Defying Demographics
November 23, 2007 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Defying Demographics: A look at University Park Campus School, a 7-12th grade school located in the poorest neighborhood in blue-collar Worcester, MA. Approximately 73% of students hover at or below the poverty line and 61% are minorities, yet over 80% go on to college and 99% pass the Massachusetts graduation exams. The partnership between Clark University and Worcester Public Schools has created an environment so successful that a number of cities are looking to emulate it. Have they discovered the key to closing the achievement gap?
posted by rollbiz (32 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
So what's the secret? Excellent student-to-teacher ratios?
posted by porpoise at 8:16 PM on November 23, 2007

It is good to have good news once in a while. Great post too BTW.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 8:20 PM on November 23, 2007

It would seem so. 230 students at the entire school housed in 12 classrooms. That's a minimum teacher-student ratio of 1:19. I've heard success stories like this over and over, and I think that they're unfortunately the exceptions that prove the rule: our system lags behind our expectations.
posted by Room 101 at 8:20 PM on November 23, 2007

I did a similar FPP a while back about a guy named Bill Strickland who has gotten similar results in the poorest section of Pittsburgh (and won a MacArthur for it). His philosophy, which I see reflected here, is that if you provide poor kids with a quality institution and place high expectations on them, they will respond with high achievement. If you provide kids with institutions that look and function a lot like prisons, you are going to help produce a lot of criminals.
posted by The Straightener at 8:25 PM on November 23, 2007 [12 favorites]

This is an excellent post and it highlights just how people are trying. The environment does make a huge difference, as well as having dedicated educators who refuse to give up on students. It can make a world of difference.

Unfortunately, these successes just show us how far we have to go overall.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:32 PM on November 23, 2007

Its partnership with Clark, which allows University Park students to take college classes and then receive free tuition if they are admitted there, is widely praised as a model for town-gown collaboration, particularly for colleges in low-income neighborhoods. Working closely with a coalition of neighborhood groups, Clark has led an effort to replace dilapidated buildings with affordable housing, and encouraged faculty and staff to move into the neighborhood through home-buying incentive programs the school subsidizes.


small classes, intensive remedial work, and a demanding college-prep curriculum

I wish all our schools were like this. As with many such schools, the fact that the students choose it, rather have it thrust upon them, is probably the single most important factor in its success statistically, but the reality is the hard work they put into making success the expectation for every student. Most privileged students have this expectation and don't question it. So should all students.

Sweet post.
posted by caddis at 8:33 PM on November 23, 2007

Yeah, this is a great post. Thanks. Worcester's got so many problems, it's nice to hear that something's going well.

It's a little staggering to realize how shocked I am - and how initially skeptical I was to believe this post - that such statistics are even possible. Seems there's hope, afterall.

Also - I wonder how much of this can be attributed to Clark's influence? Brown has been trying a similar thing in Providence - it's actually mentioned in the first article - and it's not very effective at all. In fact, the gesture comes off as more masturbatory on the part of the university than anything else. Still, judging from this, it seems like it could be an effective strategy in Providence, too. Someday.
posted by lunit at 8:40 PM on November 23, 2007

Caddis nailed it... the fact that enrollment is a choice (and desired enough that a lottery is necessary for admission) is part of the key here.

I'm not dismissing the impact of the expectations and the partnership with the university, but they are working with a selected group of students.

The other side of the coin is the population that I work with every day, students that are referred to my program because they are expelled, suspended, or so disruptive that they can not be allowed to remain in a traditional setting. We offer the most positive environment we can, attempt to build relationships with our students, and provide an educational setting that meets them where they are at academically and works to move them forward.... but we will probably never reach these kinds of percentages...our students have not been raised with the thought that education is valued.

Which, brings it back to the most important factor...the parent... and the parent's ability to motivate and inspire their child, regardless of economic or social background...

It all begins at home...

thanks for the post... it is always good to read of programs that work!
posted by HuronBob at 8:47 PM on November 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

Straightener, this isn't the local public high school to which all students in a catchment area are funnelled. Yes, they're local kids, but kids who are so desperate to get into this school that they are only admitted by lottery.

