La Red Mágica: Description of the project                

La Red Mágica (“The magical web” or “net” in Spanish) is the University-Community Partnership for Meaningful Education. The Partnership is designed to build an exemplary after-school program based on principals of voluntary, collaborative, and informal learning linking K-12 inner-city minority children and adolescents at the Latin-American Community Center in Wilmington and teacher education students at the University of Delaware (Newark, DE).


Who are children with whom we work?

The large majority of the children are from below poverty level immigrant and minority families: 90% of the children have parents whose incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level.  Here is the demographic data of the LACC children: 85% Hispanic, 14% African-American, 1% Caucasian. Of the Hispanic, about 1/3 recent Puerto Rican immigrants, 1/3 Puerto Ricans either not recently immigrated or born here in continental U.S., and 1/3 other recent immigrants (from Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Guatemala). The general purpose of the initiative is to develop an alternative model for successful learning outside of (but in support of) school instruction by designing a nurturing, failure-free, community-based, and safe-to-explore learning environment for educationally disadvantaged K-12 children.


Where we are now?

We are in the first year of developing the project, working with 90 minority elementary school children and 30 undergraduate preservice teachers with the total budget of about $50,000 (seed money for the first year).  The primary financial support came from the University of Delaware.  We also got support from the Hewlett-Packard foundation, the Ronald McDonald foundation, Spencer foundation, and the California Consortium of the 5th Dimension projects.


History of the project

This initiative is based on 12 years of research and teaching experience of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC) at UC San Diego. Researchers at LCHC designed a program called the Fifth Dimension [1] that successfully capitalized on computer-based activities during the after-school hours to promote reading acquisition among minority students who were failing to read in school (Cole, 1996). This after school program began twelve years ago in San Diego, and now exists at twenty-one US universities and three international sites in Mexico, Sweden, and Russia. These programs have shown positive cognitive, linguistic, academic, and social effects with participating children (Brown & Cole, 1997).  In 1996-1997 in California alone, the program served over 700 K-12 children, and engaged 125 undergraduate students and 25 graduate students. The La Red Mágica project will contribute to this after school program by adding our focus on community building via shared governance and integration of goals of different communities and organizations involved in the partnership.


Why is the project needed?

Changing structures of family life and work since the 1970s have produced an urgent need for out-of-school care for children (Hayes, Palmer, & Zaslow, 1990). More than just a safe place for children when they are not in school, quality school- and community-based programs can benefit children's cognitive and social development in ways that enhance their achievements in school (Vasquez, Pease-Alvarez, & Shannon, 1994).  Because learning does not end when the school bell rings, the hours spent out of school in informal learning environments are crucial for both K-12 children and university students' ongoing cognitive development (Cole, 1994).

The project focuses on several urgent and unmet needs:

  1. disproportional school failure of minority, immigrant, and bilingual children and children from poor families,

  2. demographic changes in families requiring both parents to work which leads to diminishing opportunities for adult guidance,

  3. increasing interest in informal learning that can promise development of a failure-free learning environment,

  4. a lack of first-hand experience among many student teachers in working with minority, immigrant, and bilingual children and children from poor families,

  5. a lack of familiarity of many student teachers with informal learning that can foster innovative teaching,

  6. inadequate opportunities for undergraduate students to volunteer to work with local communities,

  7. limited access to expanding technological possibilities in education for both children and university students,

  8. compartmentalization of functions such as education, research, and community life and institutions and communities.

 

Minority and poor children are disproportionally represented in school failure.  Delaware Department of Education (1997) has published the latest statistics about public schools demographics and academic performance.  According to these statistics, in the 1995-96 academic year, there were 29.9% African-American, 4.3% Hispanic, and 63.9% Caucasian children.  About one third of the children (34.6%) were from low income families (public students receiving free or reduced lunch).  The statistics about academic performance show that twice or even three times as many African-American, Hispanic, and Low-Income children do not meet state academic expectations in comparison with Caucasian children.  According to the statistics, this disparity holds across years (1993-1995), grades (from third to tenth), and subject areas (reading, writing, and math).  For example, in 1995, there were 32% African-American, 31% Hispanic, 35% Low-Income and 10% Caucasian children who did not meet the state expectations in reading in the fifth grade (for the tenth grade, the percentages are 45%, 49%, 50%, and 26% correspondingly).  The remarkable similarity in low academic performance of African-American, Hispanic, and Low-Income children is striking and suggests that these children as, at least, twice as many are educationally deprived in comparison with Caucasian (and presumably middle-class) students.  The gap between the minority/poor children that this project serves and the majority population may have increasingly negative consequences since the state’s recent impending implementation of high-stakes, standard-based testing.  Without redesigning education for minority/poor children it is reasonable to expect even higher rates of retention and, consequently, more drop-outs and fewer high school graduates among those children.

  For some Latino children, lack of English proficiency seems to be an additional factor contributing to school failure. The nationwide drop-out rate for Hispanics is 35%, higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. According to the Governor's Council on Hispanic Affairs, the drop-out rate for Hispanics in Delaware is 47%. While the rates for Caucasian and African-American youth is dropping, the rate for Hispanics has continued to rise.  The reasons Hispanics drop out at such an alarming rate are multiple and complex. They include the language barrier, poverty, lack of access to preschool and after school programs and teen pregnancy. The more limited a Hispanic’s student ability to speak English, the more likely he or she will drop out of school. About 40% of Hispanic dropouts speak English “Not Well” or “Not at All”. In 1992 62% of those Hispanics who did not speak English well dropped out, compared to the 17% dropout rate for those students who did speak English well. (US GAO, July 1994).


