NU, area colleges, pledge funds to city schools

By Jill Campbell

Five Boston-area universities, including Northeastern, recently pledged $10 million to aid some of the city’s underachieving public schools in six areas of service and provide computer labs and tutor resources.

As part of Mayor Thomas Menino’s “StepUP” plan, formally announced Sept. 28, the universities will provide $5 million in funds and $5 million in services to 10 local public schools over the course of the next five years. The overall goals of the program are to improve the schools’ test scores and send more students to college.

“I won’t be satisfied until 100 percent of our students pass the MCAS, and every student has the opportunity to go on to higher education,” Menino told The Boston Globe on Sept. 29.

In an official report released last week, Menino outlined the six service areas on which the StepUP program will focus: professional development for teachers; curriculum and instructional support during and after school; student support, including tutoring; family involvement in students’ education in and out of the classroom; student health and wellness, including dental and medical checkups and an improved food service program; and evaluation, based on the needs of the individual school.

The five participating universities – Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, Tufts University and Harvard University – will divide up the responsibilities of the six areas.

“The mayor convened a meeting of the five universities’ presidents and issued a challenge,” Associate Director of Public Affairs Kathy Kottaridis said. “He didn’t say specifically what he wanted, except for us to help out the public schools. After a series of inventory and planning meetings, we developed this program.”

Kottaridis said Northeastern’s largest personal contribution to the StepUP program will be the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center, an educational center aimed at helping students from kindergarten through age 16 improve skills in each of the areas. The center will provide assistance to Advanced Placement (AP) science and math teachers on how to improve curriculums, send retired engineers to middle school science classes to assist with in-class projects, improve middle school math and science programs to better prepare students for high school, and send graduate students into high schools to co-teach AP courses.

While Kottaridis said the other participating universities were not as explicit about schools they wanted to work with, she said Northeastern knew from the start that it wanted to work with John D. O’Bryant High School in Roxbury and the Health Careers Academy, which is located in Cahners Hall.

O’Bryant High School, she said, already has strong programs in science and engineering and is looking to Northeastern to help improve students’ test scores. The Health Careers Academy has been in operation for about five years and would benefit from NU’s funding, because it cannot afford some of the basics that other schools can, like rent for its building and a school nurse.

“The next step is to get real, to sit down with representatives from the new schools and even with parents, and ask, ‘What is it that you need? How can Northeastern help you?'” Kottaridis said. “Based on the answers to those questions, we will generate our plan for the next five years.”

That plan, Kottaridis said, will include the involvement of Northeastern faculty members, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. While Northeastern already has a community service program, Kottaridis said this program will provide new service opportunities for STEM.

“Not as many courses in science, engineering and math have a service- or volunteer-related component [when compared with the offerings in other areas],” Kottatridis said. “We hope to encourage participation of students and faculty of the university to bring what they know into these two schools. It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and learn, but it’s another to take what you’re learning and apply it by way of teaching.”

Programs similar to StepUP are becoming common across the country. Mark Putnam, chief planning officer at Northeastern, said the reason for growth is because universities feel a responsibility to give back to their communities.

“The challenge of having a college or university present [in a city] is that it requires municipally-provided services, like fire, police and snow removal,” Putnam said. “But colleges and universities do not pay property taxes, so the municipality is providing services to the university and often feeling like it’s getting nothing back. More and more, universities are feeling a sense of obligation to be good citizens and to offer something back to the community.”

Kottaridis said property taxes are the major source of revenue for many of the cities and towns in New England. Boston, she said, is especially in need of reciprocation from its non-exempt properties, because more than 50 percent of the land in Boston is owned by tax-exempt hospitals, universities, government buildings and non-profit organizations.

“This is an opportunity for Northeastern to play an important social role,” she said. “[We are] interested in making sure we are seen as good neighbors, and it also gives us the chance … to build a diverse student body. The high school students will have the chance to come to campus and learn more about higher education so they’ll be better prepared [for college], and they’ll also know us better.”

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