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Original Article:
A Collaborative for Academic Excellence (winter 1999


El Paso’s Collaborative
June 2008

THE EL PASO COLLABORATIVE for Academic Excellence, first described in the winter 1999 issue of National CrossTalk, continues to contradict the widely held belief that partnerships between K–12 public schools and postsecondary education are ineffective.

The Collaborative, which includes the University of Texas-El Paso, El Paso Community College and 12 El Paso County school districts, has succeeded in improving the performance of K–12 students, increasing the numbers who move on to postsecondary education, and narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

This has happened in a region in which 88.5 percent of elementary and secondary students are Hispanic, and 75 percent are low income.

M. Susana Navarro, executive director of the Collaborative, points to these indicators of success:

  • In 2002, only 47 percent of the region’s students in grades three through 11 passed all parts of the statewide Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS); by 2007 that had that increased to 70 percent.

  • The high school graduation rate in the area’s three urban school districts was 78.3 percent in 2006, up from 69.4 percent in 1995.

  • The high school dropout rate of 21.7 percent is substantially lower than in 1995.

  • The numbers of students enrolling in some form of postsecondary education are inexact, but enrollments at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), and at El Paso Community College, both of which draw most of their students from local schools, have been growing rapidly.

    How did this happen? One reason for success appears to be close cooperation between leaders of the two postsecondary institutions and the local school districts. They meet regularly to plan projects and thrash out problems.

    Continuity of leadership has been important. UTEP President Diana S. Natalicio has chaired the Collaborative’s board of directors since 1993 (the program began in 1991). The board also includes the president of El Paso Community College, superintendents of the three urban school districts and representatives of business, civic and religious organizations.

    Susana Navarro has been executive director from the beginning. Natalicio and Navarro “provide a history of the Collaborative,” as district superintendents come and go, said Arturo Pacheco, former dean of the UTEP College of Education.

    The Collaborative’s basic message remains the same. As Navarro once put it, “We believe all students can learn at higher levels, given the opportunity.”

    The Collaborative now works with about 50 schools, expanding from the original three urban school districts (El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro) to include nine smaller rural districts, Navarro said. The emphasis has shifted from elementary to middle schools.

    A $30 million grant from the National Science Foundation has enabled the Collaborative to train “coaches” who work with individual schools to improve math and science instruction. Over the years, additional financial support has come from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

    A decade ago the Collaborative faced opposition from some UTEP faculty members who argued that helping local public schools was not part of the university’s mission. UTEP officials now say most of that opposition has melted away.

    The faculty “is quite positive about what we have been able to achieve,” President Natalicio said. “Even the skeptics are convinced that this is the way to go in a university that draws so heavily on local students.”

    “Some junior faculty were apprehensive at first,” Pacheco observed, “but feel they are more valued now, especially since some of them have gotten tenure.”

    “Working on K–12 problems is not a tenure requirement but it is highly valued, not buried away in the ‘service’ unit,” said UTEP Provost Richard Jarvis.

    The Collaborative’s work with El Paso Community College “has gone in a little different direction” in recent years, according to Dennis Brown, vice president for instruction at the two-year college.

    Disturbed by the large numbers of students who still required remedial courses, especially in mathematics, when they arrived on campus, the community college, along with UTEP and the three largest school districts, introduced a placement test in the second semester of the junior year in high school. Students who do well on the test are placed in college-level classes as high school seniors. Other students receive tutoring or other “interventions,” Brown said. As a result, the number of students in remedial classes has dropped sharply.

    El Paso Community College also has started two “early college” high schools, where students take college-level courses. Some earn 20 to 30 credits toward a bachelor’s degree before enrolling at UTEP.

    “All of this has happened because of the Collaborative,” Provost Jarvis said. “The structure is simple—five or six people from the university, the community college and the three large school districts meet regularly” to plan and evaluate. “All this takes a lot of time,” he added. “Collaborative relationships are extremely high maintenance.”

    —William Trombley

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