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ANSWERING THE CALL TO SERVE: THE URBAN INITIATIVE

Executive Summary

The Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP) Urban Initiative seeks to develop a national model for preparing professionals to work in underserved urban communities. This can be achieved by building sustainability models for partnerships between universities and urban communities; developing the necessary processes and structures for community network building; and designing participatory action research methodologies that respond to community needs. As such, the initiative has the potential to redefine the relationship between universities and their urban neighbors.

The Urban Initiative will deepen the link between GSEP professional preparation programs and the education and mental health needs of those in under-resourced communities in the greater Los Angeles area. The initiative will support GSEP faculty and their community partners to understand and address, through the use of collaborative, participatory action research methods and projects, the mental health and educational issues associated with homelessness and poverty. Through participation in these projects, GSEP scholars will develop sustainable models and methods for university engagement in urban communities. Additionally, GSEP students involved in these projects will develop the skills and habits of mind needed to commit their careers to service in urban communities. By developing transformative processes for universities to work in urban communities to address social problems, GSEP will serve as a national resource for universities seeking to engage in urban community development in the areas of education and mental health programs.

GSEP is ideally suited to play a leadership role in designing processes for universities to prepare urban professionals to work in core urban areas. Problems of the urban poor often include both mental health and educational issues. The unique structure of GSEP as a graduate school of both education and psychology offers the opportunity for designing interdisciplinary approaches to solving complex urban problems.

Additionally, GSEP adopted the Boyer model of scholarship, which supports faculty to work in collaboration with community partners. This model of scholarship moves beyond the traditional notion of faculty in an '"ivory tower" to the conception of scholar/practitioner, which rewards the engaged community commitments of its faculty. Building on its long history of grass-roots engagement in urban communities, GSEP has the expertise and experience to build sustainable methods for university engagement in urban communities.

The Challenge

Newspaper headlines tell us of citizens for whom the American dream has yet to materialize: "1 million children homeless in America today," "L.A. Mayor sees dropout rate as a civil rights issue, as over 50% of students of color dropout of Los Angeles high schools."

GSEP believes that higher education has a responsibility to serve those whose voices have been silenced because of a lack of resources. Being born poor has become a crime in America. To quote Jonathan Kozol, urban education has become the "shame of a nation." Education for those of color and inadequate resources is often substandard. The mentally ill wander the streets of our cities, helpless, hungr,y and without hope.  Quality health care and education have become privileges. Many in the nation are in crisis.

The question of the relationship between graduate schools and their urban neighbors has never been more urgent. Urban schools and communities need their higher education neighbors to work in collaboration on the educational and mental health problems in under-resourced communities. The challenges of providing high-quality education in these communities are substantial. Students in urban schools are more likely than their suburban counterparts to come from low-income families and from homes where English is not the first language, these students often move from school to school as their parents search for housing and employment. These urban students are also more frequently educated in schools burdened by overcrowding, inadequate fiscal and human resources, bureaucratic rigidity and political interference and a transient teacher population. Academic achievement gains in the elementary and middle school settings are not sustained and sometimes offset by losses at the high school level. In most urban high schools, as many as half the students dropout before completing their studies, and many graduates are not adequately prepared for their futures, with up to one-third of high school graduates requiring remedial coursework at the postsecondary level.

Similar challenges exist for mental health workers in urban areas. A growing number of homeless, the challenges associated with single-family homes, the stress of urban living, gang violence, substance abuse, displacement issues among large numbers of immigrants, and limited services for the working poor combine to make preparing urban mental health workers crucial. Additionally, the AIDS pandemic creates a new set of mental health challenges for communities hardest hit. Minimum wage workers struggle to provide adequate health care for their families.  The situation is dire, yet critical needs continue to go unmet.

The grim facts of homelessness in Los Angeles are well known to researchers, community leaders and government agencies. For example, recent surveys have shown that approximately 88,000 people are homeless on any given night in Los Angeles County.  And, Los Angeles has more homeless persons than any other county in the United States. Veterans and persons of color, especially African Americans, are greatly over-represented among the homeless. Families, often headed by single mothers, represent a growing percentage of the homeless in Los Angeles, with nightly estimates ranging from 20% to 43%. The incidence of mental illness, substance abuse, and other mental health problems is substantially greater among the homeless than in the general community. At least one-third of the homeless in Los Angeles are estimated to have a mental illness, and 50% or more have substance abuse problems.

Tragically, higher education has left the urban poor behind. The structure and culture of the academic world is at odds with the immediacy of urban life. Too often universities begin exciting projects with urban programs only to find that sustaining these projects becomes mired in the cross-purposes of the university and their urban partners. Bridging this divide becomes an insurmountable job and the projects are left to wither on the vine. This history of failed experimentation has often left both the university and the community leery of partnerships. In addition, financial support for this kind of work has shrunk because funders look to this history as a sign that universities cannot sustain engagement at an effective level.

