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Facilitating School and Community Partnerships Across Diverse Stakeholder Groups

Module by: Dianne Pollard. E-mail the author

Summary: The goal of this module is to highlight the importance of building community partnerships by bringing community members and educators together in an effort to impact school and community improvement. This module focuses on the educator as facilitator in organizing a team of diverse stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, community members, and representatives of community organizations and agencies) to collaborate around the issue of student achievement. The philosophy of the Algebra Project, Inc., a math and science program originated in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1982, will be used to demonstrate how local communities can be organized to support student’s academic achievement.

At the conclusion of this module, the reader will understand how the Algebra Project, Inc. mobilizes the community, not only to support math literacy but broader needs of school and communities. As educational leaders and facilitators of diverse stakeholder groups, you will be able to identify tools that you can use from the Algebra Project, Inc., and other resources in building collaborative and sustained school-community partnerships.

Introduction

Community engagement is increasingly important as the general public expects more from their schools. The voices of disenfranchised parents and community members must be heard and they must be empowered as advocates for their children (Boeck, 2002). The process used in developing real partnerships with all the stakeholders in the community requires a readied school leader who facilitates, encourages, and promotes a positive outlook toward school and community relations (Tareilo, 2007).

Boeck (2002) contends that one of the challenges in addressing the achievement gap is engaging the community in ways that support student achievement and continuous improvement. Boeck further states that community engagement must occur at all levels, not just at the individual school level. Moses & Cobb (2001) emphasize that if the educational system is going to change, the important customary role of adults being there for the young needs to be reinstated at all levels. And the educational system must be responsive to the needs and interests of the community.

Districtwide community engagement, coupled with strong involvement and support from the local school board is likely to have a positive impact on school and community relations and increase the likelihood of improved student achievement. The Algebra Project, Inc. is one example of how community participation can influence the creation of a culture of high expectations and high student achievement.

What is the Algebra Project?1

Robert P. Moses, a parent and secondary math teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded the Algebra Project in 1982. Although algebra was the gateway to the college track in high school, only a few children were placed in Algebra classes in the eighth grade. Bob Moses and several parents and teachers began to develop lessons tailored to difficulties middle school students were having transitioning from arithmetic to algebraic thinking.

Moses & Cobb (2001) assert that in the years since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the customary role of adults to look out for children and offer role models to help guide them to adulthood has weakened. He further asserts that the absence of math literacy in urban rural and communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961 and that we can get the same kind of consensus we had in the 1960s for the effort of repairing this problem. Moses further states that solving the problem requires exactly the kind of community organizing that changed the South in the 1960s.

The philosophy of the Algebra Project, Inc. is to organize local communities at the grassroots level to impact school and community reform. One of the goals of the Project was to increase early mastery of algebra among historically underserved children of color, which predates current mandates requiring algebra mastery for high school graduation. The Project’s current focus is to help make algebra available to all seventh and eighth grade students regardless of their prior level of skill development or academic achievement. It was widely understood that access to algebra enables student to participate in advanced high school math and science courses, a gateway for college entrance. The experientially-based, cooperative and constructivist learning pedagogies that support the curriculum interventions are consistent with the standards-based materials recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In addition to community engagement, continual professional development is a key component of the Project.

The Algebra Project operates from the basis that successful education reform requires community reform. This approach forms the foundation for placing the interests of children at the center of all community concerns. The Algebra Project looks for ways to organize and expand the constituencies of school communities to change the culture around learning in their areas from disjointed fragmented efforts to more cohesive, focused, and unified sustainable collaborative partnerships. As students who participated in the Algebra Project began to experience success in their schools and communities, youth leadership programs were organized. The Young People’s Project is one of these programs and functions as an independent non-profit organization that trains high school and college aged math literacy workers to improve math education among their peers and younger students. The Algebra Project works very closely with the Young People’s Project. Both projects are often implemented concurrently in local school districts.

In the years following the founding of the Algebra Project, Moses solicited the assistance of Dave Dennis, a fellow civil rights worker, to expand the project in the South and other places. Through the support of the Rural School and Community Trust2, Dennis lead the development of a community-based approach to engage parents and other community members in efforts to help students meet higher levels of achievement in math. The Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project was founded and a Facilitation Guide was developed to assist school and community leaders in building strong partnerships.

