Community-School Collaborations Improve Outcomes

Last Updated: April 27, 2014

This article appeared in the April 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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The Rural Trust is one of nine national organizations that co-released Partnerships, Not Pushouts, A Guide for School Board Members: Community Partnerships for Student Success” earlier this month.

The guide makes the case for community-based collaborations between schools and other organizations to help all students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. These collaborations can provide opportunities and meet needs that schools by themselves cannot. The guide includes questions and action steps to help school boards begin building broad-based, meaningful collaborations. The guide also features examples of schools and districts that are using the approach successfully.

Robert Mahaffey, Rural Trust's Director of Communications, represented Rural Trust at the press event releasing the guide. “Great progress has been made across the country in raising awareness and taking action to address the needs of the whole child and family," Mahaffey said. "Meeting the needs of the whole child is undoubtedly connected to student academic progress and success in life. This guide is yet another extremely useful tool for schools, districts, and communities.”

Mahaffey added, “We are particularly pleased that three rural places are profiled. Their experience is informing public discourse and making clear that all children deserve equitable opportunities regardless of geography or the child’s zip code.”

Personal Opportunity Plans

At the heart of the guide’s recommendations is the Personal Opportunity Plan, or POP. The guide describes how POPs work.

"Personal Opportunity Plans are student-centered and student-directed processes that maximize students’ academic, personal, and college and career development and foster success in school and life. They are not a one-time activity but an ongoing process by which the student defines, explores, and then refines his or her interests and goals throughout the school system.”

POPs are not compliance documents, but rather a vehicle to support collaboration among the student, the family, school staff, and a range of community partners specific to the student’s interests and needs.

POPs help students explore interests, plan and achieve short and long-term goals, track their own progress, and experience the school as caring and responsive. POPs help families understand what it will take for their student to be successful, and they connect families to useful resources and opportunities.

POPs also help schools identify and respond to individual student interests and needs with curricular options, community-based experiences, and targeted supports.

By engaging a range of partners, POPs reduce the likelihood that a student will fall through the cracks; they take pressure off teachers to be the sole school support for each of their students; and they coordinate and make efficient use of resources.

Increasing engagement, responding to pushout

Building collaborations between schools and communities is beneficial to all students and schools, according to Partnerships, Not Pushouts. Students who have opportunities to connect their academic work to real-life experiences and to explore their interests in contexts beyond the school walls are more engaged with their own learning. They are exposed to a wider range of experiences and people, which supports social and emotional growth as well as academic connection.

School-community collaborations are especially important for students who experience out-of-school impediments to academic success, including challenges related to poverty, access to health care, and mentoring.

Collaborations also help address negative in-school circumstances that disproportionately affect specific groups of students. Partnerships, Not Pushouts emphasizes recent research (read RPM coverage here) that documents the realities that certain groups of students have less access to strong curriculum and experienced and well-trained teachers. Those same groups are more likely to be disciplined harshly and in ways that put them in contact with the criminal justice system.

For example, non-Asian students of color, especially African-American students, and students with disabilities are much more likely that Caucasian and Asian students to be suspended from school, despite evidence that disciplinary infractions vary little across racial/ethnic groups and disability status. These student groups and students from low-income families also have less access to high-quality preschool and to college.

This combination of in-school and out-of-school factors creates gaps in opportunities, gaps that block important avenues to success and push many students out of school altogether. School-community collaborations can help fill the gaps.

Key elements for implementation

Partnerships, Not Pushouts identifies four elements — Capacity, Community, Climate, and Cohesion — that are key to effective collaborations. It offers guiding questions related to each element to help a school district prepare for implementation.

Capacity addresses how the district promotes community partnerships; what professional development and resources it offers staff to build meaningful relationships; and how the district can build on efforts already underway.

Community examines how the district provides opportunities for students to be engaged with adults in the local community; how community volunteers are involved in school, service learning, and other opportunities; how the district is partnering with community-based organizations and government agencies to address student needs and develop opportunities and supports.

Climate explores how the district works to promote positive learning environment in its schools; how it promotes the well-being and development of the whole child, including social, emotional, ethical, and civic skills; how the district encourages student engagement; and, how data collection and accountability practices measure the degree to which efforts are addressing student engagement, well-being, and non-academic learning.

Cohesion considers whether partnered groups are focused on promoting all aspects of student learning and development; whether operational plans and budget provide the necessary programs and resources to be successful; and, how the district negotiates and coordinates resources and services among partners.

Community schools framework

The guide also explores the concept of community schools as a framework for successful collaborations and for implementing POPs. The Coalition for Community Schools (CSC) is one of the nine co-sponsors of Partnerships, Not Pushouts.

CSC is an alliance of state, national, and local organizations working across the spectrum of K–16 education, community development, health and human services, family support, philanthropy, government, and school networks. It defines a “community school” as both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.

Community school models take a variety of forms and share a common set of principles: fostering strong partnerships, sharing accountability for results, setting high expectations, building on the community’s strengths, and embracing diversity and innovative solutions.

In addition to his work with Rural Trust, Robert Mahaffey is Vice-Chair of the CSC Steering Committee and President of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education, which has been a strong supporter of the community schools concept.

“In reality, many rural schools are the heartbeat of their communities and provide a variety of support services for children and families,” Mahaffey said when asked about the impact of the community schools movement in rural America.

Mahaffey also notes that rural residents often cite the tight connections between their local school and place and refer to the school as a community school, whether or not the school is formally affiliated with the community schools movement.

See “Community Schools Concept Gaining Ground” (also in this issue of RPM) to read about the CSC National Forum and the growing role of rural schools in the Community Schools movement.

Examples of collaboration

Partnerships, Not Pushouts concludes with examples of schools and districts from around the country that have created successful community school collaborations. These examples include elementary and secondary schools located in urban and rural settings.

Other partners in the development of Partnerships, Not Pushouts include the Alliance for Excellent Education; the American Federation of Teachers; the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL); the Coalition for Community Schools, the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, Opportunity Action, and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

Read more:

Coverage of the release of Partnerships, Not Pushouts


Read more from the April 2014 Rural Policy Matters.