Learning Leadership column, July/August 2012 edition of eSchool News—The American Association of School Administrators is a strong proponent for the education of the total child. What we mean by that is, we firmly believe that the schools cannot do it alone.
We fully accept the responsibility to educate America’s children, and we are willing to be held accountable for that—but we also realize there are many factors outside the school that affect a child’s ability to learn. Consequently, our ability to succeed in the classroom can be enhanced by collaborating with community agencies and other governmental entities that provide the services that can make sure our children come to school ready to learn.
Easier said than done. I spend a considerable amount of time talking to community groups and nonprofits that are trying to climb over the school wall to offer their programs and services. Often, they find administrators unreceptive to their advances and want to know what they can do to establish collaborative alliances.
At the same time, the economic recession has brought about draconian cuts in our schools’ programs and services—and administrators are scrambling for ways to restore them. This seems like a problem and a solution in need of an introduction, so we have put together a list of 10 suggestions that will help agencies and schools come together for the education of the total child.
The outside organization’s challenge is gaining the trust of the school. Educators are, by nature and by law, protective of the children they serve. They will not indiscriminately grant access to their students or give out information about their students until they are working with an outside organization that has been fully vetted and with whom, under the law, information can be shared. How, then, can a collaborative relationship be established by the outside agency?
- The agency must clearly identify and describe the services it offers and portray them as supportive of the school’s goals. It helps to do some research here. There are volumes of publicly accessible data that clearly identify a school’s need. For instance, an organization offering mentoring and tutoring can point to how its services could help improve a school that is looking to raise student achievement. A Big Brother, Big Sister program might help the school with an attendance issue.
- Approach the school not as a critic, but as a partner wanting to help. In case you were not aware, school personnel are not paranoid; they are under attack. Consequently, they regard outsiders with suspicion—and as possibly another group ready to beat up on the staff and offer yet another ready-made solution to the problems confronting our educational system. Define the problem as belonging to the community, not just the school, and offer to work side by side to solve the common concern. The message should be that it is not just a school problem; it’s a community problem.
- Bring evidence of success. In God we trust; everybody else must bring data. Demonstrate how your program has helped other schools, and bring testimonials from those administrators and teachers if you have them. Encourage the new partner to contact those teachers and administrators and get their take on the program’s effectiveness.
- Consider starting with an external application. It will be easier to get your foot in the school door if your initial support takes place outside of school, after school hours, possibly on weekends. Why would you need to contact the school at all if your program is to be executed on the outside? Because, by informing the school of what you are about to do and how it will help the school, you begin to establish a relationship that will flourish into the partnership you are seeking.
- Avoid adding to the burdens already faced by the administrators and teachers. Yes, your program might be the best thing since sliced bread, but if it is going to create additional work for an already overworked staff, you will not get the reception you are looking for. Consider that, during the last four years, schools have suffered extensive budget cuts that have resulted in the elimination of thousands of jobs—but the number of children remains the same and even has increased in many places. On the other hand, if you can show that your program will make life easier for the school staff, you are golden!
- Be willing to be held accountable. Accountability is big in education circles. Nobody gets a bye. Be sure to have an evaluation plan in your back pocket, with the metrics that will demonstrate the effectiveness of the program. Bear in mind that the current education culture places a great deal of emphasis on student achievement, so any program that even marginally supports student gains will be welcomed.
- Establish a relationship with the school staff. People in the private sector understand better than most the importance of networking and establishing positive relationships. Being “liked” by the staff will ensure their cooperation and support.
- When possible, partner with other community agencies that offer services that might add to the effectiveness of your program. You can facilitate the process by coordinating the efforts of various groups and minimizing the burden on staff. Programs like Communities in Schools (CIS) actually provide the coordinating services, so that the CIS Coordinator takes on the responsibility of orchestrating the services provided by a host of outside agencies.
- Gain the support of the school community: groups like the PTA, the business community, the Rotary Club, the school board, and others. Having allies gets you validity and eases acceptance by the school.
- Work toward institutionalization of your program so that eventually the school owns it. That is the only way to ensure that the program becomes part of the school culture and not just a passing fad. Ultimately, your job should be to work yourself out of a job.
I have the honor of serving on the Board of America’s Promise, and I have worked closely over the years with the America’s Promise Alliance. There are 437 organizations involved in the Alliance’s efforts to help our students stay in school and graduate. There are many other organizations that are not part of the Alliance that also want to help our children succeed. Imagine what could be accomplished if all of those organizations and our schools joined hands and worked together toward our common goal.
Hopefully, these 10 points will help establish the relationships that will lead to such a united effort. Our schools cannot do it alone.
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