-improved schools in Baltimore city: fourth- and fifth-graders were graded No. 1 in the city in math and reading tests; third-graders scored first in math. Rosemont had evolved into something of a model school in near-record time.

Today, colorful and freshly burnished tile and terrazzo corridors are clean and quiet; art and music are part of the curriculum with physical education classes promised; faculty and students have dress codes. The staff includes a full-time parent liaison with her own room and a monthly newsletter. Coppin, a 103-year-old, four-year liberal arts institution with 8,000 students, paid the liaison’s tuition so she could get a college degree. Rosemont staff can take classes at Coppin free of charge.

The key to such a dramatic change lay in an unusual synergy that exists between the two institutions and their respective leaders. However, college officials readily admit that their motivation goes far beyond mere good will and the need for a nearby training laboratory for education majors.

“If we don’t better educate the children in our neighborhood, we won’t have jobs. And we certainly won’t have a population prepared to support themselves,” says Coppin President Stanley F. Battle, whose predecessor had been warned against taking on the project.

“They will be contributors to the big pot instead of taking from the pot,” echoes Frank Kober, the president’s assistant. “We want children to be participants in society.”

Far from abandoning the project, Coppin’s aims have expanded. The college now acts in an advisory capacity for a neighborhood middle school as well as a high school. Mr. Battle and staffer Kevin Carr, who is coordinator for Coppin’s ambitious Urban Education Corridor, mentor 36 troubled youths from the three schools. Armed with a Gates Thurgood Marshall grant and the approval of the Baltimore city system, the college next fall will establish a high school on campus to be known as Coppin Academy.

Mr. Battle often can be seen in Rosemont’s halls hugging children and being hugged by them. Rosemont’s energetic principal, Sandra Ashe, is technically a member of Coppin’s faculty, although she has little time left from her 11-hour daily schedule to play the part. Coppin faculty update Rosemont teachers on new concepts in mathematics and science, and at least two Coppin faculty members, both with doctorates in education, work closely with Rosemont. One heads up the special education program affecting 50 out of the total 315 students in grades pre-K through five. Another directs teacher training.

However, much of the students’ progress is attributed to the standards set by Miss Ashe, say Rosemont and Coppin faculty. “She has such a wonderful attitude,” says Rosemont art teacher Shadi Nourbakhsh, dressed in the red-and-white shirt teachers are expected to wear at least one day a week. (Students wear blue trousers or skirts and white tops of their choice.)

Miss Ashe sees herself as captain of a team, head of the school family and chief custodian, on occasion. A petite woman who gives her age as “fifty-ish,” she refers to her job as a ministry, one that involves loving and nurturing her flock.

“We came in to rock and roll,” she says, laughing about the time three years ago when she was hired away from another elementary school and more than half of Rosemont’s teachers said a turnaround wasn’t possible. “You have got to believe it can happen. When you come to a school, you don’t focus on test scores; you have to focus on changing the culture of a school. I shared my vision with the teachers on the first day. I said big things were going to happen here.”

She noted 25 things that needed doing and set priorities. She established discipline early on to such a degree that some parents complained. “Parents would come into the school and shout and curse and say, ‘You’re military. You’re too strict. You don’t let the children be children,’” she recalls. To which she replied that Rosemont had some brilliant children but that they just weren’t demonstrating good behavior. “Economic level and ethnicity have nothing to do with being smart or being successful. It just makes it harder,” she adds.

The saddest part, she notes, was realizing that parents didn’t even know how poorly their children were performing. Many parents now recognize the difference, she says. The one thing she would do differently, she says, is try to enlist their aid in helping fight system-wide budget cuts that resulted in her losing a number of teachers.

The concept of college- and university-assisted public schools is not a new one, says Mona Weinberg, a professor of education at American University, who doubts that Coppin’s example is part of a trend.

However, Nancy Streim, associate dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees. Since July 2002, her university has had what she refers to as a partnership rather than a managerial role with three low-performing Philadelphia schools. She sees the development as the result of increased scrutiny and accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind act.

“In an effort to bring in new ideas and perspectives to improve public education, public school systems are turning to institutions of higher learning,” Ms. Streim says.

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