Six Elements for Establishing Solid Collaborations

by Elton Stetson, Glenn Fournet, and Harry Fullwood

Public school districts can reap significant benefits in professional development from a partnership with a local university. In many respects, district representatives should take the lead in facilitating discussions about possible collaborations.

Over the past four years we have been part of a major partnership between Texas A&M University-Commerce and 10 school districts in eastern Texas. This partnership is designed to improve K-12 learning through more effective pre-service and in-service training for teachers. Currently, 60 public school campuses participate in this program, which recently won two national awards as exemplary teacher education programs.

Our collaboration, which we call a professional development school, is a public school in which teachers and administrators, along with university faculty and pre-service teachers, jointly study and implement effective teaching practices. Pre-service teachers and their professors spend two or three semesters serving as teacher interns and consultants, respectively.

Method courses are offered to the pre-service teachers on the professional development school campus, and they are team taught by school and university faculty. As partners, pre-service teachers and professors participate in site-based curricular and instructional decisions and continuous staff development determined by the staff and delivered on site during the school day. The school serves as an on-the-job training laboratory where pre-service teachers work in exchange for earning academic credits.

Startup Planning

Based on our experiences with the development of the school-university partnership, we offer six strategies school administrators should consider when initiating teacher education partnerships with universities.

* Decide what you want from the partnership.

Visit existing professional development school programs. Learn how they benefit the K-12 schools, their costs, and the barriers they have encountered. Bring your best leadership together to explore particular needs such a partnership could address, your potential contributions to a university’s teacher education program, and ways a partnership could be mutually beneficial.

One superintendent’s initiative with this idea resulted in a document in which needs and contributions of each partner became a major component of a successful grant proposal.

* Share your ideas.

Set up a meeting with representatives of your local college or university. Tell them of your interest in exploring how a professional development partnership could benefit children, classroom teachers, prospective teachers, university faculty, administrators and the community.

Consider hosting a full-day exploration session with equal representation from your district and the university. Remember, universities throughout the country are expected to become more involved in the communities that support them with tax dollars. Therefore, they should welcome your interest in a partnership.

* Brainstorm the ideal professional development school.

Answering three important questions will lay the foundation for a solid partnership: (1) what would a professional development school campus look like if it were an ideal place for children to learn; (2) what would our teachers and administrators be like in our ideal school; and (3) what needs to be done collaboratively to produce the teachers and administrators to work there? These discussions should result in a mutually agreed upon mission, goals, curriculum for both pre-service and experienced teachers, and a strategic plan for achieving your goals.

In our early experiences, district administrators facilitated the brainstorming sessions because they were more versed in strategies for conducting meetings. This ultimately led the university to seek training for several of its leaders.

Distinct Roles

* Establish roles and responsibilities.

In effective partnerships, individual roles and responsibilities can become blurred when professionals from different organizations work in the same setting. Therefore, it is important that the primary role and responsibilities of each partner be defined collaboratively as it relates to the program, i.e., classroom teacher, pre-service teacher, professor and building administrator. Put roles in writing and distribute widely.

Because partners’ roles change from time to time, one assistant superintendent initiated a system in which all partners annually describe possible changes that would improve their roles. This process now is used by almost all partnerships in which we have worked.

* Share in governance matters.

Just as roles and responsibilities are collaboratively designed, policy making should be collaborative as well. Shared governance should be promoted by having school district personnel appointed to university committees governing teacher education programs and university faculty appointed to site-based management teams at the schools.

* Commit to continuous improvement.

All partners should evaluate their roles and the program once or twice each year by answering four questions: (1) what is my current primary role; (2) how do I personally benefit in my role, (3) what changes would make my role more effective, and (4) what improvements would strengthen the partnership? Data from these evaluations should be shared with governing bodies and used to propose changes in requirements, curriculum, and role definitions.

Relevant Applications

When schools and universities remain focused on the mission and ideals of the partnership, great things happen. For pre-service teachers, a more ideal training environment does not exist. Teachers and university faculty gain mutual respect as they break barriers that have kept them apart.

Under such arrangements, the school campus becomes a virtual laboratory where teaching practices assume cutting-edge quality. Staff development is enriched and more relevant. University programs are better aligned with the realities and demands of today’s schools.

The greatest beneficiaries are children, whose learning opportunities are enhanced by the additional expertise from a school of professional educators.

Elton Stetson is a professor of elementary education, Glenn Fournet is a professor of psychology, and Harry Fullwood is a professor of special education, all at Texas A&M University-Commerce.