Focus

A Lasting Collaboration Is More Than a Two-Step Dance

School-Community Partnerships by CAROLE LEVINE

Collaboration is like dancing with an octopus. The work of building and sustaining school/community collaborations is a dance with multifaceted partners.

Real collaborations are few and far between. Most of the "dances" we call collaborations are limited in scope and not sustained over time. Yet when school/community relationships are effective, they display some common signs: A broad spectrum of people and organizations share a common vision; their commitment is not short-term; self-interest, while not absent, does not dominate what is being done; and things change for the better.

The support and involvement of the central office is essential to collaboration. It can move things forward or bring them to a grinding halt. Yet even with that support, other components will make or break the partnership.

  • Collaboration is a process, not a program.

    The purpose of a collaboration is to get people to work in new ways toward a shared vision. That vision cannot be accomplished by any one participant alone. The process allows the collaborators to carry out a program in response to the vision while the collaboration remains the facilitator and broker of what participants bring to the table.

    In working with 35 public schools, Chicago Communities In Schools delivers no direct services to schools, children or families. Instead, the staff of nine work with more than 100 organizations to broker more than 235 services. CIS facilitates the collaboration.

  • Ownership for the process and its outcomes are shared.

    Collaboration is a "win-win" situation. It works when participants are engaged and feel responsible for its successes and deficiencies. No one participant is solely responsible for the achievement of the vision, but rather each stakeholder can claim influence.

    In Waterloo, Iowa, two years after the opening of a high school and a middle school health clinic, the community collaboration of Communities In Schools and the county health department, 23 collaborating agencies, school principals, the school board and superintendent, can point to a rise in school attendance and an increase in GPAs for students using the clinic.

  • Schools must be viewed as key partners rather than recipients of collaboration.

    Collaboration is not done for a school but rather with a school or a school district. School administrators and staff, working collaboratively with the community, determine what resources should be brought into each school site. The focus is on providing services that will make a difference for the recipients, while allowing educators to focus on the children's learning needs.

  • School personnel at all levels should be engaged in the partnership.

    Even with the support of a superintendent and a principal, school/community collaborations often rise and fall on the engagement and enthusiasm of faculty and other school personnel. Central-office support for the involvement of school staff at the initial stages of a collaborative effort and for their participation with others in setting goals, determining desired outcomes and setting directions can lead to acceptance by others in a school and even districtwide.

    In each of the 36 partnering schools currently participating with Communities In Schools of Columbus, Ohio, a teacher or a non-teaching staff member handles the on-site coordination of the multiple services that are brokered into the school. The coordinators’ role is essential because it ensures that service providers coming into the school can do their work. Furthermore, as the liaison to the school faculty, coordinators can garner important feedback.

  • Collaborations are comprehensive, reaching out to all.

    The idea that more can be accomplished when acting together than when acting alone is a cornerstone of collaboration. Many well-intentioned initiatives have fallen because they failed to include all the key players. While not everyone will join in, the simple act of being invited can make a difference in the level of support a school/community collaboration receives.

    After an orientation meeting about Communities In Schools in Winona, Minn., I was asked what they should do to proceed. "I just need a letter from your superintendent indicating your interest," I replied. But that was not good enough for this community. "Why does he get to sign it?" they asked, "when we all will be a part of this?"

    Two weeks later I received the "official" letter. It was signed by the chief of police, the city manager, the county director of human services and the superintendent! They taught me a new lesson in community collaboration.

  • Planning is essential.

    Collaboration can be confusing and frustrating for partners when they do not know what is expected. Planning sets direction and determines shared goals. However, plans need to be flexible and frequently revised to meet changing situations and needs.

    In 1994, CIS adopted a five-year plan to work with all 21 schools in the Waterloo, Iowa, district by 1999. Today, Communities In Schools of Cedar Valley is in 21, but those schools are in three districts, not just Waterloo. Flexibility in planning allowed the initiative to broaden its collaboration.

  • Collaboration takes time.

    We want instantaneous results. But in order for a school/community collaboration to be a sustainable process, there needs to be a clear commitment to the long-term.

    Collaborations are risky because participants often must surrender something. This does not happen in a first meeting. It happens when partners get to know and trust one another. Trust is earned over time.

    Over a seven-year period, we have worked with different groups, new superintendents and differing constituencies in one community as they worked to build a school/community collaboration. Our patience, at times, has worn thin, but the process is now moving forward. Success is likely and whatever results should be in place for the long term.

Carole Levine is the regional coordinator of Communities In Schools, 815 W. Van Buren, Suite 319, Chicago, Ill. 60607. E-mail: carole@cisnet.org.