Implementing the Algebra Project

Petersburg Public Schools3 entered into a planning phase with the Algebra Project, Inc. in the fall of 2006. The school division selected to adopt the Algebra Project, Inc. as a reform effort because of consistent low scores on the state’s mathematics assessment. Through a proposal for funding provided by the Cameron Foundation4, the Algebra Project, Inc. was adopted as a divisionwide, five-year reform initiative. The 2006-2007 school year served as the planning phase. The central office mathematics curriculum specialist facilitated the project and used the first semester of the school year to garner community support. Two press releases announcing community forums were disseminated in November and December 2006 to solicit support from teachers, parents, administrators, higher education, business representatives, and other community members. The mathematics curriculum specialists conducted numerous awareness meetings throughout the second semester, including ward meetings, PTA meetings, and school level faculty meetings. Several presentations were made to the local school board to ensure support for funding and to further increase school and community awareness of the project.

An Algebra Project Design Team was established in January 2007. The Design Team consists of staff from the Algebra Project, Inc., (including Dave Dennis, director of the Southern Initiative) school level administrators; teachers representing elementary, middle, and secondary levels; parents representing elementary, middle, and secondary levels; business partners; representatives from Virginia State University; and central office administrators. Meetings for the Design Team were open to the public. Through a partnership with Virginia State University, the Young People’s Project was implemented concurrently with the planning phase of the Algebra Project, Inc. The Young People’s Project provided math tutoring for students in the two middle schools in Petersburg. The first phase of the Algebra Project, Inc. professional development for teachers of mathematics will be conducted during the summer 2007.

The Facilitation Guide developed through the partnership between the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project and the Rural School and Community Trust was used as a resource in planning and conducting team meetings. It includes eight modules designed to build consensus and strengthen collaboration, while at the same time, modeling facilitation skills. The activities are intended to be used for building and sustaining collaborations around important school and community issues. The eight modules in the facilitation guide are expected to be implemented over time through a strategic process. The ultimate goal of the process in using the guide is to help bridge real and perceived differences among people across age, racial, and socioeconomic groups and to fill the hole that often separates school and community. The following list represents the expected outcomes of using the Facilitation Guide:

  • Participants will understand the need and develop processes for effective communication and consensus building across diverse racial/ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups
  • Participants will understand the need and develop a process for effective collaboration linking schools and diverse organizations and institutions within the community
  • Participants will identify, recruit, and engage the participation of diverse, especially traditionally disengaged, stakeholder groups to implement place-based learning and effective positive change in school and community
  • Participants will develop plans and strategies for sustaining collaborations across diverse groups and institutions
  • Participants will articulate a common purpose of schooling as related to community goals

The facilitator is responsible for ensuring that the activities and goals described in each module are effectively implemented. A brief description of each module follows.

  • Building a sense of place through initial meetings: This module begins by connecting stakeholders through a series of initial meetings. The meetings are designed as a tool and a safe place for individual participation and group work. The initial meetings must focus on the conceptual foundation of the work and to demonstrate how the chosen approach can be effectively used to address community issues.
  • Building a sense of place through community mapping: This module focuses the group on their commonly shared place/community. The activities in this module are springboards for identifying and ensuring efforts to include key stakeholders and traditionally underrepresented groups in the school and community-building process.
  • Building a sense of place through trip planning: The third module provides team members a greater sense of community by planning a trip to places that they agree hold particular significance. The activities in this module include information gathering and consensus building.
  • Building a sense of place through taking the trip: In this module, the stakeholders actually take a trip through the community, visiting those places that were agreed upon in the third module.
  • Building a sense of place through debriefing of the trip: The stakeholders have the opportunity to share impressions, interpretations, and insights from the trip.
  • Defining our community: In this module, the stakeholders extend their understanding by reaching consensus on the meaning of community and a greater understanding of the issue that has brought them together.
  • Visioning our community: In module seven, stakeholders use their expanded knowledge and appreciation of place/community to create a shared vision for a future in which the school and community work toward common purposes.
  • Action planning: The last module involves the development of an action plan around the vision that was developed by the group. The action plan must include identification of key issues, activities, needs, and resources related to vision. The planning process must engage diverse community stakeholders and result in broad community ownership of the action plan.

The Readiness Factor

Research supports the idea that community engagement is becoming increasingly important as the expectations of schools from the general public are raised. As educational leaders, are we prepared to accept the increased need for more parent and community involvement? Are we equipped with the knowledge and skills required to facilitate sustained community partnerships, particularly in communities where there are changing demographics? Further, since as educators we have the potential to influence policy, are we ready to embrace the grassroots community involvement approach as described in the Algebra Project, in view of the fact that education reform is typically a top-down approach? There are two resources that can assist us in answering these questions.

