His words ring true today. Most reform has focused on academics but has failed to make the community connections necessary to address the broader needs of students. Even in a time of economic prosperity, many young people may be left behind because they lack the support networks that youths in more advantaged communities take for granted. Disadvantaged youths may not experience the benefit of business people and community leaders as mentors, participate in community cultural or recreational activities, receive quality medical care, or have help addressing family or personal problems (U.S.General Accounting Office, 2000). To keep young people in school and help them achieve greater academic success, their family, social, work and academic needs all must be addressed. Schools simply cannot do the job alone. Schools can no longer be islands in communities with no bridges to the mainland. Bridges must be built to connect schools, homes, and communities (Center for Mental Health in Schools, 2001). Districts must plan strategically to keep students in school by focusing on strategies that go beyond the classroom. The very foundation for these strategies must be school–community collaboration.
A single strategy — tutoring a child having difficulty in a subject area or counseling a child with a problem — may help in the short run. But for the duration, multiple strategies must be applied strategically and over time to keep students in school and achieving at high levels. A community-wide dropout prevention system provides an interconnected web of supports for youth and families. A school that develops a plan on its own — without establishing a strong working relationship with parents, community agencies, faith-based organizations, businesses and civic organizations — diminishes its chances of success.
What Is Collaboration?
Collaboration — a widely used term — means different things to different people. Collaboration can mean coordination, integrated services, school-linked and school-based services, any focus on non-educational or supportive services, public-private partnerships with businesses and community groups, parental or family involvement. Collaboration also can be defined through existing educational programs that emphasize and utilize partnerships, such as school-to-work, service learning, extended learning, and before- and after-school programs.
Collaborative programs that have been studied show positive results on higher academic achievement, behaviors and attitudes of students, reduced incidence of vandalism, and other destructive behaviors, higher aspirations and credits earned, more positive mental health, reduce the school dropout rate, prevent teen pregnancies and births, and increase the number of youth who go on to a job or college.
Limitations of and Barriers to Collaboration
Collaborations are not easy to build or maintain. Barriers or obstacles can be expected; knowing some of those obstacles at the outset can help a collaborative succeed. Of course, just knowing the obstacles will not guarantee success.
Community partners are particularly concerned about differences in goals and expectations, desired outcomes and the lack of training in the process of collaboration.
School partners are particularly concerned about the addition of activities to their busy schedules, different traditions about how things are done, and the lack of availability of their community partners. Collectively, the barriers identified by both school and community partners suggest differences in philosophies, organizational cultures, and operating practices. While formidable, all of the barriers identified can be overcome. The purpose of a collaborative is to create new structures to address a common vision for solving specific problems. As the saying goes, doing what we have always done will get what we have always gotten.
Starting a School–Community Collaboration?
Several formal models integrate the steps for starting a school–community collaboration into a series of specific training activities. This is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, but the steps, although they differ among the various models, are very similar.
Once understood, these steps allow a community to tailor its own approach to addressing the needs of at-risk students in its schools. Winer and Ray (1994) outline four steps for developing and sustaining collaborations:
1. Envisioning Results
Criteria for membership are decided and people are brought together to get to know one another. Sharing knowledge, disclosing self-interests, enhances trust among the participants, ensuring that all stakeholders’ needs are met and letting people feel their participation is justified by producing visible results. A shared vision statement is developed that indicates where the group wants to go. Desired results are specified in the form of goals and objectives that are jointly developed.
2. Empowering the Effort
Authority for the group to act is obtained, roles are clarified, and commitments are secured, and each agency knows what contribution it is expected to make. Conflict is expected and addressed by having a conflict resolution process in place to clarify issues, focus on goals and explore alternatives. The effort is organized by:
- Forming a structure that determines roles and staffing and secures resources.
- Establishing a decision-making protocol and communications plan.
- Recognizing and rewarding participants supports members.
3. Ensuring Success
Work is managed by establishing an action plan based on vision and goals, developing collaborative work habits, and determining accountability for all activities. Where necessary, collaborating agencies make necessary policy and procedural changes to ensure responsiveness to the other agencies and support the collaborative. Multiple methods of assessment are used to evaluate and continuously improve the effort. The collaborative remains flexible and adaptable to changing conditions.
4. Endowing Continuity
The collaborative is made visible by publicizing and promoting results, and involving the media. Participation is sought from the wider community, including youth groups, businesses, and grassroots community organizations. Periodically reassessing the mission and vision, involving new leadership, and securing diverse funding sustain the effort.
Community collaboration is not an option. It is the driving force for developing the supports that enable children and youth to learn and succeed and help families and communities thrive. Collaboration is a difficult task, with many barriers to overcome. However, the resulting communication among community agencies and schools, unity of vision within the community, integration and enhancement of agency services, and community support of common goals are well worth the effort. School–community collaboration is essential to providing the comprehensive academic and social services needed for youth at risk of dropping out of school to succeed academically and in later life.
Excerpted from Helping Students Graduate: A Strategic Approach to Dropout Prevention by Jay Smink and Franklin P. Schargel. © 2004 Jay Smink & Franklin P. Schargel. Published by Eye on Education, www.eyeoneducation.com.