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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Maricopa Community College District: Phoenix Think Tank


In 1988, the Phoenix Union High School Superintendent, Dr. Timothy Dyer, delivered a strong message to city leaders: "As the schools go, so goes the city." The alarming trends identified among state and local youth, and data projections based on the high number of dropouts, teen pregnancies, and low achievements were a grave prediction for the urban development of the greater Phoenix Metro area. Dyer noted the problem and Maricopa Community Colleges responded with a handshake and a commitment, stating, "We are in this together." All sectors of higher education are interested in the community; however, Maricopa demonstrated this interest by housing, hosting, and supporting a coalition that has led to over a decade of change. 

In 1988, tackling an uncertain future and risking resources, Timothy Dyer and Paul Elsner, then Chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District, developed a coalition to address serious challenges facing the Phoenix urban schools. The Phoenix Think Tank (PTT) was created as an ongoing, systemwide collaborative nexus in which schools, colleges, and community organizations work harmoniously to provide a seamless system of learning and support for youth and adults. For 12 years, this group has committed time, energy, and resources to develop innovative responses to meet the challenges schools face. The goals of the Phoenix Think Tank are clear and straightforward:

     1. Significantly improve student success(K-16)
     2. Improve the K-16-community system

Think Tank Members measure the success of the first goal by student achievement, high-school completion, college entry, and attainment of student goals. They monitor the success of the second goal by observing the consistency of commitment and the effectiveness of collaboration among the various institutions. 

The Phoenix Think Tank's mission is "to use the collective thinking and resources of elementary, high school, community college, university, city, business, and community partners to ensure that Phoenix urban students enter, re-enter and remain in education until their maximum learning potential and goals are achieved." Robert Donofrio, co-chair of the coalition and superintendent of the inner city Murphy School District explained how the collaborative strategy contributes to the success of this effort: "It's not what you take from the table that makes this work, it's what you bring to the table." In 12 years, the only change in the Phoenix Think Tank's mission is the addition of community.

Collaborative Team Development

The Phoenix Think Tank currently has 22 institutional members representing the urban education continuum from K-16, with 13 elementary school districts transferring students to the Phoenix Union High School District, the Maricopa Community College District, Arizona State University, the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Arizona Alliance of Business, and four community-based organizations: Valle Del Sol, Friendly House, Kids at Hope, and Communities in Schools. As members of the Steering Committee, the CEOs from each of these organizations plan events and lead collaborative initiatives.

As with many lasting relationships, the development of the Phoenix Think Tank has been a slow, deliberate movement toward building consensus and trust. Until 1992, the membership of the Phoenix Think Tank was composed exclusively of educational institutions. Although early thinking recognized the need for representation from institutions throughout the community that affect urban education, most of the people involved recognized schools as ultimately responsible for the learning process. A growing awareness that problems of students extended beyond the schools and into their city, neighborhoods, and homes resulted in an expanded membership to include representatives from the business community, community-based organizations, and human services agencies.

Through a variety of programs, projects, and events, the Phoenix Think Tank has developed and delivered programs with 70 school districts, 4 universities, 60 youth service organizations, community colleges, government agencies, and business organizations. The Maricopa Community Colleges continue to house and support the coalition but local leaders run it, demonstrating that part of the Phoenix Think Tank's vision stating that the community creates the vision. 

Systemic Change Initiatives

Initially, programs were developed to address the needs of the at-risk student, but the coalition soon recognized that, although these at-risk programs were effective, they were serving only a small percentage of students in need. The coalition then redesigned itself to focus on systemic change, with a new focus on greatly reducing the number of students at risk of failure by improving the learning environment for all Phoenix urban students. At the same time, the Phoenix Think Tank was selected-along with 15 other urban sites-to participate in an 8-year systemic-change project with the Ford Foundation as a part of the National Center for Urban Partnerships. This connection supported organization development, and a communitywide study to identify practices that had been proven to help students succeed. With the assistance of an external market analysis group, more than 400 schools, colleges, businesses, and agencies were surveyed in an attempt to reach a broad representation of the community; the survey return rate was 42%. Eight focus groups were held with key program leaders throughout the community. Over 50 individual interviews were conducted with educators and community providers who work directly with students. Data from all these sources were used as the focus for a 3-day retreat where, for the first time, the Phoenix Think Tank Steering Committee, Development Team, Evaluation Team and Implementing Team met together. Their task was to chart a strategic direction for the coalition. Participants shaped three overarching initiatives for all future activities, and an analysis of the best practices research helped create a common vision. If every school had these three components-supportive mentoring and personal services; caring, qualified teachers; and student experiences at their next stage of learning in full operation-all students, they felt, could succeed. These components were converted into three overarching initiatives: 

     1. Family Resource Centers (FRC)
     2. ExChange for Effective Learning (ExCEL)
     3. Student Connectivity

Since they were adopted in 1994, these system-change initiatives of the Phoenix Think Tank have been the basis of several programs. 

