Rolling Up Our Sleeves to Partner on the Ground
Published in TC Today - Volume 34, No. 2
Front: Janell Catlin (left), Samantha Freeman. Rear: Nancy Streim (far left), Dawn Arno and Emily Zemke.
TC TODAY: You have a bachelor’s degree in art history from Bryn Mawr. How did you get from there to running the Office of School and Community Partnerships at Teachers College?
NANCY STREIM: I started as a curator for a small historical society in Rochester, New York, and discovered that it wasn’t the kind of stimulating work that I wanted to do. I needed to find a way to have an impact that was much more tangible and related to the real world. So, the work I did even then, as a curator, was focused on museum education. And I discovered that the way to have an impact is to be involved in education. But I gradually moved away from museums as the venue for doing that, because the real action is in public schools.
I went on to work at a college for the deaf, where I both taught and did administrative work, and earned a master’s degree in higher-ed administration. And again, I found that while academic work is deeply interesting, I personally saw myself more on the front lines in making opportunities for students to succeed. And particularly for students who, by virtue of various kinds of circumstances, might not have the same opportunities as others.
From there I went off to do a Ph.D. in child language acquisition at the University of Wisconsin, with the idea that I would like to get back into a higher-ed setting, particularly a school of education, where I could relate my academic interests in children’s development, and issues in public schools.
TC TODAY: So that’s the higher-ed piece; how did you combine that with an interest in community work?
STREIM: After my degree, I went to Penn and spent 19 years at the Graduate School of Education doing many interesting things. But my work ended up zeroing in on university-school partnerships.
TC TODAY: And at Penn, you met Susan Fuhrman when she became Dean of the Graduate School of Education. How did you get involved in Penn’s plan to build a community K–8 school in Philadelphia?
STREIM: At the time, I was an Associate Dean. Susan asked me to head up the educational planning for that school, which is called the Penn Alexander School. And it really was the highlight of my work at Penn, the culmination of all the things I cared about. Penn Alexander opened in 2001, and it has been a tremendous success, in terms of making opportunities for all students in the neighborhood to achieve academically and go on to top-quality high schools and beyond, and to strengthen the community, and to develop models for how universities can work productively with local public schools. When Susan Fuhrman came to Teachers College as president, she asked me to come and build for TC, in upper Manhattan, the kind of program of university-school partnerships that she and I had developed together in Philadelphia.
TC TODAY: You came to TC in 2007. How did you begin?
STREIM: I started by taking stock of what was already going on at TC, with respect to relationships with public schools in New York City. I got to know faculty and faculty interests, and their hopes and dreams for how to make this kind of partnership work and be productive. And at the same time, I tried to get to know the New York City Department of Education, and the community and community organizations, to get a better sense of how they imagined TC being a strong partner within them. And then I took on, as my mission, to bring those things together. At multiple levels —and this is important to me, in terms of how I think about university-school partnership—there are ways in which TC can be a good neighbor by making our resources, facilities, advice, more accessible to schools in New York City. Equally important, involvement with schools and the community educates us about the current needs and practices of principals and teachers, about the makeup of the communities they serve, and more.
It’s a constant feedback process that enriches everyone. And we do that, but that’s just the beginning. That just breaks down some of the traditional barriers between higher education and K–12 education, by trying to provide more opportunities for our work to get out there, and for schools to get onto our campus. One of the efforts that has come out of that work was to create a performing arts series at TC (see story on page 50), where we line up a number of performances each year, and invite all the schools in the area to come, and provide them with curriculum support materials, so that they can tie the experience back into their curricular goals. It’s exposure for kids to the arts, it’s exposure for kids to the college campus, and it’s a way to get to know schools and build relationships that also take us into other realms.
TC TODAY: So you started to get the community thinking of TC as a resource for New York City public schools. What was the next step?
STREIM: The next, deeper level, is project work. At this level, we work with a smaller number of schools, but in a more sustained way around an identified project that’s focused on something that the school is seeking to improve, and we support them in doing that. An example is our Harlem Schools Partnership for STEM Education, which attempts to improve the teaching and learning of science, math and technology in 10 schools in Harlem. That’s a five-year project. We do professional development, curriculum development, some curriculum enrichment for students, but it’s all focused on STEM.
TC TODAY: So you’re inside Harlem schools in a sustained way through a number of years. What comes after that?
STREIM: Now we really are seeking to implement and disseminate our own model of university-school partnership, through partnership schools. We are setting up agreements with a number of schools in our community, probably five or six to start and 10 or 12 ultimately, where we agree to work together across all aspects of the school.