Principles of the project

The program integrates theory and practice. We believe that authentic education involves making a difference in the world (for both undergraduate students and children).  The field-based practicum generates concerns and dilemmas about working with children for the university students. The coursework grounds these concerns and dilemmas in academic discourse. This academic reflection provides further guidance for the students in working with children.

During the practicum undergraduate students help children who are voluntarily engaged in innovative informal K-12 after-school activities (e.g., computer activities, telecommunication, readings, crafts, and educational games). Through informal interactions with undergraduates enrolled in the practicum field-based courses, K-12 youth receive intensive learning experiences in telecommunication, computer-based math, science, and basic literacy activities.  Undergraduates, in turn, develop as educators (and scholars) by participating and reflecting on their own teaching dilemmas, children’s learning, and local communities. 

One of the more powerful contrasts in education lies between the ease and fluid competence gained by participants in informal learning and the difficulty of using school knowledge in practice outside of school. One focus of the current project is to explore ways of bringing the positive qualities of informal settings into schooling. 

We observe that the teacher education students learn to recognize, promote and facilitate children’s successful learning strategies in the process of building a community of learners with diverse interests and needs. They will then be in a position to bring these innovative strategies into their classrooms to avoid traditional school failure for many children. We also focus on developing leadership skills in preservice teachers and children through shared ownership of the program and collaborative problem solving.

Outside the context of schooling, after-school programs afford pedagogical opportunities that promote learning in part by transcending traditional teacher-student hierarchies. Yet no single institution can alone meet these challenges. This fact places a new imperative on forging inter-institutional collaborations. Toward this end, joined by a shared interest in the social and educational welfare of local youth, the partnership initiative mobilizes the special resources of community organizations and universities in after-school programs that mutually benefit all partners.

Historically, universities have pursued top-down and prescriptive modes of providing tutorial services to K-12 youth and defining research issues on K-12 academic development. Transforming that model, the after-school program is driven by and organized around the needs of local children, as defined by educators, parents, and community professionals who know them best. The University of Delaware is committed to provide a sustained pool of undergraduates in an activity that enables schools and community organizations to serve more children throughout the school week. While community organizations provide the overhead, the University of Delaware provides opportunities and activities that support ongoing teacher professional development, especially in discipline-based instructional technology. While the resources of the University are organized to serve the needs of local children, the community organizations provide the University with a rich medium for research, teaching, and learning.


Research at La Red Mágica

We plan to conduct research that focus on evaluation of the program and issues of informal learning.  The proposed research will evaluate and document the transformative learning experiences produced throughout the La Red Mágica project. Faculty and researchers from a variety of academic backgrounds bring to this evaluation effort methods of formative and summative analysis from the disciplines of Education, Anthropology, and Psychology. The strength of our evaluation plan builds on these diverse approaches to the task of evaluating and comparing outcomes in the demographically diverse site. We intend to focus on the following three complimentary sets of issues: 

1)     development of strategies to document and evaluate benefits to K-12 children which are appropriate to the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the after school site with its stress on community building; 

2)     the role of informal learning and environment for promoting educational success; 

3)     collection and analysis of data to evaluate the impact of participation in the La Red Mágica project on undergraduates.

To address these issues, we will combine data from undergraduate field notes and projects with data gathered from controlled comparisons of participating and non-participating children on standardized tests of academic performance. We will interview parents, children, community leaders, undergraduate students and course instructors.  We will do videotaped observations of children’s activities. Moreover, undergraduates will themselves conduct analyses of the experiences and progress of specific children in their final papers and projects.  We will focus on cognitive, social, and motivational benefits of participation in the project for the children and undergraduate students.  We will also ask parents, children, community leaders, undergraduate students, and course instructors what they expect the benefits to be for children and undergraduates.


References

Brown, K., & Cole, M. (1997). Fifth Dimension and 4-H: Complementary Goals and Strategies. Youth Development Focus, 3 (4), 1-8.

Cole, M. (1996).  Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline.  London, UK: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. (1994). A conception of culture for a communication theory of mind. In D. R. Vocate, (Ed), Intrapersonal communication: Different voices, different minds. LEA's communication series, pp. 77-98. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Delaware Department of Education (1997). Interim Assessment Program Highlights.  Available at http://www.doe.state.de.us/reporting/glance/1997/glance.htm

Hayes, C. D., Palmer, J. L, & Zaslow, M. J. (1990). Who Cares for America's Children? Child Care Policy for the 1990s. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Vasquez, O. A., Pease-Alvarez, L., & Shannon, S. M. (1994). Pushing Boundaries: Language and Culture in a Mexicano Community. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

US GAO (July 1994). Hispanic Schooling: Risk Factors For Dropping Out and Barriers to Resume Education. Washington, DC.

 

[1] The name of the project “the 5th Dimension” came from a comment by Russian psychologist Vygotsky that besides the four physical dimensions (i.e., three dimensions of space and one dimension of time) there is the fifth dimension of meaning.