Add to this the clear fact that most of these kids are sons and daughters of recent immigrants- most don't speak English at home, 18% (18%!) are "Asian American," and while they might be poor, they evidence the ambitions of many immigrants. Education comes first.

I'd wager that at a really horrible "inner city" high school like many in, say, Detroit, 100% of the students speak English at home, and virutally 0% of the students are immigrants. They're all African American, and in Detroit public schools, fewer than a quarter of high schoolers graduate.

"Demographics" isn't defied here at all. When somebody accomplishes this with non-immigrant African American kids at a high school that's not a de facto magnet school, I'll be uplifted. Until then, there is too much exceptional about this school for me to be anything but cynical about it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:48 PM on November 23, 2007

So... the solution is not totally half-assing it?
posted by Artw at 8:51 PM on November 23, 2007


I'm not sure that being cynical is necessary, it is what it is...and, these kids, were they left in a traditional urban school probably wouldn't achieve this success...

They are pretty straight forward about who they serve and how they reach these goals.

You're right about the "detroit" factor, my program is only 30 miles from downtown detroit.... and I agree 100% with you...

But... don't take away from the fact that they successfully serve an at-risk population.
posted by HuronBob at 8:54 PM on November 23, 2007

As a disclaimer, although I have no official affiliation with the schools, this is my old neighborhood and many of these students were my neighbors when I lived in the Main South neighborhood.

I wanted the FPP to stand alone from my GYOB input, so I'll put it here.

The University Park School is a success, in my opinion, for three main reasons:

First, college is turned from a pipe dream into a real expectation. For kids in this neighborhood, that's often a big change. Almost all of them will be the first in their family to go to college, most live in households where English isn't even the primary language spoken. In addition to the high expectations in the classroom, these kids interact with professors and college students in the neighborhood and it makes college something that they can relate to.

Second, home difficulties are worked with but are not considered excuses for failure. I think that some people seeing this for the first time sense that it is cruel or inhumane. The fact is that broken homes are the rule, rather than the exception, in Main South. Kids that succeed in this neighborhood do so despite adversity rather than because they don't know of it.

Lastly, there is a culture in the neighborhood that is hopeful despite what so many of the residents deal with on a day to day basis. Unlike many of the most desperate urban areas, there is both a desire to succeed and a way to actually make it happen.

It's obviously more complicated than all of this, but here you have it.
posted by rollbiz at 8:59 PM on November 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think the difference between Clark and Brown trying this is that Clark is literally in this neighborhood, which is one of the worst in Worcester. Brown, on the other hand, is surrounded by the lovely East Side of Providence. I drive through the Main South area of Worcester all the time and am glad to hear that at least one of the colleges in Wormtown is a good neighbor.
posted by Biblio at 9:02 PM on November 23, 2007


The neighborhood has a large immigrant population (including the Vietnamese with probably make up most of the Asian numbers above), but also a standing African American population. Add to that the college population, and you have Main South.

A map of the area and the interaction between Clark University and the surrounding area.
posted by rollbiz at 9:07 PM on November 23, 2007

Also, a look at Main South.
posted by rollbiz at 9:18 PM on November 23, 2007

(Photos above by UPCS kids)
posted by rollbiz at 9:19 PM on November 23, 2007

rollbiz- only 11% of the students are African American. If they're a large part of the community, they're not a large component of this school.

huronbob- that's just it. I don't think this is an at-risk population at all. They're ambitious kids from ambitious immigrant homes.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:28 PM on November 23, 2007

I'm also curious how many of the African-American students are children of first-generation immigrants from Africa - according to Wikipedia, immigrants from Africa have the highest educational attainment rates of any minority group in the US.
posted by pravit at 10:06 PM on November 23, 2007

Only 7% of the population of Worcester and 9% of the school's zip code is Black. In fact, the census tract (smaller than a zip code) containing the school is, indeed, 11% Black.

Though, of course, the Census defines "race" a bit differently than the widespread social construct.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:08 PM on November 23, 2007

I love posts like this.