Family Resource Centers (FRC)
Students drop out of school, mentally and physically, for many reasons we can't easily see. They may be sick, tired, abused, scared, or hungry. Teachers need to teach but they often find themselves being social workers for troubled youth. Located on school sites, Family Resource Centers bring human services and training to respond to the needs of students and their families. Individual student needs are identified and addressed on school sites and by referrals. Communities in Schools, a national organization, trains school coordinators and connects community resources with student needs. United Way provides financial support, while community-based organizations and city, state, and county agencies deliver services. Arizona State University assists with evaluation and Maricopa holds events to help expand networks. The FRC plan implemented by school-community teams addresses four basic areas to help students succeed: 

     1. Before-and-after school programs
     2. Educational enrichment and tutoring
     3. Basic needs (health, lodging, food)
     4. Parental training and involvement

Ten sites are now operating some form of an FRC and include such activities as a human service agency office giving food stamps to parents and a welcome center that provides dental treatment to students. 

ExChange for Effective Learning (ExCEL)
The ExCEL initiative promotes learning, sharing, and relationship building among educators at all levels. A K-16 collaborative staff development process that highlights successful, effective strategies for those who teach, train, or measure learning, the ExCEL initiative offers training, support, and mini-grants. These grants serve to develop, implement, evaluate, and share proven practices or promising ideas among faculty leaders. All programs and practices are student-centered and include approaches that have proved successful for keeping students in K-16 educational settings. Most projects are designed by teachers or community providers and are shared through a variety of events and recognitions such as Teacher Dialogue Forums, E-Clearinghouse, Literacy Program Showcase, Practitioner as Researcher Promising Places, and The AlliancePlus Project. 

Many ExCEL programs respond to specific regions or populations in the community; however, the AlliancePlus Project is a systemic effort in the Phoenix Metro area that mirrors a national need to train teachers in technology. Approximately 2,000 K-12 teachers and administrators are being trained and supported in more than 50 school districts in Arizona. Maricopa, Cuyahoga (OH), and Miami-Dade (FL) community college systems were selected by the League for Innovation to develop and demonstrate this innovative project. Other national partners include the Stevens Institute of Technology, Bank Street College, and the U.S. Department of Education. AlliancePlus utilizes community colleges to build K-12 teacher expertise in using unique and compelling applications of Internet in their classrooms. Through the use of the Savvy Cyber Teacher® curriculum, developed by the Stevens Institute of Technology, this turnkey, train-the-trainer project is changing the way teachers teach and the way students learn.

Student Connectivity

Almost half of the students in Phoenix urban schools drop out before completing high school. Members of the Phoenix Think Tank want to change this fact by dealing directly with the problem. One participant said, "We have a vision of what we want students to accomplish; students need a vision that they can do it." Students need to visually connect to their next level of learning, set goals for themselves, and see their direction, and teachers need to help students experience learning environments outside classrooms to prepare them for advanced education. Through stakeholder efforts, connections are built that allow elementary students to visit colleges and allow high school students to volunteer in the community or experience college by becoming college students. Several activities are focused on enhancing connectivity:

     1. Concurrent and Dual Enrollment for high school students also enrolled in
         community colleges
     2. E-Mail Mentoring
     3. Career Awareness
     4. Collaborative Projects that access resources from outside the school 

Two examples of student connectivity are particularly noteworthy. At the high school level, the Achieving a College Education (ACE) Program at South Mountain Community College and ACE+ at Glendale Community College connect high school students with colleges in an unusual cohort of concurrent enrollment students. Sophomores entering these programs reflect a 92% high school graduation rate-in a 12-year average-compared to a 48% graduation rate of their peers from the same schools in the same period of time. In another example, more than 1,600 fifth-grade students built a small house together while on field trips to Gateway Community College. Through the If I Had A Hammer program, Home Depot workers help these young learners see the value of math, communication, and teamwork skills. Participants remember their lessons and voiced plans to return to the college as entering students when they finish high school. 

The Phoenix Think Tank Today

The efforts of Think Tank initiatives have impacted over 180,000 K-12 and postsecondary students. According to Fred Gaskin, Chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District and coalition co-chair, "The success of the Think Tank results from strong collaborative relationships built around a shared vision-partnerships in the strongest, truest sense of that word." Indeed, in light of growing drop-out, stop-out, and delinquency rates in the K-16 school system, the documented reports of higher graduation rates, fewer incidences of suspensions, and recognized development in the areas of student conflict resolution among the 116 participating Phoenix Think Tank schools are particularly impressive. Some programs, such as the Urban Teacher Corp to assist multicultural classroom aids to become certified teachers, have sustained themselves. Other programs, such as Total Quality Learning training for teachers, are disbanded to make way for new projects. However, each idea has a thoughtful review on entry and exit. 

Beyond Phoenix Think Tank

Four strategically-placed community coalitions are now firmly planted in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The Phoenix Think Tank (central and south Valley), the East Valley Think Tank, Learning Connections (north Valley), and the West Valley Think Tank form a mosaic structure of collaborative support for students, teachers, and faculty. Each coalition is distinct, but all four are guided by the philosophy to respond to regional needs and constituent educational interests.

In the face of changing community leadership, shifting agendas, and the rise and fall of resources, the Phoenix Think Tank is constantly challenged to maintain a communitywide shared vision that building communitywide collaboration is worth the effort it takes. If we believe that all students deserve an equal chance for success and that we as a community grow with a more educated society, then we, as community stewards, have no choice but to cooperate on their behalf. 

For additional information, please contact: 
Janet Beauchamp
Executive Director
Phoenix Think Tank



League for Innovation in the Community College
4505 East Chandler Boulevard, Suite 250 · Phoenix, Arizona 85048 · Voice: (480) 705-8200 · Fax: (480) 705-8201

Copyright © 2002 League for Innovation in the Community College. All rights reserved.