Liberal Education

Strengthening Public Education, Public Health, and a Public University: Educational Entrepreneurship at Stony Brook

Jason Richardson, now a senior in high school on Long Island, can remember the precise moment when his mother arrived in the auditorium in which he, as a junior, was mid-way through a presentation on safer sex and teenage pregnancy. "Well, there's a lot more I could say," Jason told his audience, "but my mother just walked in." Most high school students could probably understand Jason's comment and the passing awkwardness of his mother's presence, but few would have the opportunity to share his experience. He was, at sixteen, giving a talk at a conference on the campus of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and his listeners included (in addition to his mother) not only other high school students and Stony Brook undergraduates with whom he had taken-for college credit-a course on teen health issues, but also university faculty and staff, other parents, and representatives from his high school. "Yeah," he says, thinking back; "It was a pretty big deal."

It was a big deal for his mother, Cynthia, as well. A lifelong activist with an engaging, warm manner and an intimidating list of awards, citations, and leadership positions in community organizations, she had worked hard to create educational opportunities for her son. "As an African American male, he is, point blank, at risk," she explains. "I want to put positive things in front of him all the time, and he needs people besides Mom and Dad to do that, too." Having attended an orientation program at Jason's high school about a new partnership-based learning model that linked Stony Brook and its resources with area high schools to address critical health issues for young adults, she pushed to get both the school and her son involved. She succeeded on both counts. "When my son goes to college, it will be because he's had strong role models who have encouraged him, helped him stay in school, and kept him involved."

As for Jason, planning for college is his first priority now; still sorting out career options as different as law and the theater, he feels that the Stony Brook experience opened doors for him and gave him greater confidence in his own abilities. "It was fun, but also serious, and you definitely had to approach it like a college class," he recalls. "You get a real preview of college life." Cynthia Richardson has made sure he can stay involved in the program-even to the point of driving him almost an hour each way to Stony Brook for the class one evening each week. "The program there is like an educational family, and a very supportive one," she believes.

Adaptive Learning
On Long Island, adaptive learning has taken root. Stony Brook University has been able to give new meaning to the idea of a public university through learning models that explore the articulations between high school and college while empowering both high school and college students to test drive new material-adapting content, skills, research projects, and experiences to fit the realities and challenges of their own lives and the needs of their communities. David Ferguson, director of Stony Brook's Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), notes proudly that projects like the one that brought Jason Richardson to campus "make us more worthy of the title of a 'public university.'" By bringing high school and college students together to study pressing health questions, highlighting their contributions as creators of new knowledge, and making their accomplishments public, the university goes "beyond the usual outreach activities, which are viewed as supplemental enrichment for the students…this takes us to a different level of involvement." And of adaptive learning.

Colleges and universities of various types have for years-and for decades, in some cases-worked in their communities to solve problems (service learning projects), strengthen educational systems, or conduct research. But the Stony Brook program is fundamentally different from its predecessors-and very promising in its results. Consider these points:

  • Stony Brook was able to leverage very small amounts of money awarded through minigrants (some of them small enough to be called microgrants!) to create an issue-oriented learning program on campus, a new minor for undergraduates, a cooperative educational activity involving area high schools, and a variety of research opportunities for both high school students and its own undergraduates.
  • High school and college students, working together, become collaborative learners. The "older" undergraduates serve as mentors; they clarify expectations about college while guiding high school students in their research projects and supervising their preparation for presentations. Jason Canales, a 2001 Stony Brook graduate now enrolled in the School of Law at the University of Miami, writes: "Working with the high school students provided me with insight on the ideas and opinions of a younger generation and also allowed me to convey my experiences and notions of health, AIDS, drugs, etc. with the students in a formalistic teacher-student approach."
  • The program engaged the parents of high school students as active participants and as witnesses to their children's learning.
  • High school students who have "good minds but no horizons" (to quote Stony Brook History professor Helen Rodnite Lemay, of whom much more later) discovered greater possibilities and more options. Cynthia Richardson says the Stony Brook program not only strengthens young people but prevents their being somehow lost: "My husband was a warden in the prison," she says with emphasis; "He told me that if it weren't for programs like this that get kids involved, he'd be turning the key on them. And he has turned the key on a lot of them in the past."
  • Over several semesters, Stony Brook's program has addressed issues of real depth and complexity, as well as immediate pertinence. HIV/AIDS, the first topic, was followed by teen health, medical ethics (in which students considered problems as thorny as assisted suicide, clean needle exchange and distribution proposals, and the dilemma of testicular feminization-how to best serve children who are born with an XY, or male, genotype but appear to be female), and current major women's health concerns such as breast cancer.