The first resource, developed by the Indiana Department of Education in response to a law enacted in 2001 by the General Assembly, is the School-Parent-Community Partnerships Resource Book.5 Using the extensive research of Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University, the resource book includes the six components of parent involvement that have become accepted as national standards. The National Parent Teacher Association has formally adopted the six standards and has designated a number of quality indicators that are important to student success. Community collaboration is one of the six components. The resource book describes each standard and provides quality indicators for each component. The resource book includes in chapter 4 sample surveys for the parent, teacher, principal, and superintendent/board of education and other numerous resources. There is a checklist of the quality indicators for each standard, a sample team work plan, and sample compacts.

The community collaboration standard as described in the School-Parent-Community Partnerships Resource Book, states that if schools are going to realize a profitable collaboration, then the administration must look beyond the parents of the student and into the larger community. These are the community partners; the businesses where parents are employed, and other local entities can provide valuable linkages for involvement. These are the partners that can lend expertise to problems and be visible partners for education. Businesses have a vested interest in education and the functions of schools. They can provide and view the long-term effects of standards of achievement and assist in determining areas of the educational process that need strengthening. The quality indicators include the following:

  • Encourage businesses to adopt policies that promote the involvement of parents and employees as integral partners with schools
  • Formal and informal processes exist by which business representatives are on committees that adopt, revise, or evaluate curricula
  • Procedures encourage schools to be participants in community functions promoting well-being and focusing on awareness of community services, learning opportunities, and student enrichment
  • Formal agreements are in place, assisting in the placement of age-eligible students in tern positions I local businesses
  • Ample opportunities exist for the exchange of information between community service agencies and schools in order to promote volunteering and community service among students
  • Schools regularly review the roster of current active community partners and seek the affiliation of those who are not participants
  • School staff members are fully informed of community service agencies and are able to communicate with parents about linkages
  • Business partners are utilized as resources both in the classroom and at the administrative level.

The Rural School and Community Trust also has tools for assessing the readiness factor. While the tools found at the links listed below are geared towards rural community projects, they can be modified or used as a catalyst for you to develop your own assessment tool. The links are: http://www.connectingcommunities.info/docs/community-readiness.pdf - Community Readiness Assessment; and http://www.connectingcommunities.info/docs/leadership-team-recruitment.pdf - Leadership Team Recruitment.

Finally, activities found in the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project’s Facilitation Guide, can be used to determine school and community readiness to work together in a collaborative manner. For example, the suggestions for activities in the initial meetings where discussion and consensus building take place will allow the facilitator to assess whether the group is ready to move forward with the task at hand, or if further training for participants is needed in one particular area.

Conclusion

Research supports the idea that community engagement is becoming increasingly important as the expectations of schools from the general public are raised. As educational leaders, are we prepared to accept and meet the challenges of more and different types of engagement from parents and the community? As educational leaders, we must have knowledge of cultural differences and be willing to work effectively with a diverse group of parents, students, teachers, and stakeholders from the community at large if we want to have successful schools and communities. We will need to strengthen our communication skills in order to effectively facilitate school-community groups that we bring together towards improved student performance. Educational leaders are often invited to serve on a committee by a community entity or agency. In these situations, we must be willing to be a participant as well as a facilitator. Finally, educational reform tends to be a top-down approach. Moses & Cobb (2001) remind us that the starting point for reform is less important than whether the issue is powerful and inspiring enough to generate enthusiasm, reveal broader political questions, compel developed leadership, and serve as a vehicle for community commitment.

References

Ballenger, J. (2007, April) How to develop a communications/school-community relations plan. Connexions module: m14420. http://cnx.org/content/m14429/latest/

Boeck, D. (2002, November) Closing the achievement gap. Washington State School Directors Association. 221 College Street, NE; Olympia, WA. wssda.org

Moses, R. and Cobb, C. (2001) Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Tareilo, J. (2007, April) Building external school relations. Connexions module: m14434 http://cnx.org/content/m14434/latest/

Footnotes

  1. www.algebra.org
  2. www.ruraledu.org
  3. www.petersburg.k12.va.us
  4. http://www.thecameronfoundation.org/index2.html
  5. http://www.doe.state.in.us/publications/pdf_other/SFCPnarrative.pdf

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