Reaching Into High Schools
Professors participating in Syracuse University’s Project Advance help infuse high school curricula with an early dose of public affairs, Maxwell-style.
This year, as the town of Rotterdam, New York, works on updating its nearly 20-year-old Comprehensive Plan, town leaders will consider a detailed report and proposals submitted in January by a group of citizens who have just become eligible to vote.
They are seniors at Schalmont High School taking Policy Studies 101, a course offered in more than 50 high schools around New York state and beyond through Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA). As part of the course, students research issues in the community and put together a policy proposal. Last fall, Rotterdam’s town supervisor invited the Schalmont students to assist the committee with the Comprehensive Plan.
“Basically we did a needs assessment, to see the areas that people were interested in, what they thought was good about the community, and where they would like to see improvements,” says Karen Ryder, who has taught Policy Studies 101 at Schalmont for 25 years. Based on survey findings and discussions with town officials, the stu-dents wrote proposals to improve road maintenance, update water infrastructure, and create a dog park.
“With the number of meetings they attended and the information they collected,” Ryder says, “their level of knowledge about town government and policy is incredible.”
SUPA’s Policy Studies 101 is surely not a typical high school class. It is, in fact, a college class. It’s essentially the introduction to policy studies that has been taught to undergraduates at the Maxwell School for decades, coordi-nated by Policy Studies director Bill Coplin. For Coplin and other Maxwell professors who teach Maxwell curriculum through the program, SUPA is a golden opportunity to promote the School’s public affairs ethos.
“We’re bringing the Maxwell values beyond the campus and into high schools.”
“We’re bringing the Maxwell values beyond the campus and into high schools,” says senior faculty member Donald Dutkowsky, who has supervised the SUPA economics courses for more than 25 years, along with his Eco-nomics colleague Jerry Evensky.
Maxwell has become an important contributor to Project Advance, with popular courses in policy studies, his-tory, economics, and sociology. Like all SUPA courses, these Maxwell courses are adapted for high school schedules but use the same materials and assignments as their college equivalent. High school teachers become certified SU-PA instructors through a week-long Summer Institute led by Maxwell faculty, and attend a professional develop-ment seminar every year — connecting not only with Maxwell professors but with their peers at other high schools.
Launched in 1974 as a way to challenge high school students, enhance college readiness, and address the so-called senior slump, SUPA has grown to encompass more than 50 courses from across the University. Courses are taught in more than 240 schools in the U.S. and abroad — serving each year about 12,000 high school students, who can receive SU credit (usually honored by other colleges as well) for their coursework.
Unlike advanced placement classes, which are meant to prepare students for a credit-conferring exam, SUPA courses are not designed around standardized tests.
“The advantage that SUPA offers to both students and teachers is that students get credit for an entire year’s effort rather than the results of a single test,” says Maxwell history professor Margaret Susan Thompson, one of the coordinators of SUPA’s American history courses. “Teachers don’t have to teach for the test. They can focus on the quality of what they do. A SUPA course gives a more realistic representation of college-level work.”
Because professors forge close relationships with SUPA teachers — even traveling to high schools to visit SUPA classes every time they are offered — the program presents a special opportunity to model and share the School’s educational approach.
“On campus, we teach in a Maxwell style: lots of applications, lots of examples, stressing that good policy can be effective,” says Dutkowsky. “And that’s how we train our teachers, who in turn teach the students.”
The values embedded in Maxwell’s SUPA courses naturally encompass a deep commitment to engaging with the community and the political process. “I am very concerned about the diminution of civics education in our high schools, and our teachers share that concern,” says Maxwell historian Mark Schmeller. Through SUPA, he adds, “The Maxwell School’s contributions are definitely helping to address that problem.”
Teaching policy studies in her high school, Karen Ryder has seen firsthand the impact of the experience on stu-dents’ civic engagement. Some of her former students, in fact, have gone into politics. One became an aide for Hil-lary Clinton, another a Rotterdam town councilman, and a third (Alex Chiaravalle, shown at right) is now a special assistant to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“First of all, the class makes them more educated about their community in general,” Ryder says. “They aren’t going to be afraid to go to town meetings or voice their opinions. Some may provide service to the town, or any government body for that matter, because they’re comfortable. They recognize that we are a democracy, and it needs people.”