When it comes to how K-12 districts can get more students to colleges and universities, the same advice comes up repeatedly: build partnerships with local institutions of higher education. A vast array of these types of examples exists in everything from dual enrollment classes for high school students to mentorship programs and summer camps. These programs typically involve a fraction of the student body in each school district and too often include only those students who have the access and means to participate. What if your K-12 district could build a far-reaching partnership with a local university that benefits many students and their teachers at the same time?

That’s exactly what Indiana’s Purdue University Fort Wayne did when it joined with local school districts through the Professors in Partnership initiative. Professors in Partnership is a collaborative teaching effort where professors and local teachers team up to deliver engaging classroom lessons. Students get early and ongoing access to college professors, experience success with higher education content, and, most importantly, can envision themselves going to college.

Keeping the status quo

Pairing university professors with classroom teachers to coteach K-12 students is a shift from how I had approached college and university partnerships. As an assistant superintendent in Memphis, Tennessee, I relegated my district’s work with our local colleges and universities to those more typical partnerships.

Over the years, I regularly placed student teachers from nearby Rhodes College and the University of Memphis with effective mentor teachers in my district. I approved university requests for research studies, such as surveys about our teacher evaluation system. I distributed communication about summer athletic, coding, performing arts, and other camps being offered by local colleges and universities.

I encouraged both teachers and principals to go back to college to advance their degrees, and I annually used district funds to support aspiring administrators seeking an urban leadership certification through the University of Memphis. I also served on various local college and university advisory committees commonly focused on increasing school of education teacher candidate enrollment and student completion rates for federal student aid applications.

What I didn’t do was change the partnership status quo. I didn’t leverage local college and university talent to impact the immediate experiences of teachers and students in my district.

At the time, I didn’t even think about creating more strategic partnerships with colleges and universities. But I do now.

Strategic k-16 partnerships

In my university-funded role as the director of Professors in Partnership, I paired K-12 teachers and their students with Purdue University Fort Wayne professors. I first worked with district superintendents and their leadership teams to determine which specific teachers and students could benefit most from teachers and professors co-teaching.

In Southwest Allen County Schools, a suburban district with nine schools and 7,335 students located 14 miles from the university campus, the district focused on content coaching in its second program year. Middle and high school principals articulated a need to improve teachers’ content knowledge, especially in math and science. As a result, identified teachers were paired with professors who are experts in the content need.

For example, a teacher who was newly assigned to earth space science classes and who had exclusively taught physical science the last four years was paired with an astronomy professor. A high school algebra teacher, who had just moved up from the middle school, was paired with a math professor who had expertise in quadratic equations and expressions.

Northwest Allen County Schools, a suburban-rural district with 7,816 students about 10 miles from campus with 10 schools, also engaged in its second partnership year. The 12 teachers involved were assigned remedial or lower-level high school classes, where students are at risk of not earning a college-track diploma. Professors and teachers collaboratively constructed and co-taught lessons that help students in these classes achieve academic success, especially early in the school year, so students could build confidence with the subject.

As one example, a participating high school biology teacher worked with his partner professor of biology to create multiple lessons on reptile habitats, a common biology topic of study. Yet, the teaching partners created uncommon lessons together. They used the professor’s radio telemetry lab to offer students an innovative way to explore habitats of local area snakes and turtles.

The high school students studied the habitats through a tracking device affixed to assigned research species. Students monitored the snakes and turtles using radio telemetry, tracking each animal’s movements, eating and sleeping patterns, shelter choices, range of temperature, light intensity, predators encountered, and more. One student remarked that studying reptile habitats through the professor’s radio telemetry lab was “much more interesting than reading about it in a book.” Another commented that he “likes working with the professor’s lab because it doesn’t feel like school” when tracking the animals.

Professors committed to their co-teaching partnership for one academic year, from initial lesson planning through teaching multiple lessons, with the goal of building better relationships—both with the course subject and teachers and students involved. Because the professors work and live near (or in some cases in) the partner school districts, it was easy for them to facilitate the ongoing co-teaching efforts and offer just-in-time assistance when needed.

An evaluation showed that 95 percent of the teachers and professors involved in year one of the program chose to participate in year two. All the surveyed teacher participants said they would recommend the program to a colleague.

Starting challenges

One challenge we faced was figuring out how to offer incentives to both the teachers and professors to participate, especially as we were getting started. Although the teachers expressed interest, many were hesitant to volunteer, citing lack of time to collaborate and concern for keeping up with curricular and pacing demands.

Since teachers and professors needed to co-plan lessons largely before and after school, teachers viewed this as an obstacle to their participation. Teachers used that time to care for their families, sponsor clubs, coach sports, etc. Plus, it was difficult for teachers to project their availability for two semesters. As a result, only a handful of teachers initially volunteered to participate. To address this issue, we moved nearly all co-planning sessions inside teachers’ contracted work hours. We collaborated with the university to offer professional learning credit for successful completion of two co-teaching semesters. Teachers could apply their earned professional learning credits toward state licensure renewal and other advancement opportunities in their districts.

Because most full and tenured professors are already engaged in other projects, they were reluctant in the beginning to participate in the partnership. So, we turned instead to assistant and associate professors who welcomed the opportunity and community service they needed to earn tenure or promotion. Working inside schools and seeing the firsthand effects of their co-teaching helped to further boost professors’ participation.

Multiple benefits

Having K-12 teachers and university professors working side-by-side has brought multiple benefits. One district administrator reported that Professors in Partnership provides “access to the combined strength of educators that rarely work together in K-12 classrooms.” Even better, this access is for longer periods and reaches far more students than typical K-16 partnership approaches.

Teachers have reported an improved understanding of unfamiliar topics because of the content coaching provided by their partner professor. Teachers also seem to have greater confidence with their course material as they routinely talk about implementation challenges and student outcome concerns together. Strengthened relationships and other partnerships also have emerged as teachers and their students develop personal connections with professors. Some teachers and professors are engaging in action research together, addressing classroom problems by collecting data and applying findings. As a result, teachers have reported experiencing more immediate relevance because they are actively involved in conducting the action research in their classrooms with their own students.

For students, the connection to professors through Professors in Partnership grants them early access to higher education. Students who may not be considering college or feel college is out of reach, now have a personal contact at a local university. These faculty members can serve as references when the high school students apply for college and university admissions. Moreover, by design, students in the partnership classrooms are experiencing success at the hands of university professors, building students’ confidence in the subject and ability to find the same success in college.

When considering your K-16 partnerships, don’t overlook the professors in your local colleges and universities. Forming programs such as Professors in Partnership creates success-oriented experiences for teachers and students and requires district leaders to take a renewed approach to finding expertise. With more than 5,000 colleges and universities nationwide, districts need not look far to find expert partners and start working together.

Laura Link (linkl@uhd.edu) is an associate dean of the College of Public Service at the University of Houston Downtown and directs the K-16 partnerships for the Urban Education Department.

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