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University Assisted Community Schools


Higher Learning at University-Assisted Community Schools 

"Educate. Engage. Empower." This belief drives the mission of the University of Pennsylvania's Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which developed the model of University-Assisted Community Schools. Although the Netter Center helped create a national vision for university-community relations starting in the late 1980s, similar work has been occurring across the country. In fact, increasing numbers of colleges and universities are mobilizing their resources to help traditional public schools become hubs of real-world, problem-solving learning and innovative university-community partnerships.


Twenty-five of these higher education institutions today have developed a network, organized by the Coalition for Community Schools and the Netter Center, to create a professional learning community and regularly share best practices.

The promise of University-Assisted Community Schools (UACS) is their capacity to utilize the higher education institution’s academic and human resources to ensure learning is a mutually beneficial process for all members of the surrounding community, from the pre-K student to the tenured university professor.

"To make a real change in education, it needs to happen pre-K to 20+," says Dr. Ira Harkavy, Founding Director of the Netter Center. "What makes the UACS model particularly significant is that it advances learning at all levels of schooling." But how exactly do colleges and universities create more and better learning?

UACS improves learning by linking school day and after-school curricula with projects that develop students’ civic capacities and solve locally identified community problems. The work of the Netter Center and Florida International University in their neighboring communities provide two examples.

Netter Center for Community Partnerships

The Netter Center recruits and deploys hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students to lead school-day, after-school, and summer learning programs in the neighboring West Philadelphia community. These expanded learning opportunities tackle critical community problems in the environment, the arts, health, and education.


In 2012, the University of Pennsylvania was presented one of five Presidential Awards -- the highest federal recognition a college or university can receive for its commitment to community service in the category of Summer Learning. Many UACS initiatives of the Netter Center were highlighted in this category, including "Leaders of Change," an afterschool and summer program offered to high school students focusing on citizenship, democracy, and community-based learning. Throughout this program, students embark on a community research-action project to improve a problem that they identify in their own school or community. Utilizing a peer-assisted learning approach, Penn undergraduate students lead the classes while the high school students research their chosen curricular topic and present a final proposal at a community forum.

"This approach allows them to make contributions as citizens while learning as students," says Dr. Harkavy. "No participant is just a consumer of knowledge; rather, they are all producers of knowledge."


The organizing vehicle for this work is the Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses coordinated by the Netter Center, which integrate research, teaching, learning, and service around action-oriented, community problem-solving. Each academic year, some 1,800 Penn graduate and undergraduate students from a range of disciplines work in the community, most of them in University-Assisted Community Schools in West Philadelphia. For example, a series of six ABCS courses in Penn’s Earth and Environmental Science Department focus on environmentally-based and environmentally-triggered diseases, particularly those related to asthma, tobacco, lead poisoning, air quality, water quality, and community health. Working together, Penn undergraduates and faculty, public school students and teachers, and community members engage in environmental research to help improve the students' homes, schools, and neighborhoods. 

Dr. Harkavy believes a university’s focus on service learning and real world problem-solving is significant for community schools because it engages students in issues relevant to themselves and their community. 

"It connects to their lives. It connects to the things that they know, that their parents know, and that their community knows. It also matters to them. It’s not abstract. They have an energy for it because it isn’t foreign to their experience. They care about it because it is a lived experience. They feel efficacious because they can actually do something." 

Florida International University and the "Education Effect"

Florida International University (FIU) also recognizes its responsibility to bridge the interests of the university with those of the community by focusing their work on Liberty City and Miami Northwestern Senior High School, previously one of the lowest-performing schools in the Miami-Dade school district. Calling their initiative the "Education Effect," the partnership connects schools in the community with university expertise, resources, and research-based intervention programs to implement in-school, afterschool and summer programs that prepare Miami Northwestern students to be college and career-ready citizens.

One unique learning opportunity FIU supports is the Aquaponics Lab and Organic Garden, an integrated program for advancing STEM education that cuts across disciplines of science, business, culinary arts, and social studies. Working with the Department of Earth and Environment’s Agro-Ecology Program, students learn the science of developing and sustaining biodiversity and travel to FIU’s campus to engage in science-based learning at a university laboratory.

Some of the results of the Education Effect at Miami Northwestern include: 


  • Achieving the school’s first "A" grade, up from its historical "D/F" grade in 2014
  • Increasing the percentage of students earning 3.0 GPA or higher from 15% to 45%
  • Increasing graduation rate from 64% to 80%
  • Increasing number of students accepted to post-secondary education by 10%
  • Increasing grade level reading from 19% to 30%.
  • Tripling the number of college credit courses available to Northwestern students and quadrupling the number of students participating

"When I walked into Miami Northwestern in the morning, it was as if there was a sense of opportunity at that school…it was as if that school was going to take me where I needed to go. I just had to grab that opportunity and run with it. The Education Effect has brought me to places where I had never thought. I didn’t know I was going to be in an Agro-Ecology program at FIU and have a $26,000 scholarship. When I was younger I always dreamed of being in the medical field. Now I am actually moving towards my dream." – Angie Fleuraissaint, Miami Northwestern Class of 2012

The successes at Miami Northwestern inspired a $1 million investment to expand The Education Effect to the neighboring community of Overtown and Booker T. Washington High School, further increasing the capacity of FIU’s community partnerships to effect change in the Miami community. 

University-Assisted Community Schools: Partners for Change

UACS programs capitalize on the expertise of their faculty members and the leadership of their students to create high-quality learning opportunities that enhance the expansive knowledge, civic responsibility, and leadership ability of students K-16+. As universities increasingly function as the lead agency or partner of community schools, the outlook is promising: these partnerships improve the quality of learning and the quality of life in local schools and communities while advancing university research, teaching, learning, and service. 

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