Lessons in Collaboration

Education has always been important to Americans. In every community, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members work to give students the knowledge and skills necessary to be productive members of society. We expect public schools to level the playing field so that all young people will benefit from – and contribute to – expanding opportunities.

In the current political climate, standards-based reform is creating pressure to increase student achievement, a pressure felt most intensely by teachers and administrators. Meanwhile, community builders – community development corporations, neighborhood-based organizations, faith-based groups, settlement houses, and others – are starting to include education reform as part of their agenda to develop the community’s social, physical, economic, and political infrastructure.

Too often in the past, there has been little interaction between community builders and educators. Today, however, there is a surge of interest in partnerships between community-based organizations and schools. Deep community/school relationships combine “inside” expertise with “outside” resources and support. They have a dual benefit: expanding services, supports, and opportunities for young people and strengthening the school as a universally available public institution for all residents. At their best, these partnerships turn schools into “community schools,” vital centers of community life that open the building and its resources to the community for extended hours.

Sticking Points
But school/community relationships are not easy to craft and sustain. School staff can be so immersed in the demands of accountability that they don’t recognize how community members can help. Community builders often do not fully understand the education system they are trying to change or the magnitude of the challenge of improving academic achievement. Such differences lead to “sticking points” that make it difficult for community-building organizations and schools to form productive working relationships.

The most basic sticking points arise from differences in organizational size, structure, and staffing between schools and community organizations. Community builders may find “working through channels” arduous and exasperating, while their lack of knowledge about “how things are done” can frustrate school personnel.

Unequal relationships between professionals and citizens are common in many institutions and are often complicated by differences in race and class. School administrators typically look for partners with demonstrable “clout.” Community leaders, on the other hand, aim to minimize inequalities in power based on resources, race, and class. Because community-building organizations in low-income areas do not always bring to the table sizeable resources or grassroots influence, their members often feel undervalued by school administrators. “No table should be built where someone has more power because of their title,” says Nancy Aardema, director of Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a community group that has gotten heavily involved in school reform.

Even once community builders are at the table, differences in the roles and expectations of leaders may lead to friction. Leadership in schools is based primarily on credentials and training; in community building organizations it is largely based on relationships. This can lead school personnel to misjudge the abilities of people without advanced degrees and community builders to underestimate the challenges and responsibilities that school leaders face.

One program that has faced these sticking points is LSNA’s parent mentoring. The program differs from the traditional school volunteer or internship program because of its explicit focus on building the capacity of adults rather than children. After initial training sessions, each parent works closely with a teacher in the classroom with the primary goal of promoting his or her personal development. Participants in the program are frequently elected to Local School Councils (see Don Moore’s article in this issue), and many have continued their education to seek teaching careers. To work successfully in the program, school staff had to overcome sticking points based on power and class and embrace the philosophy of building the community’s capacity to support its children.

Another sticking point can be differing understandings of the goals and scope of schools. Leaders of education reform usually define the primary goal of schools as promoting young people’s academic achievement. Community builders, and some educators, argue that schools should promote learning, which includes social and personal, as well as academic, development. Educators sometimes feel that community members do not understand the complex and difficult work of improving student achievement. Public accountability for improving student performance is intense, often measured only by test scores, and shouldered almost exclusively by educators. Community builders are not subject to similar public scrutiny, which contributes to tension and a feeling of unbalanced accountability.

Community builders, on the other hand, worry that a “laser-like” focus on academics ignores opportunities for developing competencies in life situations. Sometimes community-building groups will create their own charter schools that include the values of community building along with a rigorous academic curriculum. In the words of one group, they want to “model the kind of education they want for their children.”

Control can also be a concern. Educators tend to see school buildings, classrooms, materials, and resources as belonging to the schools. Community builders view these buildings as community assets and want a voice in their use. While there is a growing movement toward building schools that can serve as centers of community life, tough issues remain, such as negotiating who holds the keys and controls access to the classroom. In one community, private donations to create a technology center in an unused middle school classroom were specifically channeled through a nonprofit organization rather than the school district to ensure accountability for the funds and offer a facility that could serve students during the day and adults at night. But the school district required specific credentials for teaching adults. So far, no qualified teacher has been located and the center is empty after school hours.

Both educators and community builders use collaboration to move forward, but community builders also employ conflict as a valuable tool for change, while educators often see it as a sign of something gone wrong. LSNA stresses the value of collaboration, but its members have also proven the usefulness of confrontation when necessary by organizing demonstrations and working with the media to convince the school system to build a new school in the neighborhood. Local school administrators, concerned about overcrowding in neighborhood schools, welcomed support from LSNA, and district officials gained an appreciation for community builders’ ability to mobilize support. “LSNA comes united,” said a district official. “We know where the community stands.”