In addition, while often studying the problems of urban poverty, academics rarely roll-up their sleeves and engage in collaborative projects designed to reduce the negative effects of life in under-resourced communities. Too often, graduate schools stand as distant ivory towers - reminders of a future closed to those who live in their urban shadow.

GSEP plans to reverse this trend through its Urban Initiative with its focus on developing innovative solutions to the problems of methods and sustainability for university engagement in urban communities. The initiative is designed to provide students, faculty and their community partners the opportunity to purposefully serve the urban under-resourced. The Urban Initiative seeks to provide leadership by collaboratively designing and articulating the processes and structures necessary to effectively carry out this work.

Building on a History of Service

GSEP is an innovative learning community where faculty, staff, and students of diverse cultures and perspectives work collaboratively to foster academic excellence, social purpose, meaningful service, and personal fulfillment. As a graduate school within a Christian university, GSEP endeavors to educate and motivate students to assume leadership roles in professions that improve and enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities. GSEP has a long tradition of engagement with our urban neighbors. For over 50 years we have been preparing teachers, administrators and mental health workers for service in the greater Los Angeles area. Today, GSEP believes the time is right for formalizing and expanding its work in urban communities with a focus on identifying and defining the processes and structures necessary for universities to engage in collaborative work in urban communities. While many universities engage in narrowly defined urban projects, the systematic study of how that work is best done remains to be articulated. GSEP seeks to lead the way in that work.

Some of the current work by GSEP faculty in the areas of the Urban Initiative includes the following projects:

Developing tools to address the mental health needs of the homeless

Since January, 2001, GSEP Psychology faculty and students have operated a counseling clinic addressing the mental health treatment needs of homeless persons in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles. As a result, several homeless persons have received high quality clinical services and many graduate students have had life-changing training experiences in the program. Through partnerships with the Union Rescue Mission and Lane Community, the project is researching new forms of therapy developed specifically to use with homeless populations. In addition to addressing the current mental health treatment needs of homeless persons, the project aspires to produce mental health professionals who will be involved in providing services to under-served communities throughout their careers.  This project is currently working collaboratively with the Union Rescue Mission on the design of its services in their new residential facility for families in Los Angeles.

Providing community-based services for underserved populations and school-based early interventions/diversion programs

The Pepperdine Resource Youth Diversion and Education Program (PRYDE) provides counseling and referral services to over 1,400 teens and their families each year. In conjunction with the Orange County Sheriffs and Probation Department, these services are provided at five locations in Orange County. In addition, the Affiliated Counseling Education Program provides individual, group, and family counseling on campuses in public schools in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Counseling Services are provided in specific cities in Southern California for children, adolescents and adults. These services include individual, group, and family counseling, as well as gang intervention services.

Preparing educators for urban schools

As the Urban Initiative gets underway, masters and doctoral programs in educational leadership (ELA) continue to prepare urban school administrators. The Master of Arts in Education and Teaching Credential program (MAETC) has already begun to work to better prepare urban teachers. New research tells us that preparing teachers and administrators for urban schools must involve engaging these prospective professionals in the community in which a school sits. Teachers and leaders so trained are more likely to stay in urban schools and to have greater success helping students reach higher levels of academic achievement. To this end, MAETC and ELA is building a network of partnership urban schools, enabling them to better meet the needs of their students and to close the achievement gap. The impact of this deepened urban preparation programs will be felt by the students of the hundreds of new teachers who receive their initial teaching and administrative certifications through MAETC and ELA.

Education faculty members working in high-need urban schools have been developing approaches to address the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their middle class counterparts. Projects like test preparation and tracking student achievement rates have begun in our partnership schools in Compton. An employment pipeline has been built between GSEP and the Compton Unified School District to address high teacher attrition in that district. On-going after school tutoring programs in a variety of schools offers dual language speakers the opportunity to build language skills and to engage meaningfully with young adults. GSEP is currently seeking funding for a network of innovative teacher research centers where teachers can engage in school-based action research projects designed to improve student achievement. These centers have the potential of transforming partnership schools into nationally-recognized centers for action research in urban education.

Engaging communities in their schools

One of the strongest indicators of school success is parental engagement. Sadly, the parents who most need to be engaged with their children's school are often the least likely to be involved. Urban schools seldom provide the structures and avenues to empower parents. Recent research suggests that schools can create a climate that encourages parental involvement. Current GSEP faculty research is engaged with community parent groups. That work will be coming into the center of teacher preparation coursework and community life at GSEP. By working with grassroots parent advocacy groups and community members, this program is developing a model for engaging urban parents and community members in the education of pre-service teachers.