Stony Brook has learned, among other things, that working with high schools demands patience and flexibility, that logistical challenges such as transportation are very big and hard issues, and that important new learning projects require both focused, energetic leaders and supportive institutional structures. How did it happen?

Leadership
Successful innovations, in education as in business, require entrepreneurs; enter Helen Lemay. Professor Lemay, a Distinguished Teaching Professor and medical historian with a special interest in medieval medicine, is exactly the kind of resourceful academic entrepreneur who pulls together limited resources from multiple places and creates something that becomes both a local success and an inspirational model. Entrepreneurial educational projects always demand leadership from someone who has both energy and vision-not that they are performed as solos or practiced in isolation, but because somebody has to keep pushing and saying, "I think I can."

"My energy goes into my profession," Lemay states, with the kind of forthrightness that tells you she absolutely means it. "My satisfaction comes from my teaching, and my interaction with the students. They're good friends; I really like these kids." And a lot of energy it is. Not one to be easily discouraged, Professor Lemay applied twice in order to get minigrant support for her intended project from the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Program for Health and Higher Education (PHHE). After striking pay dirt in PHHE's 1998-99 cycle of minigrant awards, she developed and taught a new course at Stony Brook, "AIDS and the Social History of Medicine," in the spring of 1999. But during the previous academic year-despite not having received funding-she adopted and incorporated many of PHHE's ideas and concepts in a course on gender and sexual diversity. And she attended (and presented at) almost all of PHHE's six regional conferences between March 1997 and February 2000. More important, every time she came to a conference she brought along-as true collaborators-students who were currently involved in her courses. "Well, of course I did!" she announces, as though no other possibility existed. "They were part of everything I was doing."

David Burns, AAC&U senior policy director, succinctly defines the primary premise of PHHE: "placing a rigorous academic focus on HIV/AIDS and other complex health-related problems will improve both education and the health of our students." PHHE encourages teachers and leaders in higher education to use the undergraduate curriculum as a vehicle-a "capacious and creative lens"-for exploring important personal and public issues. PHHE is supported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which seeks, through projects of this nature, to prevent HIV infection among students, especially those in high-risk situations. Professor Lemay, having participated in PHHE's first conference in 1997, returned to Stony Brook with a mission to apply the University's enormous academic strength in the service of both greater health and better learning. Her first course-the one on AIDS and the social history of medicine-brought HIV/AIDS into the curriculum in a new way.

But Helen Lemay had only begun. She had access to a powerful amplifier, or accelerator, in Stony Brook's Federated Learning Communities (FLC) program. Uniting a small group (about twenty, usually) of students and faculty in the intense consideration of a specific area of study over the course of a semester or an academic year, an FLC allows students to participate at various levels of commitment and engagement, up to the completion of a minor in the topic under consideration. Professor Lemay had already used the FLC structure to teach human reproduction, and was planning one on gender and sexual diversity when the opportunity of a PHHE minigrant presented itself.

