With stock reports flashing on two big screens behind him and a room full of high school students in front of him, Nicholas Lopez, then an FIU senior, seemed part financial wizard, part game show host.
One minute he was asking his students to make a decision on a financial strategy or stock pick. The next, he was quizzing them on the state of the federal budget deficit.
“Does anyone know what we mean when we talk about the budget deficit,” he queried.
“It means you’re spending more than you take in,” called out one student.
“That’s right,” Lopez said. “And that’s important whether it’s your family spending too much or it’s spending at the national level.”
Lopez, who majored in finance and economics, taught the basic financial literacy course to students from Miami Northwestern Senior High School in the spring of this year. Recently graduated from FIU, he saw his role as helping the teens understand how economics on a broad scale affects them in real-life, everyday ways.
Taught at the College of Business’ State Farm Financial Literacy Lab, the course is just one small piece of a broad partnership between FIU, Miami Northwestern and Miami-Dade County Public Schools called the Education Effect.
The goals of the project – a first for FIU – are far-reaching and ambitious. To create a college-going culture at a school with a proud tradition of athletic prowess but an academic record as one of Miami-Dade County’s persistently low-performing schools. To improve graduation rates at Liberty City’s landmark high school – a place once described in a high-profile national study as a “drop-out factory.” And to increase parent and community involvement in an area plagued with poverty and crime.
A model partnership
Funded by a $1 million investment from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, the Education Effect is entering its third year and has already demonstrated the kind of success that has school officials calling it a model for Miami-Dade County.
Assistant Superintendent Pablo Ortiz, who oversees the district’s persistently low performing schools through the Education Transformation Office, said he would like to see the partnership replicated.
“With the assistance of FIU, Miami Northwestern has built a culture where students are seeing that there is a world after high school,” he said. “It has helped support the college-going culture we want to instill in all of our high schools.”
JP Morgan describes the Education Effect as a “best in class” initiative for the foundation.
“We believe a partnership like this demonstrates the power that private and public resources working together can have in providing more opportunities for the future leaders in every community,” said Guillermo Castillo, market leader for Chase in South Florida. “Helping youth attain their full academic potential is the best investment in stronger communities.”
And FIU President Mark Rosenberg said he hopes the university can launch a similar initiative at another struggling school.
“If our public schools are going to be improved, we have to take responsibility. It’s going to happen one student, one school and one family at a time,” he said. “Their success is critical to our success. The better the public schools are, the better we are.”
The milestones reached so far are impressive.
The Miami Northwestern graduation rate jumped 12 percent in one year – from 64 percent in 2011 to 76 percent in 2012. This year, it hit nearly 80 percent.
A record 190 students from this year’s graduating class – more than half – were accepted into colleges, universities and the military. Graduates earned a combined total of nearly $6 million in scholarships and grants, another record.
For the second year in a row, the school received a B grade – up from its historical D/F rating. And the percentage of students earning a 3.0 grade point average or higher has doubled – from 15 percent to 30 percent.
New academic culture
Important though they are, statistics only tell part of the story.
The real change, says Principal Wallace Aristide, is in the kids’ attitudes.
“They have bought in 100 percent,” said Aristide, who became principal in 2011, the year the partnership with FIU began. “They believe in it and they believe in themselves. The change has been phenomenal.”
Most notably, the conversations are different, Aristide said.
“I see kids now and they’re telling me about their grades, their scores,” he said. “There’s a buzz and it’s about academics. Before that wasn’t even part of the equation.”
When Miami Northwestern graduates like Rene Maurice or Shaquilla Thomas, both now in their second year at FIU, come back to visit, Aristide said it’s as if rock stars have arrived on campus.
“The kids look at them and say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’” he said. “This is a real live person, their classmate, from their neighborhood and they’re going to college. It’s the beginning of something for them to see that.”
“Over the last few years, the school has dramatically changed,” agrees Angie Fleuraissaint, who graduated in 2012 and entered FIU with a $26,000 scholarship. “You hear people talking about college more. The school really prepared us.”
Based on what’s called a “university-assisted community school” model pioneered at the University of Pennsylvania, the Education Effect is a multi-layered approach to transforming student education. It’s designed to marshal the resources and intellectual capital of a major public research university to tackle the most pressing issues at a struggling school – and the neighborhood that surrounds it.
“We are the portal of access to a better future through education,” said Irma Becerra-Fernandez Ph.D. ’94, vice president of FIU’s Office of Engagement, which was created in 2010 to oversee community partnerships like the Education Effect. “Our currency is our intellectual assets and that’s what we are sharing with Miami Northwestern and the entire community.”