TC is going to direct its resources to help those schools, in comprehensive ways, reach all of their targets. It may focus on STEM or college readiness, or it may be arts or it may be social work services. We would bring in the kinds of supports that the school and we, together, would direct toward a set of goals for strengthening the school. Partnership schools might see a whole array of supports and services. All of those agreements have been attained in principle, but we’re now just getting them all in writing. We expect that they will be up and running by the end of the spring.
TC TODAY: Can you elaborate on your philosophy about partnership schools?
STREIM: The way I have approached the partnership is to be a full partner to the principal in developing plans for the school, priorities for the school, resources for the school, staffing for the school—so, it is a Department of Education school, but it also is our school. We have accountability for that school, our name is associated with that school, and that’s how it would be for up to 10 or 12 schools.
TC TODAY: So now we’re getting to the deepest level of community engagement: starting a new school.
STREIM: This is where we bring together all the things we know and care about at TC, to create a top-notch supportive, forward-looking education for neighborhood children. The concepts are derived from the experiences Susan and I had in Philadelphia, but the particular design of the school, and the priorities, will reflect the needs of this community and the strengths of Teachers College. We are going to take the lessons learned in Philadelphia about school organization, curriculum and partnership, and put those in place here.
TC TODAY: The Penn Alexander School in Philadelphia was a ground-up structure. This likely won’t be, correct?
STREIM: Having a facility that’s designed specifically for the school is a luxury that’s wonderful if it can work out, but one can create a fabulous university-assisted partnership school in an existing facility also. And given the scarcity of space in New York, that’s more likely, at least in the beginning. If it should turn out that the school outgrows whatever space it starts in, then we certainly are keeping open building something from the ground up in the future.
TC TODAY: Why is this new school in northern Manhattan important for TC?
STREIM: Susan Fuhrman really says it best when she talks about the deep moral obligation of a school of education to not only create new knowledge in the abstract, but to put in place research findings ideas and best practices into schools in the communities where we live. After all, we’re an anchor institution in our community. We’ve been here for over a hundred years. We’ll be here for another hundred years and more. And the schools are among the other longest-standing anchor institutions in the community. It’s our joint community; it’s our collective community. So Susan takes it as a core mission of her presidency to ensure that Teachers College is making those kinds of investments and strengthening the community we share with all of our neighbors.
TC TODAY: What does this mean for TC faculty?
STREIM: The partnerships enhance the research understandings of our faculty, as well as support real schools in addressing research questions that have immediate bearing on their own professional world. This approach gives faculty incredible opportunities to do a whole array of research projects with schools—not just in schools, but with schools. I have found a lot of interest on the part of faculty who have wonderful ideas for establishing research projects that involve schools, but could use some help shaping how those projects could be of benefit to the school, and gaining entrée into the schools, as well as access to others around Teachers College and Columbia, and in the community, who might be good partners in this work as well.
TC TODAY: What about students?
STREIM: The Office of School and Community Partnerships has created pathways by which students can connect what they’re learning in the classroom with how it plays out in practice, and to bring the ideas and the knowledge that they’re gaining through their work in the field, back into their thinking about their coursework and about their own research. The opportunity to work in and with schools enhances the TC student experience in ways that no other kind of opportunity can do, especially for a school of education. We have, this year, 100 students who are providing services in schools in ways that connect to their own learning. So, whether they are Reading Buddies, or Zankel Fellows or graduate assistants in the Harlem Ivy after-school program, there are dozens of ways that our students are spending time in schools in guided, mentored ways that inform how they think about themselves as educators.
TC TODAY: How does the community benefit?
STREIM: The community benefits by having the additional resources that Teachers College is able to provide, that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. In some cases, those are financial resources, because as we raise money for a variety of projects, some of those funds go directly into the schools, and they also benefit by having the human resources that our students and faculty bring to the schools. So whether it’s tutors or coaches, or extra hands in the classroom. These are all ways that TC supplements what the schools would otherwise have access to.
TC TODAY: How does TC compare with other graduate schools of education, which presumably do their own versions of work in their communities?
STREIM: Teachers College is positioning itself as a leader in a university-assisted schooling model. Lots of colleges and schools of education at the undergraduate and graduate level have community outreach. And they certainly all have student teaching opportunities. But what’s different about what we’re doing, and what TC is taking the lead on, is creating this kind of partnership where the graduate school of education has rolled up its sleeves, and is an on-the-ground partner to help strengthen and sustain educational improvements in the community, and is informing its teaching and research programs by getting faculty and students involved in that work.
And as we have in the past, we will continue to convene and encourage other colleges and universities to do this kind of deep work, which goes beyond episodic student community service. What we’re doing is so very appropriate to schools of education, and we’re a national leader in that work. k