Her entrepreneurial spirit kindled, Lemay established an FLC on "Issues in Health and Society: The Case of AIDS" for the 1999-2000 academic year. As the master learner for that FLC, Lemay herself taught courses on an historical perspective on gender orientation (fall 1999) and AIDS and the social history of medicine (spring 2000); she also taught the FLC's core seminar for both semesters. Eight other courses-including two additional new courses specifically focused on HIV/AIDS-brought sociologists, biologists, philosophers, economists, and education professors into the work of the FLC. Through a combination of the core seminar and a series of extracurricular activities, students connected well with each other and with their teachers, worked with several different faculty members, and applied what they were learning in their own lives, relationships, and communities. Lemay writes that these activities not only augmented student learning, but also made the university far more personal for them. Those results aren't unique; an evaluation of Stony Brook's FLCs completed in 1998-99 showed that undergraduates who participated in FLCs differed from their peers in some important ways-they had higher grade point averages, higher rates of retention in school, and, in general, better grades in fundamental core subjects.

If the FLC was Lemay's amplifier, then Stony Brook's Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) was the program's home, foundation, and support system. (It was also, to provide a glimpse of a forthcoming point, the key to developing the high school component of the program.) CELT's director, David Ferguson, was enthusiastic from the beginning; CELT, still relatively young itself in 2000, could support visionary educational entrepreneurship with space, materials, staff assistance, and small amounts of funding for particular needs, such as travel to meetings or conferences. Rita Reagan-Redko, CELT's outreach and program specialist, was first an assistant to Lemay but became, the Professor recalls, "my partner, and a brilliant one," and, eventually, a co-principal investigator on the project (the other co-principal investigator, Amy Gangloff, is a doctoral candidate in history).

Engaging High School Students
But it is the involvement and engagement of high school students that gives Professor Lemay's FLC its greatest hope of meeting CDC's goals of preventing HIV infection and improving health among students. The history of that element of Lemay's new educational enterprise reveals the merger of serendipity, opportunity, and commitment.

Recruited by the prestigious, private Ross School in East Hampton, Long Island to teach pre-modern medical history to high school students, Helen Lemay worked both with the students themselves-learning, in the process, a great deal about their interest in, knowledge of, and attitudes about health issues-and with the school's Wellness Director Katherine Henderson. She gives Henderson credit for first suggesting that high school students be invited to join college undergraduates in learning about critical, unresolved health problems-and that they do so on campus, in a college environment, working within college expectations. Lemay set the program in motion, and Henderson arranged for Ross students to participate. Meanwhile, Rita Reagan-Redko, who had volunteered with the Three Village School District (in which Ward-Melville High School is located) set up key meetings with the district's Director of Curriculum Lorna Lewis and Ward-Melville's Assistant Principal Jan Mosca; Ward-Melville also agreed to send students to Stony Brook.

The plan was elegant, simple, though, as always in entrepreneurship, wonderfully fragile: high school students would receive one hour of college credit, tuition-free, for their participation as learners; they would come to Stony Brook once a week in the early evening for a seminar at CELT. Working with undergraduates in the FLC program, they would conduct independent research projects; near the end of the semester, they would present their findings and results in a public conference at the university. There have now been four such conferences:

  • HIV/AIDS; April 2000
  • Teen Health; November 2000
  • Medical Ethics; April 2001
  • Women's Health; November 2001

Each conference generated lesson plans, prepared by the students, for use in their high schools.

It was (and is, and will be), of course, not as easy as it sounds; elegance and fragility coexisted. There were transportation problems, schedules to coordinate, and many meetings to answer parents' or teachers' questions. But CELT's space was open and accommodating; located in the university's library, it "feels" very much like "college," rather than "high school." Snacks made the sessions friendlier and less formal. It was, however, as Jason Richardson says, serious. Professor Lemay was rigorous in her approach to the learning goals: "I told them, 'This is college, so don't bring me notes from your mother. You just have to get the work done, and bring it on time.'" Like Jason Richardson, the students thrived-both personally and academically. Explaining what high school students could expect in return for their commitment to the program in a letter to a New York City high school that will participate in 2002, Lemay lists:

  • Interaction with professors and students in a prestigious academic university
  • Development of research and oral presentation skills
  • College recommendation letters from distinguished university faculty, and
  • Earning one college credit.

