Thursday, October 13, 2011

Community Schools Crossing Boundaries to Help Students Succeed

Guest Post by JoAnne Ferrara and Eileen Santiago

The focus on student achievement is at the heart of all community school initiatives. In our respective roles as department chair and principal, we have found the best way to address that work is by creating collaborative opportunities for our constituent base so that student learning is everyone’s business. Community schools, with their network of partner organizations, provide the perfect arena for cross boundary leadership. Given that individuals come with a varied set of skills and professional orientations, the co-location of services and sharing of resources within community schools make it easy for them to work cooperatively. Bridging the prescribed institutional roles fosters a sense of unity and strengthens our common goal of student success. When partners are deeply committed to providing supports for students, and everyone takes responsibility for positive student outcomes, a “can do“ culture is born.

This focus on student achievement is especially true in community schools that have had the foresight to partner with a local college and have formed a relationship with a professional development school (PDS). Over the past ten years, the Thomas A. Edison Community School in Port Chester, NY has maintained many partnerships with community organizations in serving students, families, and faculty. An extremely beneficial link has developed between the school and its higher education partner, Manhattanville College. Located just a short distance from the school, the college has supported the school’s work to improve student outcomes. For instance, they provide ongoing job-embedded professional development for teachers at the school site, making it easy for staff to benefit from the expertise of college faculty. They offer individual tutoring and enrichment programs for students during and after school hours as part of college’s on-site teacher education courses. The college also facilitates the placement of the student teachers who have shared their creative talents in the classrooms. These initiatives evolved as part of our mutual attempt to meet the needs of our respective students, resulting in unique opportunities for our constituents to engage in boundary-crossing leadership to address student learning.

Leadership is both shared and multi-faceted within the community school setting. It is shared with the community partners who - together with the building principal and school staff - strive to make the school’s mission of supporting the whole child a reality. It is multi-faceted in that community schools are well positioned to have leaders spring forth from unexpected places. At Edison, parents and adult caregivers have emerged as community leaders and advocates for this approach to education. By doing so, they have become part of the district leadership team that is helping to spread the community school philosophy district-wide. Teachers have moved beyond their roles within the classroom, working closely with college faculty to shape their programs, by helping to design new courses or selecting materials to enhance course content while also benefitting from the services they bring to the school site. Student teachers and teacher education candidates participate in leadership roles, during the day or after school, by designing activities that promote student learning. Our community school’s emphasis on character development and service learning has afforded elementary students the opportunity to grow and demonstrate their own leadership potential within the classroom, within the school, as part of their local community, and as part of the global community.

In our work, which has spanned more than a decade, we have found that those leadership opportunities for constituents, so necessary in addressing student outcomes, can be made possible within the fundamental structure of community schools. Without a doubt, leadership in community schools requires not only the leaders’ credentials, but also the ability to provide individuals with opportunities to develop their own leadership skills, and move institutions and systems towards a greater good.

Dr. JoAnne Ferrara is the Chairperson of Curriculum and Instruction at Manhattanville College. Eileen Santiago, served as principal at Thomas A. Edison Full -Service Community School in Port Chester, N.Y. before she retired.

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