The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

MAKING DREAMS COME TRUE

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by Cara Mastropietro '98

Last summer, I had the opportunity to intern with Rick Dalton '71, president and co-founder of Foundation for Excellent Schools (FES), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of American public education. A member of a small team, I was exposed to all aspects of the organization, from development to public relations, and from communications to research. I was entrusted with significant responsibilities from the beginning and discovered how rewarding it is to be surrounded by people who are dedicated to a cause that they believe in. After my experience at FES I have a different sense of what my goals and aspirations are as a graduating senior. I learned the importance of making a difference, even if it is small, in this world.

Rick Dalton has dedicated his career in the non-profit sector to the improvement of educational opportunities for all students. Through the Foundation for Excellent Schools (FES), Dalton has helped more than 100 public schools meet their improvement goals. Common objectives include increasing school-wide attendance and post-secondary enrollments, reducing dropout rates and encouraging parent and community involvement.

After graduate study at Middlebury (M.A.) and Harvard (M.A., Ph.D.), Dalton taught secondary school and then joined the Middlebury College staff as director of enrollment planning. There, he initiated a partnership between the college and Dewitt-Clinton High School in the Bronx. "It worked," Dalton remarks. "Through mentoring and teaching, Middlebury developed more multi-cultural awareness, and many Dewitt-Clinton students were introduced to opportunities available at a private liberal arts college." The partnership developed into the Consortium of Educational Excellence Partnerships (CEEP), which has affected more than 55,000 kids. CEEP, which Dalton now heads as the volunteer executive director, has grown to a consortium of 100 schools and colleges, including Colgate.

In 1983, Dalton and a colleague collaborated on research titled "The National College Counseling Project." The work identified programs and practices that enabled schools to improve learning opportunities and raise student aspirations. From the research they had completed, in 1987 the two created the Gulf County Project, which was eventually implemented in two Florida high schools. A prototype for the 1991 creation of FES, the Gulf County Project experienced enormous success. The number of students going on to college increased by 60 percent. In addition, the project provided numerous opportunities for the high schools, such as workshops for teachers on college counseling, aid for students' standardized test preparation, visits to college campuses and financial aid information sessions for parents.

The next generation of Dalton's work was called Partnerships for Educational Excellence, which included nine schools in lower-income rural and urban communities throughout the southeast. Hillary Clinton was an early supporter and spoke at the first workshop.

Typically, FES schools begin the process with a two-day planning and training workshop where a core team from each school works closely with FES facilitators, usually alumni of the program who have achieved success in improving their schools. The core team, a principal, guidance counselor, teachers, parents and community members, are encouraged by FES educators to develop their own strategies to overcome obstacles. Dalton stresses the necessity of discovering the needs and resources of each school. While some FES schools are located in rural areas of Vermont and Georgia, others are in urban areas such as Brooklyn, so it is obvious that each school will have its own problems to solve.

FES schools embark on a two-year plan to maximize their improvement, and for this time period, Dalton and his FES team stay in close contact with each school through in-service training sessions, visits, workshops and monthly reports. Evaluations are done at the end of each year, and they have always shown positive results.

Some successes:

  • Shortly after the start of the Excellent Schools Program on the Navajo reservation in Ganado, Arizona, attendance at the Intermediate School Parents Night jumped from 150 in the past to more than 700.

  • In Brooklyn, attendance rose from 82 to 91 percent at David Ruggles Junior High.

  • In Pickens County, Georgia, the number of students moving on to post-secondary education increased from 27 to 67 percent and the dropout rate fell from 42 to 13 percent in six years.
[IMAGE] FES has programs in New York City, Vermont, Rhode Island, Arizona, Arkansas, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Oregon. A key component to the success of FES schools has been the school partnerships that have developed. "Schools need to help schools," Dalton points out. "The valuable links between A. Philip Randolph High and its Harlem neighbor, Roberto Clemente Junior High -- which include student mentoring and professional development initiatives -- were a reminder that only by working together can we meet the challenge to reshape American education."

FES schools are also paired with colleges, encouraging student-to-student mentoring opportunities. The One More Step program, an initiative throughout Vermont that matches 75 at-risk students from eight schools with mentors from eight colleges, was launched last fall. Contact and communication is arranged through e-mail, visits and phone calls, in hopes of significantly raising the aspirations of each student.

Dalton feels strongly about the need for the overall improvement of education in the United States, and the importance of making a difference for every student. "As President Clinton pointed out in his State of the Union address, we need to make college as universal as high school," he says.

FES continues to expand and is working with 30 new schools. "We expect to work with 60 schools next year," says Dalton. Other projects on the horizon promise to expand FES to an even greater scope on the national level. Through the National Excellent Schools Program [NESP], FES will select ten schools from low-income rural and urban communities based solely on their need and commitment to changing the status quo. In the second year of the program, each NESP school will mentor a neighboring school, eventually spreading the reform throughout the region.

In the fall of 1997, FES held its first national conference, titled "Challenge to Excellence," in Newport, Rhode Island. Two hundred educators, parents, superintendents, business and community leaders and foundation directors from across the nation shared ideas, practices and challenges through panels, workshops and conversation.

"Most important for me was realizing that the expertise and commitment to meet the challenge of excellence is already well established in our schools and communities," says Rick Dalton. "We need exposure to successful practices, help with the change process, and a support network to tap this valuable resource. FES belongs to all of us; it is a dream maker; we can help schools and communities meet the challenge. In turn, FES must challenge all of us. It is up to us to create more ideas, more opportunities, and the support needed to make the dreams come true."