There are benefits for FIU as well, said Maria Lovett, director of the partnership and a clinical assistant professor in the College of Education.
“It’s a mutually beneficial model,” Lovett said. “FIU faculty and students can contribute to the needs at the school but also participate in research and service learning. It’s an incredible opportunity for FIU to be advocates and part of the conversation of educational transformation.”
The main focus of the partnership is academics, but the project takes a holistic approach to improving student learning. Environmental factors, such as student health and safety, parental involvement, community engagement and teacher preparation are just as vital.
In fact, the partnership has led to the creation of several new initiatives, including the Health Effect, designed to eventually offer basic preventive medicine and other health care to students and their families at the school clinic.
“The social, emotional and health components are all interrelated,” said Tyra Tate, a “trust” specialist at the school. “If we do a better job at dealing with all these issues – mental health, physical screenings, health education – students will become better consumers and take better measures to care for themselves in the future. It’s about broadening their horizons.”
A college experience
Broadening their horizons includes time spent on the FIU campus. All students get to experience college firsthand at least once through Panther for a Day, when they visit the FIU campus.
“Most of these kids have never been on a college campus,” said Corey Morris, who teaches the Freshman Experience class at Northwestern and takes students on field trips to FIU. “They were in awe. Some of them told me it was the highlight of their year.”
Beyond mere exposure to FIU, the grant from JP Morgan supports a wide variety of initiatives, such as the expansion of dual enrollment classes, which allow high school students to earn college credit, and service learning programs, which combine classroom instruction with service to the community, both for students at Miami Northwestern and for FIU students.
Tania Lopez MA ’07, an FIU alumna who teaches “Writing as Social Action” at FIU, designed a curriculum that includes mentoring writing students at Miami Northwestern. The FIU students hone their writing skills by teaching. The Northwestern students learn how to craft an argument, to see writing as a tool for social action.
“We encourage them to write about things they want to change in their community or their school,” she said.
Richard Williams is an advanced placement and dual enrollment English teacher at Miami Northwestern. He says he knows, at the beginning of the year, his students might not like him very much. The expectations are going to be high, he tells them.
“I want them to be able to compete,” he said. “And not just in academics. I want them to be better writers, better thinkers and, subsequently, better citizens.”
“I could have the next great Spielberg in here,” said Williams, who uses popular movies to illustrate concepts like symbolism and character development.
By the end of the semester, many in the class send him text messages analyzing the literary elements of movies they’ve seen.
“To see that light bulb go off is what it’s all about,” he said.
For Brandon Johnson, 17, Mr. Williams’ class was the hardest class – and the best class.
“It was daunting in the beginning but in the end, everybody in our class improved as a writer and a speaker,” said Johnson. “He treated us like college students. You had to be prepared and really put your all into it.”
For Johnson, the hard work paid off. He has been accepted into FIU’s Honors College on a 50 percent scholarship. He is the first in his family to go to college.
Same for Mark Kelly, 18, who initially chose to go to Miami Northwestern because of its athletic reputation. He, too, enters FIU this summer with a partial scholarship.
“Academics wasn’t a priority for me; basketball was,” said Kelly, who wants to go into business and finance. “But Northwestern raised the bar. You have to be a student first, then an athlete.”
Students mentoring students
Shaquilla Thomas, Northwestern Class of 2012 and now a sophomore at FIU, went to Northwestern in spite of her mother’s objections. She wanted to attend the school’s well-known medical magnet program but her mom was concerned about the school’s reputation for violence.
“She went there years ago and just figured nothing had changed,” Thomas said. “There was no discipline, a lot of violence, kids just sneaking out of school all the time.”
But Thomas’s experience exceeded her expectations. She took all the advanced placement and dual enrollment courses she could and ended up with a full scholarship to FIU in Fall 2012. She was among the first class of students to attend the FIU Golden Scholars program, a six-week summer “bridge” program to help incoming freshmen make the transition to college life.
Now, Thomas is a facilitator for Panther Camp, a three-day retreat for new students at FIU. She often goes back to Liberty City to talk to kids at Miami Northwestern about college life. She has also been invited to tell her story to thousands of new students at Freshman Convocation in August.
“I’ve experienced so much in this first year and grown so much,” she said. “I love going back and sharing that with other students. I want to give back. I want to be that mentor that others were for me.”
That’s the kind of outlook that gives Principal Aristide hope for the future of Northwestern.
“We know there is still a lot of work to be done but we are headed in the right direction,” he said. “Our students see that there is a whole world out there for them.” ♦
Photos by Doug Garland ’10