Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Community Schools Support Partnerships for Learning

At Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), a running theme across our work is the belief that kids need an array of learning supports: no single setting on its own, including schools, can meet all the learning needs of our youth. This idea of a complementary set of supports, or complementary learning, requires partnerships among schools, community-based organizations, and families to provide kids with the tools to become successful and productive adults.

In our new paper, Partnerships for Learning: Community Support for Youth Success, we discuss what complementary learning looks like in practice, as demonstrated by the community schools model and illustrated by the experiences of one particular community schools initiative, Elev8. We examine how schools, like those involved in the Elev8 initiative, are implementing what we call partnerships for learning. These partnerships both expand learning opportunities and remove barriers to learning. To create them, school staff and administrators, out-of-school time providers, families, community-based organizations, health care providers, and other service providers work together to provide a seamless web of opportunities and supports so that kids have positive learning experiences.

These partnerships are most successful when partners prioritize seven important elements. These seven elements can help schools—including community schools—as they strive to become an effective hub in coordinating learning supports across various partners. These elements are:

1.       Shared vision of learning: Partners share a common understanding of the goals and resources needed to support children’s learning.
2.       Shared leadership and governance: Partners have an equal say in leading efforts to support kids and their families.
3.       Complementary partnerships: Partners share complementary skills and areas of expertise to create a comprehensive set of learning supports for children.
4.       Effective communication: Partners communicate effectively and frequently to ensure they are aligning their activities and are working in harmony with one another.
5.       Regular and consistent sharing of information about youth progress: Partners have access to crucial data that help them better understand the youth they serve.
6.       Family engagement: Families serve as key partners to help address the complex conditions and varied environments where children learn and grow.
7.       Collaborative staffing models: Schools and community organizations create staffing structures that intentionally blend roles across partners, so that staff work in multiple settings to provide support spanning school and non-school hours.

To identify the elements of successful partnerships, we looked at research on learning partnerships, including our own research on Elev8 and the work of the local and national Elev8 evaluators. We then asked the local Elev8 directors and evaluators to reflect on how accurately the seven elements we identified resonated with their experience at Elev8 sites. We asked them to share examples of their experiences with the seven elements and describe what they looked like in their schools, and to share the challenges they had faced. We share many of these Elev8 stories related to the seven elements throughout the paper. These stories provide lessons and recommendations for others engaged in this type of partnership.

For instance, we learned that schools can address the challenge of sharing student data across partners by clearly defining their data-sharing procedures. One way to do this is through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement, which provides an opportunity to lay out the data-sharing requirements and responsibilities of each partner. Elev8 New Mexico, for example, has successfully developed and implemented MOUs with partner organizations as part of their new database system. Additionally, Elev8 Chicago partners create and review data dashboards, which provide graphical snapshots of their performance indicators, to discuss and plan program changes and continually bring data into their conversations.

We wrote our paper both for those already working in community schools as well as for people who want to embark on creating a new partnership for learning. Since the paper’s release, we have heard from many people who are interested in partnerships for learning and we would love to hear from even more of you.
What are the challenges you have faced in implementing these types of partnerships? Do you have advice for others trying to put them in place? Have you found that the seven elements of successful partnerships for learning are an important part of your own work? If so, how? Are there other elements that you would recommend adding to the list?

Shani Wilkes and Erin Harris are Senior Research Analysts at Harvard Family Research Project, which is located the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Shani and Erin are members of the Expanded Learning/Out-of-School Time (OST) team and are the co-authors of Partnerships for Learning: Community Support for Youth Success.

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