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Partnerships help keep beleaguered schools afloat

''The schools can't do it all - and they can't do it alone.'' That's a growing conviction among educators, and it is impelling many school systems to form partnerships to improve learning - partnerships with local corporations, unions, voluntary organizations, churches, libraries, museums, TV stations, and scientific laboratories.

The educators in the forefront of this trend gathered recently at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

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''We can now see that the current educational reform movement will fail

if it limits itself to changing the schools,'' said Albert Ayars, chairman of the conference on ''Building a Learning Society,'' and superintendent emeritus of the Norfolk public schools. ''We must involve parents, professionals, artists , clergymen, and senior citizens. Only a concerted community-wide effort can do the job.''

More than 300 national leaders took part in the conference, including top-level representatives of such diverse agencies and organizations as the US Department of Education, National Congress of Parents and Teachers, American Association of Retired Persons, Museum of Modern Art, National Recreation Association, and numerous state education departments, local school districts, and universities.

''You have prospective partners in your work,'' the conferees were told by Vincent Reed, formerly superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools and now a vice-president of the Washington Post.

''But don't approach corporations as beggars,'' he added. ''You should open discussions as capable professionals inviting your business counterparts to join in productive partnerships for mutual benefit.''

Some cities are well along in the process. In Salt Lake City, for example, an ''Adopt-a-School'' program has matched selected schools and corporations. ''We turned to the business community and pointed out that the student of today will be running our city tomorrow,'' said superintendent of schools Donald Thomas. ''The job of education can no longer be left only to professional educators. Many employees in our city's companies welcome a chance to work with young people a few hours each week.''

In Milwaukee, too, high schools have been paired with corporations to support and enrich the educational program. ''Our largest businesses recognized the benefits, once we brought their chief executives together with high school principals to explore specific ways to help as equals,'' said superintendent Lee McMurrin. ''Financial support is not the main thrust of these partnerships. Rather, cooperation results in new ideas and programs such as summer work experiences for teachers and students, consultants for the various school subjects as well as for the better management of the schools, and sponsorship of competitions such as an academic decathalon and a state debate tournament.''

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Smaller communities also benefit by sharing responsibility for education. In Elmira, N.Y., the schools are designed to serve fully, and to draw on, the whole community. ''We work cooperatively with local colleges, voluntary agencies, business, senior groups, and individual volunteers,'' said superintendent James E. Carter. ''Rather than think of the schools as a special place just for children and youth, we plan the entire program to include adult literacy, recreational, job-related, and leisure learning.'' The Elmira pattern has received funding from the Mott Foundation and is recognized as outstanding by the National Community Education Association.

The idea seems to be spreading. ''In St. Louis, we literally consider this a million-dollar idea,'' said Dr. Anna Morgan-Moody, who heads a new effort funded at that level, to involve parents and other community people and organizations in the learning process. ''Our superintendent has made this one of his top priorities,'' she added. ''We're going to organize parent seminars, help each school to publish a newsletter, and harness community resources to improve education.''

Some states are nudging local districts toward such partnerships. In South Carolina, a new Education Improvement Act specifically mandates such linkages, providing funds through a Public Education Foundation.

The schools' quest for partners goes well beyond business. Others in the community who are being drawn into the educational process include artists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and experts from the military, hospitals, national parks, and the news media. In Norfolk itself, a resourceful ''School of the Real World'' sends students out into the community for internships at television station WHRO, Eastern Virginia Medical School, the symphony orchestra, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Says Kathleen Schoonmaker, Norfolk's coordinator of programs for the gifted and talented: ''Every school system needs to seek out such opportunities in its community. Our students and faculty recently won a NASA competition among schools for a special program in conjunction with their Langley-based scientists. If we hadn't been all geared up to take advantage of this kind of opportunity, we never would have been able to do it.''

One attractive feature of the movement toward cooperation is that each city's program reflects its particular local strengths. In New York City, for instance, an Arts Partners program makes imaginative use of that city's many painters and performers. ''The arts are helping the schools achieve their goals,'' said project director Carol Sterling. ''These experiences heighten students' academic motivation, enrich the overall curriculum, and point some students to their careers. We encourage tomorrow's artists - and tomorrow's audiences for the arts.''

The Norfolk conference spurred many participants to begin planning school-community partnerships of their own. ''Each community needs this kind of network that ties together the homes, schools, and other agencies,'' said Lawrence Senesh, director of the Academy of Independent Scholars, which cosponsored the conference with Old Dominion University. ''We hope to launch five pilot projects in communities around the country, to demonstrate what can be accomplished by comprehensive planning to turn the community into a 'learning society.' ''

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