Colleges, cultural institutes team up to aid local schools

Since 1983 Philadelphia's 17 colleges and universities, together with 81 of its cultural institutions, have been involved in a unique experimental alliance with one another and with the public schools. The results have been impressive.

For teachers, the alliance -- known as PATH -- has provided courses, seminars, and summer workshops on such topics as the Constitution (in cooperation with Independence National Historical Park), Shakespeare (LaSalle University), and Afro-American literature (Temple University).

For students it has produced a writing program that makes composition a part of every class from gym to math and a reading program that has succeeded in helping some nonreaders become literate.

The partnership has proven so promising, in fact, that the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided ideas and funding for the Philadelphia pilot project, recently announced that PATH will now move to seven new cities, including St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New York, and Seattle.

Judith Hodgeson, PATH's executive director, explains that part of the project's thrust grows out of the premise that ``teachers must keep up -- must be active in their fields. . . . The [skill] of teaching is important, but so is knowing your subject.'' Not only do they need midcareer enrichment, she indicates, they also deserve it.

``Our status totem pole for teaching is wrong,'' Dr. Hodgeson observes. ``College professors are seen as most important, and the single kindergarten teacher -- the one who first teaches reading -- is least important. It's too easily forgotten that [teaching grade school] is beastly hard work.''

PATH, Hodgeson explains, aims to boost the quality of teaching by offering teachers extended seminars on diverse humanities topics. And a number of the participating colleges and universities, she says, have provided teachers with auditing privileges in their humanities courses at no cost. PATH also publishes a regular newsletter that includes a calendar of area humanities events.

In addition to the programs for teachers, PATH also provides some for students. The tour de force is ``Writing Across the Curriculum.'' This amounts to a full-scale recognition by the Philadelphia school system of the primacy of writing in the learning process.

Writing, as the lucid setting forth of ideas, has been incorporated into curriculum at all grade levels of the Philadelphia system. Mathematics, music, and even gym teachers assign writing exercises appropriate to their subjects. Kindergarteners do ``scribble drawings'' -- preliterate squiggles that are translated elsewhere on the paper by the teacher, based on the student's explanation of what was intended.

Building on teaching innovations developed in the early '70s by San Francisco educators, PATH has sought, in Dr. Hodgeson's words, to ``de-toxify the writing experience.'' This has meant, among other things, less corrective red penciling by teachers.

As Barbara Horwitz, a reading teacher at the Farrell Elementary School explains, ``We've taken away the stigma of not being perfect. Now, there's more emphasis on process. A perfect paper that says nothing is not what we want.''

How have the students responded to the new approach?

``Our whole first floor is covered with students' writing,'' she says.

Older social studies classes read original historical documents rather than standard textbooks whenever possible. This is one means of teaching quality of thought and expression by example.

How is success gauged in a program like PATH?

There is obviously more occurring here than will register in test scores and report cards. Philadelphia teacher Josephine Viviani cites one example. One of her students in library studies is fifth-grader Andy Mendez. Andy was in the John Moffett School's Benchmark program, a remedial track. The school had pegged him as a nonreader.

Ms. Viviani, with books bought through a PATH mini-grant and with a storytelling knack polished by a PATH-arranged consultant, captivated Andy Mendez. His book reports, given at public presentations, are now among the school's best. He is an avowed ex-nonreader.

The indications are that Andy Mendez is just one of thousands of city children whose education and lives are being enriched by PATH.

Philadelphia's educators note many positive changes as a result of PATH changes, they assert, that will benefit learning and rapport among the city's institutions well after the program grant expires next year.

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