Pairing academic work and human-service jobs

AUDREY COHEN has never gone sky diving, from an airplane, that is. But she has tried the educational equivalent. It happened when she opened the College for Human Services (CHS), a federally financed program for inner-city women. Since 1964, the program has been training women to serve the needs of their own community here in the SoHo district of New York. ``The first time you jump out of an airplane, you have to ask, will the parachute open?'' says Ms. Cohen. ``That's what we had to ask ourselves when we opened the college. As you can see, it did.''

She jumped again in 1974, when she radically restructured the associate degree curriculum at her college to account for the fact that 70 percent of the work force will be employed in service-sector jobs. And again in 1983, when her college introduced its service-sector curriculum to students in Junior High School 99 in East Harlem.

She has just landed from her latest jump - in Palm Beach, Dade, and Escambia Counties, Fla., where local public schools and CHS will jointly run a pilot program next fall that is primarily for but not limited to students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and are likely to drop out of school.

The unique CHS approach, carefully tested in both a college and public school setting for more than a decade, integrates the humane purpose of human-service jobs with academic learning. Florida educators were attracted to the program because it makes connections between students' out-of-school and in-school experiences - connections many `at risk' students seem unable to make otherwise.

``We were very impressed with the concept, philosophy, and approach of the College for Human Services,'' says John DeWitt, who will head the middle school program in Pensacola, Fla. A grant from the Florida Department of Education will cover staff development expenses.

What is the CHS philosophy?

``The heart of the CHS philosophy,'' Cohen says, is to ``link a theory of learning around the purpose and values of an individual. The purpose, expressed in some aspect of employment in the service economy, comes first. The knowledge follows.'' Or, as she likes to say, ``We have turned education right side up.'' She describes human-service workers as essentially generalists who draw on a variety of knowledge and skills - communications, counseling, working in groups - to meet the needs of children, either preschool or in school and especially dropouts or potential dropouts, the elderly, single-parent homemakers, the handicappped.

A central facet of the service economy, she says - and one that is reflected in every course at CHS - is that doing good means you can earn more money. Doing good is a bottom-line consideration.

In 1979 the college received accreditation from the New York State Board of Regents. Middle Atlantic States accreditation came in 1984. Just this month the master's program in business and social services was accredited by the New York Board of Regents.

The CHS curriculum defines eight ``crystals'' of expertise an individual must master to succeed in the service economy. These areas make up the core of what is called the ``crystal curriculum.'' (Cohen views learning as occurring like a crystal, which grows from the inside out.)

For each of three terms per year, students take five multidisciplinary courses - skills, systems, self and others, values and ethics, and purpose - each of which has direct bearing on the crystal being studied at any given moment. The crystals change each term, and by graduation a student has studied all eight crystals from the vantage point of the five courses.

The crystals are: (1)assume responsibility for lifelong learning; (2)develop professional relationships with citizens and co-workers; (3)work with others in groups; (4)function as a teacher; (5)function as a counselor; (6)function as community liaison; (7)function as a supervisor; and (8)act as an agent for change.

This is not to say there is no rigorous study of academic subjects. ``The vast majority of young people today need to have some sense that the great ideas have some meaning in life and that they can take these ideas and have some effect in their lives,'' says Cohen. But first and foremost she wants students to see themselves and to experience themselves as personally active changers of the world, she says. ``CHS necessitates an interdisciplinary approach,'' says Tom Weber, assistant to the director of the Edwin Gould Foundation and a former teacher and dean at CHS. He heads a project at the foundation that is actively exploring whether to take over the operation of a New York City juvenile detention center on land the foundation owns. If the foundation were to go ahead with the project, it would adopt a number of the techniques and approaches used in the CHS curriculum.

``Your average teacher can buy into the service-sector curriculum,'' says Linda Hill, a New York City public school teacher and director of the CHS junior high program at Public School 121 in East Harlem. She praises the crystal approach because of its interdisciplinary demands. ``We get to know the students better, because we are seeing them not only through our own eyes, but regularly through the eyes of other teachers,'' she says.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

Constructive action can make a difference

Central to the College for Human Services curriculum is the requirement for constructive action. This action must be directed toward a real purpose, involving mastery of broad areas of knowledge, and it is predicated on improving the lives of individuals and groups.

But for eighth-grader Omar Vega at the CHS junior high school in PS 121 in East Harlem, such academic theories are a bit rarefied. He sees his constructive action as both a chance to see a wider world and to make a difference in it. Once a week for four hours he serves an internship at the Brownstone Learning Center, a preschool in Manhattan. He reads stories to younger children as well as helping them with memorization games.

``Once you get a goal you want to reach it,'' he says. ``It teaches us responsibility.'' After each session at the learning center, he finds it very easy, and very worthwhile, to come back to school and share with his classmates the experiences he had that morning.

Shanae McCants, also in the eighth grade, is doing her internship in the Museum of the City of New York. Her ``crystal'' this semester is linked to service. She finds that her Spanish class at school enables her to help people who can't speak English when they come to the gift shop at the museum. But though it's more fun than what she used to do, she still finds the written assignments ``too much,'' and ``too many.''

Rather urbanely, Omar offers a personal insight. ``I'm still young yet. Right now I'm keeping my goals simple, because I want to go to college. But I'd kinda like to make big bucks and [publish] independent comics.''

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