School options for today’s students are seemingly endless: neighborhood schools, charter schools, parochial schools, college prep academies and the university-sponsored primary and secondary schools. They’re all competing for student enrollment and, at times, parents’ pocketbooks. While all parents want the best education possible for their kids, many become overwhelmed trying to sort through the numerous options. Do university-partnered schools provide a better education than other schools? Or are the schools merely a trending fad in a myriad of options?
To answer these questions, it’s important first to understand the different types of university/K-12 partnerships. Today, Los Angeles County hosts numerous university-assisted schools, including partnerships at four well-known public and private universities in the Los Angeles area: UCLA, USC, California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and Loyola Marymount University (LMU). The types of university partnerships are as diverse as the region that houses them.
The UCLA models
UCLA partners with two neighborhood Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools: The UCLA Community School at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Koreatown and Mann UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles. UCLA is also home to two other schools, the UCLA Lab School and the Geffen Academy at UCLA, which are located on or near the Westwood campus. All four partnerships with the university vary in structure, scope and length of partnership. While the UCLA Lab School was established in 1882, the other school partnerships emerged between 2007 and 2017.
Karen Hunter Quartz, director of the UCLA Center for Community Schooling and member of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies faculty, says the partnership is mutually beneficial. “The schools benefit from access to professors, BruinCorps tutors, teaching artists, law school students, student teachers, summer bridge programs, internships and other UCLA programs and people,” Quartz says. “At the same time, the schools serve as powerful sites that extend and support the university’s mission of teaching, research and service.”
Like UCLA, CSUN maintains different types of partnerships with local schools. There’s San Fernando High School, an underserved neighborhood public school; Northridge Academy, a public high school that sits on the university’s campus; and the CHIME Institute that includes an early childhood program, preschool and the CHIME Institute’s Schwarzenegger Community School. Each of the CHIME programs wasdesigned to demonstrate inclusive practices and serve students with a broad range of learning differences.
Northridge Academy students sit in on college courses, attend performing arts concerts and routinely observe the day in the life of a university student. Like CHIME and San Fernando High students, Northridge Academy students have access to student-teachers from CSUN’s top-rated teacher program that, according to Shari Tarver-Behring, Ph.D., dean of the Eisner College of Education, “provides more teachers to LAUSD than any other university in the L.A. area.” Another noteworthy feature, Tarver-Behring says, is that incoming ninth-grade academy students participate in a “mindset math camp” where they are introduced to mindfulness techniques. She says that the camp has improved students’ math scores and their social-emotional development.
LMU’s ‘family of schools’
In 2006, a partnership between LMU and LAUSD launched the LMU Family of Schools initiative to support public schools in the Westchester community. That initiative evolved into the university’s current partnership with 16 schools: nine traditional public schools, three charter schools and four Catholic archdiocese schools. Three demonstration partner schools include WISH Elementary, STEM-certified Playa Vista Elementary School and Katherine Johnson STEM Academy.
In addition to hosting an array of events and campus field trips for Playa Vista students and supporting the annual Halloween Boo-Fest, where the LMU Lion mascot and cheerleaders visit the elementary campus, LMU’s student teachers earning their teaching credentials work in the school’s classrooms under the mentorship of master teachers, a practice Playa Vista Elementary Principal Rebecca Johnson says keeps her teachers on the leading edge of education trends. “It keeps us current,” she says. “We can’t slouch. If we’re teaching student teachers how to do it, we have to make sure we’re doing it right and we’re up to date with the new pedagogical research that’s done.”
The USC way
The USC Family of Schools supports 15 schools surrounding its university park and health sciences campuses. The USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) is its stalwart college access and success program.
Established in 1991 with a cohort of sixth graders, today the program boasts nearly 1,000 first-generation, neighborhood students in grades 6-12 and more than 200 current undergraduates in college. NAI students attend Saturday Academy classes at the university, plus high school classes at the university Monday-Friday before they attend their regular school classes. They also receive tutoring, SAT prep courses and academic and college counseling. To ensure that they receive the support necessary for collegiate success, their parents attend the Family Development Institute to learn how to support their blooming scholars. Students who successfully complete the NAI program and are accepted for admission into USC receive a fully funded financial aid package free of university loans.
Kim Thomas-Barrios, the associate senior vice president of K-12 educational partnerships at USC, says the program’s goal is twofold: “The goal is for USC to be a good neighbor to South L.A. and East L.A. families, and to connect to local schools in a college pipeline to ensure students are ready for a college regimen.” To date, 1,256 students have completed the NAI program, 42% of whom have graduated from USC.
Test scores and college-acceptance rates
While these K-12 schools enjoy varying levels of partnerships with universities, their “success” rates vary as well, particularly when examining test scores and college readiness and acceptance rates.