(But I'm always a little afraid to click on the comments, because on MetaFilter, it's possible to be dour and cynical about even the best news, apparently.)

Thanks for the links!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:12 PM on November 23, 2007


What's your point, exactly? If they're not African American kids or they're not first generation, they can't be at-risk? The success rate they've had is discounted because of how recently they might have "gotten off the boat"? This is somehow directly related to their motivation levels in your eyes, it seems. I don't understand it.

The major population of the area is lower income Latino families. Some are recent immigrants, more are not. The Vietnamese population here is not predominantly recent either. There's also an old Albanian population, a new West African population, and more.

The community is certainly not unique, there are many like it here in MA alone. Results seem to show that the school outperforms those in similar areas.
posted by rollbiz at 10:16 PM on November 23, 2007

I'm just not feeling the snark on this one. I think it's a nice achievement and should be lauded for what it is.

The effort shouldn't be shot down because the kids in the school are probably the best and brightest in the area -- had the school not been there, I suspect many of those students would have been ground down by the regular schools.

It's a good start. We shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that what they're doing will necessarily scale up to an entire school district's population, but that doesn't mean that other areas shouldn't emulate it.

If every city in the U.S. started a 250-student school like this, we'd have (250 * number of cities) fewer students in crap schools, and that's a hell of a start from where I'm viewing the problem.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:48 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yay, Clark, yay, Worcester! (My niece is in the education program at Clark.) Clark is very much part of Worcester, less town-gown stuff than with some other schools.

(PS The school (11 percent black and 18 percent Asian) reflects the demographics of the community.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:20 PM on November 23, 2007

"Demographics" isn't defied here at all. When somebody accomplishes this with non-immigrant African American kids at a high school that's not a de facto magnet school, I'll be uplifted.

when that happens we'll all be uplifted. But you gotta start somewhere. There's nothing about this article that leads me to believe it wouldn't work with any group of kids in any underserved neighborhood in this country.

And it's slightly ridiculous for you to insinuate that the reason the Detroit Public schools are criminally failing to educate their students is because the families aren't ambitious enough. I would argue that the Detroit public schools aren't ambitious enough.

It really is all about expectations. In any school there will be a small percentage of kids who for whatever reason are just unreachable, and a percentage of kids who are gonna succeed no matter what. You can pretty much tell how good a school is by which kids are considered the exception, and which are considered the norm. Most of the kids are in the middle somewhere, just doing what's expected of them.
posted by billyfleetwood at 12:26 AM on November 24, 2007

I hate to break it to you guys, but ethnomethodologis is correct. No way these are "at risk" kids. However, society must find human resources wherever they exist, not imagine human resources that don't exist. It's great if that means magnet schools catering to poor but ambitious kids, since usually those human resources come almost exclusively from the middle class.

pravit, African-American culture is the problem, not biology. Also immigrants are frequently ambitious and driven people.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:13 AM on November 24, 2007

hold up.

do y'all (ethnomethodologis and jeffburdges, that is) know how hard it is to teach students who mostly don't speak English at home? Yes, immigrants are frequently ambitious. However, immigrants - especially immigrants of color - still have huge barriers to cross to get a decent education, not least of which are language, racism, economic... Insisting that they're not an at-risk population is completely absurd - just look at stats for any other urban public school system in the country.

also -

"African-American culture is the problem, not biology.

Are you being serious right now? What is this, the 1980s? "Culture of poverty" ignores the huge, and very real, obstacles that exist in our society for African-Americans and other people of color. If there is somewhat of a cultural pessimism in the education system, it's largely due to the overwhelming systemic racism found there.
posted by lunit at 5:47 AM on November 24, 2007

I don't think this magnet school works as a referendum on the challenges of black kids and education/poverty in the US. It's a magnet school in a very poor New England town. It has a decent proportion of black kids (@10 percent), which correlates to its community (a very poor New England town).

There are particular challenges with each group of poor kids. No one is claiming that the barriers faced by limited English immigrant children are exactly the same as the barriers faced by "non-immigrant" black children.