Further Outreach
For the 2000-2001 academic year, Lemay, Reagan-Redko, and Amy Gangloff decided to advance their fledgling project another critical-but very difficult-step: to bring students from high schools in areas of Long Island most affected by HIV/AIDS into the program. Cynthia Richardson describes the need, and the challenge, crisply: "Many kids on Long Island don't live with their parents, for whatever reason; many young people in our school systems are at risk because of drugs at home, unprotected sex, and not having enough adult attention." Many of the schools serving these children have desperately limited resources and a history of little parental involvement or investment.

To make the program work for these districts, Lemay and Redko led a strategy that demanded many meetings and discussions with school administrators, teachers, and parents. They had to address the (admittedly understandable) fears of communities that the university intended only to meddle, or do research for its own purposes. They also had to find money to pay for transportation from the high schools to Stony Brook-and they achieved that through PHHE support (Stony Brook is a PHHE Leadership Node Partner; the Leadership Node Partner schools work with PHHE to create models and activities that continue to integrate HIV/AIDS into the curriculum), coupled with a matching grant secured through Stony Brook's Presidential Minigrants for Diversity.

Students from Wyandanch High School, and then from Brentwood, Riverhead, Bellport, and others, rode buses to Stony Brook beginning in the fall of 2000 to learn-and contribute to new knowledge-about teen health. Regardless of their epidemiological classification as "at greater risk," the Stony Brook program understands these students as assets-as capable learners whose experience and perspective can teach others, as well. So it is that Jason Richardson ended up talking about teenage pregnancy-and a male perspective on sexual behavior-in front of his mother. And so it is that Mrs. Richardson was very happy to be there to hear it.

Post-September 11
The events of September 11, 2000 caused, of course, fear and uncertainty among students and communities on Long Island. Stony Brook is very close to New York City, both geographically and culturally; the academic, social, and personal connections between Stony Brook's students, faculty, and staff and their counterparts to the west are old and deep. More generally, the communities on Long Island lost many fathers, mothers, other family members, and friends in the attacks on the World Trade Center. The tragedy in New York had, on Long Island, an immediacy that persists today. Not surprisingly, then, fewer students made the weekly trip from their high schools to Stony Brook in fall 2001, but the FLC project continues, and will expand in the spring into the city itself, at the Young Women's Leadership High School in East Harlem.

In New York City-and on campuses in many other places, too-students have seen the beginnings of a new world order. Their assumptions forever changed by the destruction of towers that, built long before they were born, have always meant "New York," by the first act of war on American soil in many decades, and by the loss of so many lives, they ask, with equal force, two things: "Am I safe?" and "What can I do?" In response to students' questions, concerns, and need for a new understanding, the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon have generated another round of academic entrepreneurship, with extraordinary new courses and programs developed quickly on hundreds of campuses.

We can understand the value of Stony Brook's health-related learning courses in the same terms: helping students (both in high school and in college) be safe, and guiding them in knowing what they can do, as students, graduates, and citizens, to address the pressing health issues that affect all of us, but remain so terribly unresolved. Helen Lemay and her colleagues have never wavered in their belief in students as people who have intellectual assets-who can think, and do, and create, and whose productions mean something.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Stony Brook program is hidden in the ordinary, underrated word so often used as an adjective to modify our interpretation of some bigger concept: public. By bringing high school students into a distinguished state university, developing their minds, and celebrating their work, Helen Lemay and her colleagues increase the likelihood that those students will remain public citizens-people who engage important issues, and in whom a public investment is continuously made. By bringing those students' attention to unsolved problems in the public health-from AIDS to unwanted pregnancy-they increase students' capacity to contribute to solutions, both in matters of public policy and in questions of personal relationships. And by taking what students create back to the public, they support a broader, more balanced perspective on students and their contributions in the world. David Ferguson writes that the project "makes students' work public, and places students in the role of emerging professionals who are expected to create, organize, and present knowledge." And it is this that will likely be the lasting legacy.


Richard P. Keeling, M.D. is a senior fellow and senior scholar in AAC&U's Project for Health and Higher Education. He is the editor of The Journal of American College Health.

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