Sometimes, the numbers are strong. GreatSchools.org reports that 82% of students at the UCLA Community School graduate high school and 69% meet the UC/CSU entrance requirements. USC McMorrow NAI also reports high graduation rates, with its seniors boasting a 100% high school graduation rate and a 99% college acceptance rate.
Sometimes, though, numbers are inconclusive and raise questions. For example, according to GreatSchools.org, 60% of students at Northridge Academy show proficiency in English, nearly double the 31% that show proficiency in math. And while these scores may cause parents to question the disparity and why the numbers aren’t higher, it’s perhaps more critical that parents ask how students in neighboring schools and throughout the state fare, because those numbers can help paint a more accurate picture of the school’s performance.
For instance, while the academy’s math proficiency rate of 31% is eight percentage points below the state average, its English score is 10 percentage points higher than the state average in English. The academy’s students fare better in English than students throughout the state, but not in math.
When comparing the academy to its neighboring schools, however, it’s difficult to draw any definite conclusions based solely on numbers because Northridge Academy students score better than Reseda High students in both subjects, but not as well as students at Granada Hills Charter High. To determine the quality of education their children would receive, parents must dig deeper.
This is why CSUN’s Tarver-Behring cautions parents to do more than compare numbers. “Test scores…is only one piece…which is not the whole comprehensive picture,” she says. “I would strongly caution people to not just look at that kind of information.”
Other factors to consider
Numbers don’t account for a host of factors, including the amount of time the school has existed, how long the school has partnered with the university, the type and depth of the partnership, parental involvement and additional community resources available to the school. For example, Horace Mann UCLA Community School scores 3 out of 10 on GreatSchools, up from the 1 out of 10 score it received two years earlier. This uptick is most likely thanks to its recent partnership with the university and the resources the college is infusing into the school.
Although university partnerships positively impact the schools they assist, these relationships don’t necessarily ensure a superior education — just a different one. Education experts say that a more helpful question isn’t whether university-assisted schools are better than other schools, but rather “which school is best suited for my child?” It’s critical that parents look past numbers and lists to consider the whole picture. Checking the school’s website to learn about its philosophy and mission and visiting the campus are all excellent ways to determine if a school might be a good fit for your child, Tarver-Behring says.
LMU Family of Schools parent Becky Cunningham echoes this sentiment. “You have to really look at fit” when choosing a school, she advises. Cunningham chose Playa Vista Elementary and Katherine Johnson STEM Academy for her daughters, Robin, 10, and Allison, 14, because of the schools’ curriculum partnership with and proximity to LMU. For years, her kids have regularly walked to the university, and she loves that it’s not a “one-off experience.” Cunningham has been very active in both schools’ communities.
Tarver-Behring advises that families visit the schools, take tours and meet the principals. She also encourages prospective parents to attend a parent orientation night. Additionally, she encourages parents to become detectives. “One of the best things is to find people who already have kids at the school and ask them, ‘How’s it going? What do you think about the school? How has it been for you?’”
UCLA Community School alumnus Victoria Amador (class of 2016) says her time at the school felt like a community. Amador says the school’s social justice focus kept her engaged in classes, and she raves about how her summer internship at a nonprofit put her on her career path. The future public relations executive recently graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, with a degree in communications.
Similarly, USC alumna Shaveonte Graham (class of 2013) says the USC McMorrow NAI community was the key to her collegiate success. She credits taking NAI classes in high school and receiving mentorship throughout college and her post-baccalaureate program with helping her accomplish something no one else in her family had done before: graduate from high school, attend college and enroll in medical school. Graham, who started at Wright State University in Ohio in the fall of 2019, explains it this way: “This [being a doctor] is my calling, my purpose … NAI opened my eyes to the different possibilities in life.”
Criticism of university-assisted schools
Although visiting schools, assessing their curriculum and talking to current students and their families helps parents make decisions about what the best fit for their children might be, everyone doesn’t enthusiastically celebrate universities’ involvement in local schools.
The prevailing criticism lobbied at university partnerships is that they’re exclusive because only select schools benefit from them. “I think the biggest criticism,” says Quartz, is that “they are exceptional, that they’re not for all kids.”
The critique is fair. Far fewer schools lack university partners than have them, and the need for additional resources is felt by public schools in every school district. Quartz says she answers critics’ concerns by sharing the wealth with other schools. “We are sharing and researching and publishing and presenting what we’ve learned at these schools… in order to benefit other public schools,” she says.
She admits that the partnership with UCLA is critical to its schools because “all public schools need partners.” Some schools receive assistance via corporate sponsors, local educational foundations or robust PTAs. University partnerships are just another type of support that public schools have historically welcomed.
As these partnerships continue to expand, thousands of students will continue to benefit from them in varying degrees. But when it comes to planning your child’s education, there is no “one size fits all” solution, even at the best university-assisted schools.
Chanté Griffin is a writer living in Los Angeles whose work centers on race, faith, culture and education. You can follow her on Twitter @yougochante.