White House advisors visit FIU, Miami Northwestern to discuss partnerships

Brandon Allen

Miami Northwestern senior Brandon Allen identifies plants in the school’s organic garden during a visit by White House advisor David Johns.

After visiting the organic garden at Miami Northwestern Senior High School and seeing how students harvest nutritious, edible plants to share with families in Liberty City, David Johns had one question for his tour guide, senior Brandon Allen.

“How has this changed the conversation in your house, the things you talk about with your parents,’’ asked Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.

“It’s completely changed,’’ said Brandon, who will attend FIU in the fall. “My mom wanted to know where I was getting all this information. We never talked about things like this. And going to college. We never talked about that until now, until The Education Effect.’’

David Johns

White House advisor David Johns toured the organic garden at Miami Northwestern Senior High School in Liberty City.

With that, Brandon turned and hugged Maria Lovett, partnership director for The Education Effect, FIU’s university community school partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, now in its third year at Northwestern.

“Access to opportunity is the issue here,’’ said Lovett, also a professor in FIU’s College of Education. “These kids have the spark … they are driving all of this. ’’

Johns, who was tapped by President Obama earlier this year to help bridge the achievement gap for African-American students, was in Miami last week as part of a White House roundtable event on minority student achievement held at Sun Life Stadium, along with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Marco Davis, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Johns, a former teacher who also served as an education policy advisor to the Senate, said his job is to leverage federal resources to support – and replicate – the kind of work being done at Northwestern.

White House Visit

White House advisor David Johns, far right, visited Miami Northwestern Senior High School recently to learn more about The Education Effect.

“Every young person should be excited about education,’’ said Johns, who met with leaders from FIU, M-DCPS and Miami Northwestern for nearly two hours in the school’s library. “You guys are already doing the work. Our goal is to accelerate and highlight that work.’’

“I’ve taken lots of notes and have already tweeted about this,’’ he joked. “Let’s continue to partner and share best practices.’’

Johns’ tour of Miami Northwestern included a visit to the aquaponics lab, the largest of its kind in Miami-Dade County, where students in agro-ecology classes learn to grow herbs and tilapia. He sampled smoothies created by students using human-powered blender bikes they built with the help of FIU engineering students. And he received first-hand instruction in primary numbers from students engaged in the Algebra Project, a national model for mathematics instruction created by civil rights leader Bob Moses.

Johns also heard about the students’ efforts to improve their community by teaching what they’ve learned about healthy eating at elementary schools and community events. Working with professors from FIU, the school is involved in efforts to eradicate the “food desert” in Liberty City by increasing the availability of fresh produce.

Students are also working on a community mural project and landscape initiative with FIU’s College of Architecture + the Arts to beautify Liberty City and increase the “tree canopy” in Liberty Square, the largest public housing project in the country.

Earlier in the week, Davis, of the White House Hispanic Education Initiative, visited FIU to talk with students and administrators about increasing college success for minorities, collaboration with the public school system and STEM curriculum reform. He spoke to more than 20 FIU students who are headed to Washington, D.C. for summer internships, as part of the DC Summer Internship Experience, now in its fourth year.

Beyond The Education Effect, the White House team learned about ACCESS, FIU’s overarching partnership with M-DCPS – in particular, the dual enrollment program, which has grown from 425 students enrolled in 2009 to more than 6,000 students today.

“We are helping students get closer to a college degree and save more than $3.8 million in tuition,’’ said Provost Douglas Wartzok.

Wartzok discussed FIU’s highly successful Graduation Success Initiative, recognized last fall with a national award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities for making visible progress toward improving graduation rates.

Laird Kramer, the director of FIU’s STEM Transformation Institute, detailed the university’s efforts to increase the quantity and quality of science and math teachers in the region. FIU recently received a $1.45 million grant from the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) to replicate its successful UTeach program at FIU.

“We are committed to producing 50 to 60 new science and math teachers each year,’’ Kramer said. “Students want to be intellectually challenged and we want to provide them with that.’’

Miami Northwestern Principal Wallace Aristide, who has seen his school improve from a historic “D/F” rating to its first-ever “A” grade this year, said the partnership with FIU has been transformative but is not a “one size fits all” approach.

Students are given opportunities to excel in many areas, based on their interests, from culinary arts and environmental science to welding and agro-ecology. They are exposed to career opportunities as well as core academics.

“These young people are a success story,’’ he said, noting that this year’s seniors have earned more than $8 million in scholarships, up from $6 million last year. “The partnership with FIU has had a snowball effect. We are getting better every day. We have gone from being called a dropout factory to having a graduation rate of 80 percent and possibly as high as 85 percent this year.’’

Carlos Becerra, director of federal relations for FIU, helped organize the White House advisors’ visits and said the university’s  collaboration with M-DCPS and its work at Miami Northwestern are “scalable models’’ that can and should be replicated nationally.

“This is cutting edge work and we want to share what we’ve learned with the rest of the country,’’ said Becerra. “These are public-private partnerships that are making a difference in young people’s lives.’’

FIU and M-DCPS recently announced the first expansion of The Education Effect to another inner-city school, Booker T. Washington Senior High in Overtown, funded by a $1 million donation from The Lennar Foundation.  This commitment was singled out for inclusion in the White House’s College Opportunity Summit, held earlier this year.

At Booker T., the partnership will focus on astronomy and engineering, said Vice President for Engagement Irma Becerra-Fernandez, whose Office of Engagement oversees The Education Effect.

“FIU is committed to being a solutions center and tackling the difficult problems our community is facing today,’’ she said. “By aligning our efforts with the school district and with our community partners, we are helping transform schools and communities.’’

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