Bold Change Requires Solidarity Between Schools and Community Partners

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Bold Change Requires Solidarity Between Schools and Community Partners

Parents know what they want for their children. Empowered by the demands of the pandemic, parents are owning their power to making choices about what opportunities their children engage in. Parents overwhelmingly support the American Rescue Plan Act dollars coming to schools, but they want bold change. They don’t just want more traditional school and more rote instruction. Case in point: A recently released Understanding America Study found that only 25 percent of families were enrolling their children in summer school in districts that offered it. Local reports, however, suggest that parents are responding to hybrid approaches that involve community-based programs. 

Hike2On a longer journey to become a city of learning, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) and The Opportunity Project collaboratively launched Ready! Set! Summer! Throughout the summer nearly 12,000 young people (more than 33 percent of TPS students) have engaged in summer programs hosted in schools, community centers, museums, parks and stem facilities. Grounded in learning from partnership focused on social emotional learning as well as from the teacher walkouts in 2019 and COVID closures in 2020, these programs lead with relationships, interests, and fun while building in math, science, and other opportunities for academic acceleration – regardless of where they are offered and whether the school or community organizations are serving as the primary lead.

Tulsa is not alone. Boston and Cleveland are similarly seeing preferences for more asset-based programs that build on students’ interests and strengths while also addressing their academic, social and emotional needs. Parents’ greater willingness to engage in “reconnect and recovery” efforts when community partners take lead likely reflects pre-pandemic relationships that were reinforced over the last year when these programs adapted rather than closing, shifting to blended modalities and offering different in person options (such as pop-up camps or learning hubs). 

Those calling for the radical transformation of schools insist that change starts with the adoption of a more balanced approach to learning that is consistent with recent science findings about how learning happens. This balanced approach is widely used in these flexible learning settings. But valuable lessons and examples are frequently discounted (even when funded via school districts) because these organizations are different from schools. They do not lead with academics, rely on certified teachers, use tests and grades, or require attendance. Hence, these settings are seen as nice but not necessary.

“Learning happens everywhere” is a great slogan. But the lion’s share of public and philanthropic education funding flows into and through school systems with precious little coming out the other side to strengthen this more flexible learning and development system. Without concerted efforts to translate platitudes into real ecosystem planning, it remains likely that little of the unprecedented amounts of funding now flowing to schools will be invested in coordination and capacity-building infrastructures that can accelerate progress towards equitable, community-based, learner-centered ecosystems. Expanded access to summer and afterschool programs will likely happen but may not last.

Based on what we have collectively experienced and heard from other communities across the country, we have one suggestion for school and school district leaders that might seem relatively simplistic but will take a great deal of effort to pull off. To effectively build partnerships, leaders must acknowledge and begin to eliminate the power differential between schools and community programs.

Two quotes, shared by leaders in Tulsa during Episode 3 of the Wallace PSELI Podcast, illustrate the negative impact this power dynamic can create:

I didn't realize there's actually been a lot of harm, non-intentional harm, working with our outside partners, where we've just made decisions and excluded them and not even considered them in many of our decision-making processes.
One of the things we did really have to work on is… treating our youth care workers as professionals. I didn't realize that there was this thing around a certified classroom teacher versus a professional youth care worker. It's been a big learning experience for me in this project, but I think it's well worth it in recognizing that both sets of individuals have such great things to bring to students and families that we need to learn from both of them.

As we think about how we more effectively build partnerships between schools and community programs, we find ourselves reflecting on the impact the concept of allyship has had in diversity, equity and inclusion work. 

Allyship is an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which an individual of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people.


Allyship for BIPOC, Latinx, LGBTQ+ students requires school and district leaders to maintain active awareness of the actions they must take to understand and disrupt inequities (racial, gender identity, sexual orientation). One step is to recognize the extent to which families rely on community organizations to complement and sometimes compensate for lessons learned or not learned in school. School systems need to recognize their interdependence with other youth serving organizations as we map out the full range of supports and opportunities the young people in our communities need and deserve. The benefits will not only be for young people, but the very systems engaged in collaboration through infusion of ideas, services, and supports become part of the collective approach to learning and development.

The call for strong, sustainable partnerships between schools and their communities is linked to a broader push for a shift from siloed systems thinking (even with commitments to better coordination) to ecosystems thinking (in which each system acknowledges its interdependence with the other as well as the independent value other systems contribute to young people’s success). To implement transformational change together we need to:

  • Talk about young people not just as students, but more broadly as learners. 
  • Respect and resource all of the professionals and paraprofessionals in the learning ecosystem (including those in the school building who staff the libraries, hallways, cafeterias, buses, counseling and nurses’ offices, wrap around supports and extracurricular and sports activities). Think of community partners as part of a more flexible delivery system that likely has been, and can be, critical partners during the school day as well as in the afterschool and summer hours. 
  • Acknowledge that every system has formal (curriculum-based instruction), flexible (interest/talent driven learning) and free choice (independent exploration, recess) settings where adults and young people–when empowered–can make learning happen. 
  • Create a shared commitment to acknowledge that all learning is social and emotional. It is the intentionality of experiences we co-create with learners that matter.

This past year has underscored the fact that trying to do this alone discounts the more fragile, but no less important relationships, networks, and coordinating infrastructures in place in the broader community. A year and a half of schools and families leaning on community-based organizations has made it clear that schools cannot create equitable learning opportunities alone. 

This is the time for all of us to be bold. Disruption created opportunity. Let’s fully leverage these opportunities to build forward together


Paula Shannon
deputy superintendent
Tulsa Public Schools

Caroline Shaw
executive director
The Opportunity Project

Karen Pittman
co-founder and senior fellow
The Forum for Youth Investment

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