Supporting charter schools for urban communities

Charter schools are having initial success in some of the most under-resourced communities in the Los Angeles area. The potential of charter schools to improve Los Angeles public schools has been well documented in research reports from WestEd and other research centers.  Charter schools need teachers prepared to work in the unique environment of a charter school and professional development opportunities for their existing staff. GSEP faculty are in conversation with charter schools and charter school management companies about providing new teacher support services and credentialing services for charter schools in the Los Angeles area. An initial project with Santa Monica Community Charter School is developing the school as a Professional Development School.  Additionally, GSEP faculty are working with the Accelerated School in Los Angeles and Gertz-Ressler High School to design support services and students and staff and build mentoring programs.

Collaborating with the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles to support the Los Angeles Job Corps Center

The YWCA of Greater Los Angeles is embarking on an exciting building project in downtown Los Angeles that will house the Los Angeles Job Corps. The national Job Corps system provides a vocationally-focused alternative schooling system for thousands of low-income students around the country. The Los Angeles Job Corps Center, operated by the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, serves the needs of young people each year who are seeking a better future. Through a formal Memorandum of Understanding between GSEP and the Los Angeles Job Corps Center, students preparing for careers in mental health fields have provided much needed counseling services on the Center. Talks are underway between faculty and the Dean of GSEP and YWCA leadership on ways to provide increased collaboration as the YWCA's Urban Campus expansion gets underway.

The Structures

GSEP's Urban Initiative will build on the success of these existing projects and will build new projects in collaboration with our community partners. These projects will serve as research sites for identifying and articulating the processes and structures necessary to build effective and on-going collaboration between universities and their urban neighbors. The initiative will be structured to serve as a national resource for linking university work to urban problems and providing models for that work.

The goals the Urban Initiative will be focused on three major fronts:

  • The systematic study and articulation of the methods and structures needed to support the work of universities in urban communities
  • The support of expanding GSEP projects related to the educational and mental health needs of urban communities
  • Preparing the next generation of professionals

The objectives of the Urban Initiative include:

  • Providing support for the study and dissemination of effective structures for university/community engagement
  • Supporting a commitment to using the resources of the university to serve the least well-served
  • Developing better models for community-based participatory action research projects
  • Providing better professional preparation opportunities for GSEP students

The Urban Initiative will provide a variety of structures and opportunities for this work, including:

An Endowed Chair in Urban Praxis

GSEP will seek a nationally recognized scholar to provide intellectual leadership for the Urban Initiative. The term 'praxis' refers to the practice of linking theory to practice through a continuous dialogue that takes place between a professional and his or her practice. The term denotes the commitment to participatory action research methodology on the part of scholars at GSEP involved in designing the Urban Initiative.

An Urban Institute

An institute will be designed to bring scholars, students and community members together to address the educational and mental health issues associated with the particular stressors of urban living. Developing the necessary structures and defining effective ways to carry out this work will be the research agenda for the Urban Institute. Research reports, white papers and sponsored conferences will make the work of the Institute public and will serve as a national resource for other universities interested in engaging effectively in this work. The institute will support participatory action research projects and will provide much needed stimulus to faculty, students, and their community collaborators for on-going action research and community development projects. Priorities will include support for doctoral research projects consistent with the goals and objectives of the Initiative.

Scholarship Support

The Urban Initiative will provide scholarship/fellowship support for students from at-risk communities interested in becoming teachers and health care workers. It is hoped that these students will return to their communities and provide leadership in their chosen areas of study. A program for debt reduction for graduates seeking to serve in under-resourced communities will be developed.

Ongoing Community Dissemination

The Urban Institute will sponsor community forums designed to provide the larger Los Angeles community the opportunity to explore issues related to the work of the institute through public forums, seminars and discussion groups as well as electronic formats. These events will serve as both feedback loops for partner communities as well as dissemination events for research findings.

In Conclusion

A moral imperative drives this response to the call for social justice. GSEP accepts its responsibility as a graduate school of education and psychology on the edge of one of the most challenged urban areas in the country and answers that call with its Urban Initiative.

The initiative strives to re-define the relationship between the university and the community by designing structures and processes necessary for universities to engage in this work. In addition, the initiative supports the work of committed faculty and students in our most challenged urban neighborhoods and their communities. In so doing, it better prepares the next generation of mental health and educational professionals with the particular tools needed to serve in urban, multicultural communities.

The work of the Institute will be supported by Pepperdine University, governmental agencies, foundations, individuals and corporate sponsors.