The ultimate goal of public institutions should be to serve their constituents wisely, efficiently, and effectively. Most people would agree that the community is best served when agencies and institutions combine their resources in order to better serve their constituents. Why is it then that so few partnerships are formed and fewer yet are effective and viable long-term?
In School District 129, West Aurora, Illinois, effective partnerships have thrived for many years. The secret to their success is they have been founded upon what is best for the community without worrying about turf or which agency is in control. The most effective partnership in District 129 is one that was borne out of necessity for both institutions.
The district was experiencing gradual growth that led to them adding new teachers and new schools throughout the district. The problem was that teachers were not being trained adequately by the local and regional universities to meet the needs of the district’s strongly developmental learning/teaching philosophy. Most young teachers had been trained to excel in a lecture format versus honing their skills as a coach or facilitator of student learning. To meet this need, the district sought out the assistance of local Aurora University. At the time, Aurora University had a fledgling School of Education. On average each year, the School of Education had 1800 students. At the time Aurora University was trying to attract new students, the two organizations, district and university, met and found that their mutual needs could be met and benefit each party. The university embarked on a process of strengthening their School of Education, while at the same time the school district identified their needs and clearly outlined their expectations.
One of the greatest synergies that have come out of this partnership is the district’s ability to maximize the benefit of their partnership through the construction of their new buildings. Over the last five years, the district has completed numerous renovation projects and has constructed three new schools. Each of these new schools has become a mini school of education and a teaching laboratory for teachers within the district and for student teachers attending the university. Freshman student teachers have the opportunity to start their first day at college at a working elementary or middle school. Very early on, they have the opportunity to work within a classroom and to see if their passion for teaching is real and long-lasting.
The true beneficiaries in this process are the students. As you walk around the facility, you can feel a different atmosphere. These new schools have been planned to allow the school to be divided into grade-level clusters or even small autonomous, multi-graded schools. These clusters have the added benefit of providing student teachers with the easy observation of classroom activities or teachers working in centrally located work centers. There is certain calm at the school that is evident due to the floor plan design and having a higher number of adults on campus than you would see in a typical school.
In addition, the scholar in residence at the university teaches university level classes to student teachers, while at the same time adding guidance and mentorship for the district’s faculty. It is almost as if the school has a team of two Principals. The only additional spaces that are provided at these new schools in order to facilitate this teaching laboratory concept are: office space for the scholar-in-residence, a classroom meeting room for university classes, and a storage space. The classroom is adjacent to the faculty lounge, which can be expanded by opening an operable wall for larger community functions, and the storage space contains student teacher materials and personal items. For an investment of approximately $150,000.00 the university acquires a multi-million dollar teaching laboratory while the district acquires additional teaching assistance and the wisdom of the scholar-in-residence at no additional cost.
The infancy of this partnership between school district and local university started on the Aurora University campus. 100 students from the adjacent Freeman Elementary School made a daily trip from their campus to attend class at the university. Students utilized university academy classrooms, science and art facilities, meeting assembly and performance spaces, and extensive technology resources and even dined in the university commons. What an enriching and fundamentally expansive experience this was for students.
This experiment and ultimate success of the other teaching campuses has led to tremendous support from the federal government and other foundations. Aurora University was recently awarded a federal grant which will allow them to build a new School of Education called the Institute for Collaboration in Education. In this case, it was the school district’s turn to contribute $2,000,000.00 which will allow for the provision of learning environments in this new Institute. The learning environments will accommodate another 200 students on the university campus. This Institute for Collaboration in Education will have a one-of-a-kind learning environment which will allow the university and the district to explore new teaching philosophies and continually hone the quality of the educational programs that they are able to offer the students of their community. Through the leadership of Denny Hastert, Speaker of the House, the federal government identified the unique potential that this partnership between the university and the local school district offered which could led to potential national improvements in the educational system and ultimately student achievement.
Herget Middle School, which opened in September 2005, is also exemplary of this partnership. It is the only known middle school/teaching laboratory in Illinois where teachers who are interested in teaching at the middle school level will acquire first hand experience working with young adolescents. This experience is essential to the success of working with students at this pivotal age. The planning ideas behind Herget Middle School are truly distinctive, engaging teachers, students, parents, members of the community, business leaders, partners at the university, and the local YMCA, resulted in a higher level of thinking which could not have been created by any single user group. The plan starts from a building block of a small team of teachers and students who work together. Students stay in their classroom cluster for all but specialized curriculum with science, math, English, history, and foreign language teachers all working together. These classroom clusters are grouped around a “Great Hall” which houses all the educational resources which will enrich students learning experience. From the Great Hall students have access to the library media center, the technology center, and specialized classrooms associated with fine arts, guidance counseling, consumer science, project based learning, and university classes.
Another unique aspect of the design is that each of the classroom clusters has a specialty focus. The idea being that as student matriculate through the middle school they gain exposure to an area of study or profession that they may want to pursue a career in eventually. One of the clusters has a fine arts focus, another gives students an introduction to guidance counseling, and library and media services are connected to one of the other classroom clusters. Also, students in one of the clusters have extended connections to the technology center, while another cluster gives students the opportunity to conduct long-term projects or be engaged in research that can be left in place for extended periods of time. And lastly, one of the clusters includes the university classroom and resources exposing students to opportunities within the teaching profession. This relationship between the Great Hall and the adjacent learning environments provides students with very rich learning opportunities.
Herget Middle School along with the other new schools, Greenman Elementary School and Fearn Elementary School, have a different teaching focus providing additional opportunities for both university and district students. This unique partnership between Aurora University and School District 129 is exemplary in the tremendous benefits that result to students and the community when individuals work to provide the best resources for their constituents. The incredible openness that is exhibited by each organization that allowed them to invite the university on to school campuses and the district onto the university campus is truly unique. The true beneficiaries are the students, members of the community, and student teachers whose experience is truly enriched.