The Rules of Engagement
When these sticking points are not satisfactorily addressed, community builders and citizens often find themselves outside with no influence, while educators work toward reform by themselves inside the school. To avoid this situation, education and community building leaders must consistently attend to forming relationships with each other. The following “rules of engagement” will help educators and community builders mobilize their shared resources.

Find out…about each other’s strengths and needs. Good information can clarify differences in perception and concerns, and help to set a common agenda.

School staff can begin by finding out where students and their families live, work, and play. What issues are people talking about? What community assets can help the school? How can school resources be useful to community groups?

In Chicago, school leaders, teachers, and students from Ames Middle School worked with LSNA to survey the neighborhood and determine needs and priorities for a new community center at the school. The superintendent in Rochester, NY, schedules “brown bag” office hours each week when he is available to talk with community members without an appointment.

Community builders can find out about the neighborhood schools, their performance, recent history, and standing in the school district. What education issues are parents and newspapers talking about? What opportunities are there to involve families and community members in decision-making?

In one urban school district, community builders hired a policy analyst to explain school policies and help recommend changes to make them more responsive to families and communities. In Philadelphia, the Germantown Community Collaborative Board (GCCB) developed an Education Committee and established long-term working relationships with schools in its neighborhood. As they became better informed about the schools, committee members raised concerns about the size of, and quality of teaching at, the community’s middle school.

Reach out…to potential partners on their own turf. School staff can reach out by identifying interested community groups and informing them about the needs and circumstances of the schools. The school superintendent in Plainfield, NJ, shares information about student achievement and the district’s budget with community members in a user-friendly format, then encourages people to discuss the information in small groups and ask questions of school staff.

Community builders can join groups at the school and provide concrete help. They can disseminate information about schools and create opportunities for school staff to meet informally with community residents. When the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization in Washington, DC, learned that the school board was planning to close a nearby elementary school because of declining enrollment, they worked with school staff and the community to mobilize support – and kept the school open.

Spell out…the purpose and details of joint efforts. School staff must make it clear that there are some areas, such as personnel, where they cannot collaborate with community groups. At the same time, they should work to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to partnership in areas where collaboration is possible. For example, school districts are major employers in most communities, but there are hiring qualifications that school staff cannot circumvent. However, school staff can work with community builders to prepare community members to pass qualifying tests by scheduling preparation and testing sessions in the neighborhood.

Community builders can work with school decision-making processes to forge agreement between school and community agendas. Concurrence on expectations and timelines allows partners to be comfortable in a joint venture and reduces feelings of imbalanced accountability. One community-building organization works with its members to develop an annual work plan for meeting priority needs in the community. The plan is shared with the schools and includes goals related to educational achievement, such as a community-based campaign for family literacy.

Work out…the kinks as they arise and change your approach when necessary. There will be rough spots in any relationship, and being able to stick it out through them is crucial. Participants must deal with differences in expectations, such as: How much autonomy does a school principal have? What kinds of resources can a community-building organization provide?

School staff can benefit by staying involved with the issues and not walking out on a relationship. In Chula Vista, CA, school staff needed new skills to respond to the regular conflicts that arose as they tried to build relationships with parents. “Problems arise when a person in power feels they should be judging,” says Dennis Doyle, assistant superintendent. So the district tried sending its staff to mediation training at the San Diego Mediation Center. The training was so helpful that it has become one of the few things the district absolutely requires of all its leaders. “Mediation is an indispensible skill,” says Doyle. “It allows people to leave feeling like there was a win-win arrangement.”

Community builders can help by staying flexible and emphasizing clear, positive communication. In Chicago, LSNA convenes an ongoing discussion among school principals who talk about working with the community and ways to build on positive relationships. Community organizations can give principals some political cover in working with the district bureaucracy.

Build out…from success by sharing positive results and expanding your efforts. School staff can use positive achievements to leverage resources from other sectors while finding ways to increase their capacity for partnering. The Chula Vista Coordination Council began as an effort to support the school district in obtaining grant funding from the state for Family Resource Centers. The Council has grown to involve municipal and county government, as well as community-based organizations, nonprofit agencies and the faith community.

Community builders can take the lead in demonstrating success – to the community, to funders, and to decision-makers. In Chicago, the success of LSNA in mobilizing community support for a new middle school strengthened the community’s role in selecting a principal who would develop a school program that reflected community values.

As Partners
When schools and community organizations begin to help each other, they develop personal relationships that can overcome differences in organizational structure, power, race, and class. Successes – even small ones – are important in overcoming many sticking points, and are especially valuable in establishing a climate of public ownership and accountability. Schools and community builders can publicize their success, share the credit, and move on to greater challenges – as partners.

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