Connecting Districts and Colleges Collaboratively

by Catherine L. Tannahill

Although both school districts and universities are in the business of education, the needs, expectations and processes differ for each. Public schools must meet governmental and community expectations. Universities are required to be centers of research and intellectual scholarship as demonstrated by grant activity, research funding and recognition of faculty expertise.

I have worked with numerous grants involving school districts and universities. Several involved the Teacher Quality Partnership grant programs in Connecticut and Texas. In my experience, successful grant collaboration is like a successful social relationship — one where all participants equally contribute to the relationship, receive gratification and communicate openly.

For school districts and universities to collaborate successfully on a program, you must be sure that everybody works, everybody wins and everybody communicates.

These are not discrete issues but closely interwoven throughout a partnership. The partners must be open about their requirements and their capacity to meet the needs of others, while respecting the needs and limitations of the other partner.

A frequent problem in technology grants is the conflict between the requirements of unfettered academic freedom for higher education and the legal restrictions involving Internet filtering for public schools and libraries.

For one grant, the local university had partnered with our school district and placed technology in several professional development schools to be available for their education students, the school’s teachers and student use. Federal regulations required the use of filtering software to qualify for E-rate funding. University policy, developed for educating students over the age of 18, required unfiltered access to the Internet. These areas were directly in conflict and had to be resolved for successful collaboration. Both partners had to be open to legitimate compromise.

Our solution was to establish levels of Internet access, allowing college personnel unconstrained access while establishing tighter guidelines for school district staff and students.

Natural Attraction
Successful grant relationships usually result from the attraction of natural partners. While this is an obvious and simple statement, the process itself is not easy to navigate.

For universities, natural partners may be school districts closest in proximity and those whose graduates join their student body. For universities with education certification programs, natural partners are those districts that accept their student teachers and interns. No Child Left Behind has facilitated the identification of these natural coalitions because many grants specifically target priority districts.

Identification of potential partners is just the first step. Assuring that all partners achieve what they expect from the relationship is more difficult. School districts know what they need and can select from many options, but they are not always well versed in how to achieve their goals. Higher education’s expertise, wider experience and distance from the problem can provide significant insights into effective solutions to meet district needs, but the university’s broader, theoretical view may lead it to be overly dogmatic. It is easy for academicians to want to implement the best theoretical answer to a problem rather than a less satisfactory but more achievable solution.

Interested partners need to talk frankly about their needs. An initial, face-to-face meeting of the prospective members of the alliance helps to remove the anonymity of the process and facilitates establishing a common foundation early in the process.

This getting-to-know-you stage is crucial. It establishes the framework for the grant proposal. This is the time to ensure that each partner understands the grant requirements and limitations as well as expectations of the various partners. It is easier to begin the relationship with these understandings than to work them out after the proposal is accepted.

Over the years, I have worked with school districts that clearly communicate their long-term goals that we can work together to solve. They support grant activities, communicate their belief it serves districtwide goals and contribute data, signatures and support.

In contrast, I also have worked with districts that are happy to reap the benefits of a grant but are unwilling to provide anything to make the project a success. They do not provide data in a timely manner or expend any district funds or services beyond being a conduit for information.

One district always wanted to participate but did not meet deadlines, furnish data or encourage staff participation. Where other districts picked up materials, this district required delivery; where other districts arranged for early release for teachers for follow-up activities, this district never advocated for their participants.

A Red Flag
It is vital that communication is open and frequent. Sometimes the difficulty one partner expresses in finding time to meet raises a red flag about potential commitment and project success. The district that cannot find time to send a representative to meetings or to reply to e-mail requests invests nothing in the grant process and has little interest in seeing it succeed.

Catherine Tannahill is assistant professor of educational technology at Eastern Connecticut State University, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226. E-mail: