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Volume 51 Number 2
Written by Edward Seidman, New York University
A Sparkle in Seymour’s Eye: Achieving College Dreams
Book Authored by Rhona S. Weinstein and Frank C. Worrell
There is no topic of greater importance to our contemporary society than the education and socio-emotional development of low-income children of color and first-generation students. The critical challenge for all of us is to expand these adolescents’ future life opportunities in order to jump-start the reduction of societal inequalities. Achieving College Dreams tackles this apparently intractable topic in the context of a 10-year charter school-university partnership. This volume is a living testament to what Seymour Sarason had in mind when he penned The Culture of Schools and the Problem of Change (1971). The authors/editors take us “inside” the process of development of this school across time making creative use of the voices of many – teachers, students, principals, professors, etc. – and make creative use of quantitative and qualitative data as well. The authors demonstrate how success means weaving together the facilitation of cognitive and socio-emotional development into a seamless and ongoing process at multiple levels. I am not aware of any accounts that track the development of a school targeted at this population, students’ successes and failures, using diverse voices and data sets. The volume stands as an exemplar of program development, scientific knowledge, and clinical know-how.
Weinstein and Worrell, as community and school psychologists make for a dynamic duo, assisted by many other voices – students, teachers, charter school administrators, graduate students, and engaged university administrators.
Both are well-respected scholars whose prior scholarship has led them to this collaborative venture. They are far more than academics having been instrumental in the development of Cal Prep from the get-go and well-grounded in their prior educational change experiences. Rhona Weinstein is well known to the readership of TCP for her seminal work on an ecological understanding of low expectations, perhaps, most compellingly explicated in Reaching Higher (2004). Before joining the academy, Worrell was a Principal of a small private school in Trinidad. His expertise as a school psychologist is wide ranging with a particular interest in academic talent development, cultural identity and teacher effectiveness.
At the outset, the volume opens with a statement made by Shyra Gums at her 2013 graduation ceremony. It is a poignant and compelling illustration of how effective Cal Prep was for Shyra. A brief excerpt brings home the magic:
‘Time management, self-preservation, patience, yeah I thought without those three things I could make it, but I also found myself face first inside the same crater of failure … and I figured, this would be the only mark that I would leave on this Earth, until I noticed the beautiful works of life filling it in.
You heard others say, “you’re not half empty, you’re half full,” but what you needed to hear was “release all the waste of fear, and allow yourself to be filled up with fearlessness,
So here I am, there you are,
And hopefully you as well as them may know one day that my words move with LOGIC, and what I am full of right now is my HEART!’ (p. xiii)
An ecological model steeped in listening, discussion and collaboration guided Weinstein and Worrell’s work from the get-go. This demanded repeated reframing across entities and time. For example, the authors state, “The model first framed by UC Berkeley became reframed in partnership with Aspire (a charter district), and reframed again in a three-way partnership with the school” (p. 20). They depict the merging of theory, research, wisdom, commitment, and on-the-ground experiences in the work of a unique collaborative relationship of academics, practitioners, families, and students working in a reciprocal and respectful manner towards the same goals.
Weinstein and Worrell open the volume using the classic wisdom of Sarason by dedicating the first part of the volume to “before the beginning.” The pre-history begins with an examination of how one university explored its role in secondary schools to successfully bring low-income students of color and first-generation students into higher education, given that many of the mechanisms to achieve these ends have either been removed (e.g., affirmative action) or failed. Forging the collaborative partnership with Aspire Public Schools so that they could co-construct an early college secondary school was a painstaking endeavor. There were many different stakeholders, even within the University. Stakeholders were confronted with numerous tensions and issues ranging from the vision, to subcontracting, and to space and location, among others.
Part II focuses on collaborative research to inform the school’s development. The research was undertaken during years 2 to 7 by UC faculty and graduate students in collaboration with Cal Prep staff. The key issues addressed were student advisories, parent involvement, the evolution of a library, and the tracking of students across time. These are the nuts and bolts issues from which a school will thrive or crumble.
Let’s peek inside the chapter on teacher-student advisories – a topic close to the hearts of many community psychologists. Advisories have been around for some time and have played a major role in transitions to middle/junior and senior high school. One major goal has been to provide students with a teacher who knows, cares, and can mentor them. There is also a peer support element. The multiple goals and forms of “advisories pose a tremendous challenge for evaluation” (p. 98). In this contextualized study of advisories, the authors explore the alignment of students’ and teachers’ goals using their voices to shape the advisory programs, the relationship between the advisory goal and student satisfaction, student and advisor characteristics as they predict student-perceived advisory effectiveness, and helpful/unhelpful factors in implementation and training for advisories. It is rare to see such a study conducted that is so well-grounded and sensitive to the changing needs of an evolving real-world project; as do all the other chapters in Part II.
Part III is both a retrospective look at the first seven years and, more importantly, it is from the perspectives of history, math, and science teachers as well as a coordinator and principal. The foundation for each of these chapters began with a series of guided questions reflected in transcribed interviews, essays, conference presentations and the like. These forms of data were ultimately shaped into chapters. Each chapter tapped the historical evolution of theories about what fosters engagement, excellence, and education in the different areas.
One of my favorite chapters was Math and Not Just About Math (Chapter 11). Sarah Salazar and Stacy Thomas’ own words in response to Weinstein’s queries were riveting! I hung on every word and comment and wanted it to go on and on. The interviews were put together in a way that felt like the best mini-focus group I have ever witnessed. The chapter tells the story of not only the teachers own journey, including their love of math, but of creating a climate in the classroom “where it was cool to engage deeply in math” (p. 229), the delicate balance in using scaffolding, that is, not too much, and having fun while engaging in the learning of math. My kudos go out to the authors.
In Part IV, from different vantage points the authors search for lessons learned across the chapters of the volume. To foster and maintain high expectations in a challenging environment, a nuanced framework is articulated that integrates rigor and support across grades, domains of development at multiple levels – school-wide, targeted, and intensive (Chapter 14). In the next chapter, with the help of student voices, we hear how the opportunities and support fostered their task commitment, academic development, and ethno-cultural identity. Next, we hear the perspectives of two area superintendents on the challenges of such a partnership and the cultural differences followed those by the reflections of two university faculty (the editors). The volume closes with a look into the future.
I hope I have successfully whet your appetite. This is a volume you’ll not only want to devour, but require of all your graduate students, or for that matter, anyone who wants to engage in collaborative change with multiple partners on the ground. It’s the real deal! It will chase away the faint of heart and realistically motivate and challenge those with a deep commitment to tackle intractable problems of social change.
Sarason, S. B., (1971). The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Weinstein, R. S. (2004). Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Weinstein, R. S. and Worrell, F. C. (Eds.) (2016). Achieving College Dreams: How a University-Charter District Partnership Created an Early College High School. New York: Oxford University Press.