University Park Campus School
When Damian Ramsay enrolled at the University Park Campus School six years ago as a seventh grader, he could barely read a fourth-grade textbook or tackle a basic multiplication problem. Today, Damian, a tall, bespectacled 18-year-old, devours the works of Dickens and Fitzgerald. Damian is one of 31students who graduated from the University Park Campus School on Sunday. His story is not unlike those of his classmates. They live in Main South, a neighborhood notorious for its high crime rate and low academic standards in this blue collar city of 173,000. High school graduation was questionable for these students; college did not seem to be an option. But that is where each is heading this fall. Katie Zezima. "Hard Work Opens College Door for Whole Class." The New York Times, June 4, 2003.
University Park Campus School (UPCS) opened in September, 1997 with a small class of 35 seventh-grade students selected from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Worcester, Mass. The school has expanded by one class every subsequent year. By 2003, 206 students had enrolled in grades 7-12, and the teaching staff had grown to an equivalent of 12 full-time teachers. For 30 spots, the school had more than 200 students on its waiting list.
In the mid-1990s, Clark University sowed the seeds for UPCS when it pledged to help its surrounding inner city neighborhood in Worcester, Mass. Investing some of its endowment in a $10 million revitalization effort, Clark partnered with the Worcester school district to develop a rigorous neighborhood school that would prepare students for college. The university offered $390,000 from a federal grant, Clark faculty and tutors, and access to Clark classes and facilities. The city provided the school building and agreed to pay for building maintenance, salaries, and supplies.
As former Clark University President Richard P. Traina said, "If this neighborhood is to be revitalized, if it's to be a genuine community, the young people need to have hope. This is part of that plan by trying to provide them the very best education that we can manage with the initiatives from the school system and the help Clark University can provide."
That vision of hope did not at first resonate in a neighborhood where most community members had not graduated from high school. To enroll the first class, the UPCS principal, Donna Rodrigues, who was a longtime resident of the neighborhood and veteran teacher in the Worcester Public Schools for 28 years, literally went door to door. She talked to parents about a school that would be safe and offer a good education to their children. The only admissions requirement was that students?who were chosen by lottery?live in the neighborhood.
Rodrigues explained how UPCS would be different from other public schools and laid out the expectations:
A free college education was the reward. If students had lived in the Clark neighborhood for the last five years of school and met Clark's entrance requirements, they would be able to attend Clark University tuition-free.
"Please tell me again that this is really true. It's too good for me. I've never been picked for anything good," said one father when Mrs. Rodrigues told him his child would be attending University Park Campus School.
"I just can't stop smiling," said June Eressy, who taught English language arts and social studies in Worcester for 13 years and became principal of UPCS in 2002-03. "These are the kinds of kids I love - kids who really want to learn - and to be able to make something like this possible for them just makes me so happy."
One of the greatest challenges UPCS faced was literacy. In 1997, 44% of the first class of seventh graders read at or below third-grade level, and 56% read at or below fourth-grade level. Year after year, almost all of the seventh-grade students who entered UPCS struggled with reading. In response, UPCS has developed a literacy initiative that permeates the curriculum, instruction, and assessment in addition to offering specialized support programs.
All incoming seventh-grade students attend a month-long August Academy that is focused on literacy development. Daily reading, writing, and discussion allow teachers to diagnose student literacy habits and skills and to develop instructional plans to meet student needs. The August Academy gives seventh graders a month-long head start to ease their transition to the middle school.
In addition, the school has an Early Literacy Intervention Plan for students who perform below the third-grade level in reading. Early on, these students receive assistance from UPCS teachers who work closely with an elementary reading specialist. Significant support continues throughout middle school.
Before- and after-school Homework Centers provide daily support in reinforcing academic skills. Clark University Masters and work-study students provide tutoring in the homework centers and one-on-one. Completion of homework is the norm, not the exception. Up to 80% of students take advantage of the before- or after-school academic help sessions.
All UPCS teachers use a set of common literacy strategies, as appropriate, in their content-area classes, including teacher read-alouds, literature circles, debates, presentations and exhibitions, and incorporation of the arts for revisiting text. School-wide instructional strategies that support the development of literacy skills include the following:
Literacy-rich student work is exhibited throughout the school, and students and teachers often stop to read and comment on one another's work.
Since the school's inception, literacy and professional development have been linked. A literacy coordinator has conducted workshops with all UPCS teachers regarding effective reading and writing instruction, co-taught with content-area teachers, and worked with math and science teachers to identify which literacy standards and indicators would be incorporated and focused upon in which courses. These activities helped the teachers align a coherent approach and commitment to literacy support and development. Teachers host rounds based on the medical model in order to provide the opportunity to share best practices. They use common planning time on Wednesday afternoons to review student work with each other and reflect on teaching and learning.
Rigor and high standards set the tone at UPCS. To prepare for college, every student pursues a challenging academic program consisting of honors-level classes and a traditional transcript: algebra, biology, physics, calculus, elective AP classes, Spanish, art, music, English, history, and geometry. Students can enroll in classes at Clark University during their junior and senior years; these college-level classes are taken on top of their expected high school load. Students can also attend special seminars at Clark in many areas of interest, such as the arts, technology, world languages, music, theatre, video production, and photography.
Personalization is considered key to student success. Instruction is individualized to connect to each student's particular level of development. There is no tracking. Making connections is a core element in the daily life of the school: connecting prior knowledge to new in-depth learning, instruction to assessment, process to content, the classroom to personal meaning, and connecting to one another affectively as well as cognitively.
A sense of community is important at UPCS. Many of the teachers regularly eat breakfast or lunch with students. Teachers communicate with parents and families. Students study in a building that is small, nurturing, intimate, and comfortable, but one that does not have a gym, cafeteria, or library. UPCS students think of themselves as young Clark University students as they use the university athletic complex, study at the library, and attend university events.
The collaboration with Clark University has allowed UPCS to further develop the literacy initiative. UPCS teachers from all content areas co-teach professional development courses with university faculty during the summer. These four-credit courses are provided free to Worcester Public School teachers. UPCS serves as a lab school for Clark University's education department, and UPCS teachers and Clark professors teach together or teach one another's classes. (The principal and one teacher are adjunct Clark University professors.) Eight of the 13 teachers at UPCS are Clark University alumni.
The results of this strong partnership are promising. On statewide testing, UPCS outscored students in Worcester and many of the affluent towns in the state. No student at UPCS has ever failed the English Language Arts section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Staff members use test results from the MCAS to identify student strengths and weaknesses, as well as to inform decisions about curricula, intervention, and forms of instruction.
It is rare for a student to receive all A's at UPCS because the course load is difficult. Often, students earn higher grades in their courses at Clark University than they do in their classes at UPCS. Clark University professors do not know which of their students are also UPCS students; this was part of the plan.
And what about that first graduating class?did they earn their free tuition at Clark? The principal says that 15 of the 31 applied to and were accepted to Clark University and 7 chose to attend. The others got accepted with full scholarships elsewhere. In 2003, all 31 graduating students were headed to college.
"These are average neighborhood kids, not select kids," said John Bassett, the president of Clark. "But by raising the bar and saying, `You can do this,' we've changed their whole outlook."