My experience as a white foster parent of a black child with learning disabilities and an Asian LEP child -- there are all kinds of barriers to education and self-sufficiency, from language to racism to crappy schools to urban culture to trauma to learning disabilities. There is no one barrier -- it's not just racism, just poverty, just black culture, just language -- it's everything. So there's no one solution, either.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:06 AM on November 24, 2007

Thanks for the interesting commentary from all sides, it's why I love bringing stuff like this to Metafilter.

To those who have argued that these kids are the cream of the crop, this is true only in that the students or their parents need to have taken the initiative to apply. However, unlike many other schools of its type, there is no entrance exam. Students are chosen from a lottery of the willing, rather than by aptitude.

And for those who are arguing that these are not at-risk kids, please come visit Main South and make that same argument afterwards if you are still compelled to. I'll gladly provide the tour and a comfortable couch to sleep on...

ClaudiaCenter- Clark is a great school and their education program is top notch. An interesting aside is that Clark offers a free 5th year masters, a friend of mine got her masters in education and was very satisfied with her experience. It made her a great urban teacher and I recommend it highly.
posted by rollbiz at 12:32 PM on November 24, 2007

This is an uplifting story but as usual with short pieces like this I am left wanting more detail.

"High expectations" is pretty vague. Every teacher I've met believes their kids are capable of great things. But how are these expectations communicated to the child so that the child buys into them as well?

The article says that bad behavior "is not tolerated," but again I am left wanting to know more about the details of this. I think "not tolerating" bad behavior is common sense from a certain perspective, but it can be carried out badly or well.

The relationship with the college is given in more concrete detail and sounds really exciting. Unfortunately not every public school can have a college as their partner. This is not to say that just because this school is not reproducible, it isn't laudable. But as a teacher myself, I am always looking for those who have a system that works to share it with the rest of the world in such a way that we can use their ideas.
posted by mai at 4:49 PM on November 24, 2007

Yay, Clark - my alma mater!

I second rollbiz's testimony about how poor and rough the Main South neighborhood is. I grew up a few blocks away and worked in social service agencies in the neighborhood for a number of years. While the streets in the immediate one or two block periphery of Clark have picked up, there are some pretty mean streets a stone's throw away. I don't what the paper demographics show, but I do know these neighborhoods and the kids who live there sure look at risk to me. The ethnic composition is as so aptly described by rollbiz.

I don't live in Worcester any longer, but my sister is one of the Clark staff that lives in the neighborhood, part of the University's subsidized incentive program to increase home ownership and revitalize the neighborhood, as discussed in the first link. Her kids go to a parochial school, but participate in the summer educational and sports camps offered by Clark. They all either are attending or will attend Clark for their undergraduate degrees.

The University's relationship with the inner city neighborhood has been exemplary. In addition to the outstanding educational programs discussed in this thread, Clark also has a host of strong neighborhood economic development programs.

I'm glad to see Clark getting some recognition for being a community leader and excellent neighbor.

Great post, rollbiz, thanks!
posted by madamjujujive at 2:15 AM on November 25, 2007

Wow, mjjj...I had no idea you were a Clark alum. Clark is a fantastic school and neighbor, I am not an alumni but many of the friends that brought me to this city and those I've made since then are. My girlfriend is also a Clarkie, Class of '04.

As a neighbor of the school until last year (yay Woodbine St.) I think it can't be stated enough what a great asset the university is to the neighborhood. Clark has invested in an area that so many other academic institutions would buy up and wall in.

The work that Clark and the Main South Community Development Center have done is really amazing. They've taken a downright frightening area like Kilby-Gardner and made a beautiful stretch of housing for low-income first time buyers. It's the first time in a long while that people in that neighborhood have given a damn about it, but it's theirs now. They own a piece of it, and they don't want it going back to crap.
posted by rollbiz at 7:58 PM on November 25, 2007

rollbiz, I can't bring myself to tell you my graduation year *cries*

I agree with all the kudos you heap on Clark - they are very socially responsible indeed - a real boon to the community.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:27 PM on November 25, 2007

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