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VCU Launches New University-Community Partnership: the MLK Jr Collaborative Intervention Project

Like many urban-serving institutions, Virginia Commonwealth University is located in a high-needs community where K-12 students struggle just to learn and prepare for their futures. At Richmond’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, for example, the majority of students come from low-income households and achieve at lower rates than their peers in more advantaged communities. MLK Jr Middle School needs help if its students are to succeed, and as a university dedicated to improving educational attainment in the community, VCU stepped up. Last month, VCU was pleased to launch the MLK JR Collaborative Intervention Project: an innovative university-community partnership to improve student performance at this high-needs school.

What the Project Will Do

Under Virginia’s Department of Education Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility waiver, universities are allowed to serve as consultants to K-12 schools. The Richmond Public School District sent out a request, and VCU was one of the higher education institutions asked to participate. On January 21st, we held our first Saturday Academy, in which teachers, instructional assistants, and VCU faculty met to share data, assess needs, and discuss strategies for improving student achievement. One of our primary goals is to raise Standards of Learning (SOL) scores, which the VA Department of Education uses to measure student success. We want K-12 teachers to be at the center of these efforts, because although we have some ideas for how to raise SOL scores, we need teacher input to bridge research and practice.

A core component of the MLK Jr Collaborative Intervention Project is the creation of professional learning communities. One of our faculty in the School of Education, Lisa Abrams, is leading an IES-funded project to understand how teachers and school administrators use data to guide instructional decisions and practice in ways that support learning. The professional learning communities will draw upon these findings to determine which strategies are most effective for teaching children and how teachers can improve. VCU faculty members will facilitate the professional learning community teams, and focus on core content areas of math, science, English, and social studies.

Implementation of the project will be guided also by the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which is firmly grounded in cognitive neuroscience and promotes flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences.

Our Approach

Integral to this effort is a collaborative, community-based approach toward working with the middle school, actively engaging families and community-members in activities throughout the project. For example, we will use the community center at the school to host focus groups for parents and conduct surveys to identify what parents want from their child’s school, how they feel about becoming more involved, and various social or economic needs that impact their child’s ability to thrive.

Perhaps most importantly, we are integrating trauma-informed care into our approach, recognizing that adverse childhood experiences inhibit learning and growth and serve as barriers to students’ academic success. Nationally, there’s been a lot of attention given to trauma-informed care, but very little research has been done on how to implement it or specific programs that are successful. We will start by working with teachers in small groups to incorporate trauma-informed care into the way they approach their teaching and disciplinary practices.

For example, one faculty member will work with the school’s administrator’s and teachers to develop a restorative justice program to address disciplinary issues by imposing an alternative set of consequences for students. Rather than involving juvenile justice and law enforcement agencies, we work with children directly to help them understand who’s been aggrieved, why it might hurt to be the victim, and how to empathize with others. The goal is to make the classroom a welcoming environment rather than a punitive one, so that students can feel safe and supported as they learn.

Evaluating our Success

The project has just launched, but already we are planning ahead for program evaluation. The school system is providing us with data on SOL scores, absenteeism, and disciplinary actions. Going forward, we will be implementing pre- and post-tests of students each semester, surveys, focus groups, climate studies, and the evaluations to determine the efficacy of the professional learning communities.

Looking Ahead

VCU is very excited to have been selected for this project. We care deeply about the children in our communities who deserve access to quality K-12 education and, in the future, a VCU education. We hope that other urban universities will stay tuned for the results of this innovative partnership, which will provide valuable evidence to help institutions and their K-12 partners meet urban community needs and improve the lives of children and families.


Mary Ellen Huennekens holds a doctorate in education with a specialty in early childhood special education (ECSE). She is the coordinator of the ECSE graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University and the director of the MLK, Jr. Middle School Collaborative Intervention Project. Dr. Huennekens’ interests include early language and literacy development in young dual langauge learners and social-emotional development in young children. She is involved in several community-based projects to encourage trauma-informed practices in schools and early childhood settings.


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