University and School District Collaborations

Working Together to Meet the Needs of Teachers and Students

04/11/2014  |  By Heather-Lee M. Baron, Ph. D. and Stacie M. Wolbert, D. Ed.

According to Juarez-Dappe, “Professionals in education at all levels have long argued for more contacts between secondary and post-secondary instructors as one important way to improve subject matter mastery. In response to this call, professional development activities that emphasize collaboration between middle/high school teachers and university faculty have increased significantly in recent years.” Edinboro University of Pennsylvania’s (EU) Department of Middle and Secondary Education and Educational Leadership is an excellent example of this practice.

Every school district sets annual goals they need to meet. Several school districts near EU seek the department’s aid in reaching these goals through various types of programs and/or services specifically tailored to address those goals. This article will describe how existing partnerships were expanded and how other collaborations have developed between school districts and the university.

The Beginning
Originally relationships between the university and local districts were somewhat shallow, focusing on teacher preparation. Often the only interaction in some districts would revolve around the needs of field experiences or class centered activities. In the last couple of years, mandates and initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have changed curriculum, instruction and assessment. Not only are teachers and schools held to higher levels of accountability determined by standardized test scores, teacher’s individual evaluations are now taking student performance into consideration. Due to these mandates some teachers limited teacher candidate’s time in class, even declining field and student teachers altogether. In conjunction with restrictions being placed on continuing education, some teachers became isolated from university faculty and initiatives. Understanding the constraints that teachers were working under, university faculty began talking with schools and districts from a new perspective; one that focused on the mutual benefits that collaboration could bring to their schools.

One of the first extensive collaborative efforts was with a local middle school. The school had been providing an outdoor education program in an effort to eliminate the high number of injuries and fatalities that the community was experiencing related to hunting and water accidents. The program also included environmental science lessons relative to careers in the area and teambuilding activities. Budget constraints made the program a target for elimination; In an effort to maintain the valuable program, the school district began talking with university faculty to determine how the university could be involved. The EU faculty was eager to help and incorporated the camp into a four-course “block experience” of teacher candidates. The additional help provided through faculty and teacher candidates’ involvement, along with a national publication and university representation at the school board meeting, provided enough justification for the school board to continue the program.

Over the years, participation has been refined in this endeavor. Teachers in the participating middle school volunteer their time, spending days and nights at the camp. Not only are they responsible for their students, they have taken on teacher candidates in a scaffolded experience. The teacher candidates observe the teacher during a lesson, then they co-teach the same lesson and finally the teacher candidate teaches the lesson. The teacher candidates take on additional responsibilities including, but not limited to creating and leading activities in the evening, guiding the students from activity to activity and serving as “camp counselors” throughout the evening and night.

Teachers as Researchers
The second collaboration began with a conversation, an idea and a grant. In an era of school reform focused on numbers, including standardized test scores and value-added measures, data-driven instruction has become a way of decreasing subjectivity and making teaching more scientific. With the goal of providing teachers the knowledge and skills to design and carry out action research in their own classrooms, one high school collaborated with EU on a multi-year professional development effort. The first year EU provided a graduate action research course in which teachers completed an introductory research project. University faculty provided continuous guidance and support as teachers applied what they had learned in their course.

For the second year of this collaboration, the district identified content literacy as an area for exploration. EU included professional development based on literacy strategies that the teachers could implement into their classrooms and by using their knowledge of action research they were able to evaluate the impact of the strategies and modify or change the use of the strategies based on their findings.

Based on the feedback of teachers, the third year followed the same process with a focus on math strategies. Again, the teachers used action research to adjust their approach to teaching. The key to this program was that EU’s faculty worked very closely with the school’s teachers and provided support in the implementation of the literacy and math strategies as well as the research process.

The success of the collaboration spread by word of mouth at first and then EU began promoting the idea of university-school district collaborations through newsletters, Professional Development School (PDS) partnerships and by holding Educational Partners Advisory Council (EPAC) meetings dedicated to identifying the needs of local districts and determining how the School of Education (SOE) could support the achievement of those goals. EPAC members include the SOE Dean, Department Chairs, the Director of Field and Student Teaching, the Unit Assessment Coordinator and District Superintendents and some districts include their Curriculum Directors. The PDS Steering Committee includes teachers from each site, representatives from each department in the SOE, and the PDS Director.

EU is now in collaborations with several schools and districts, these collaborations go deeper than the traditional university-school district relationships. These collaborations are vital to the health of the community as they are cyclical in nature. That is, the university provides programs to better the professional development of the district’s teachers, which in turn provides more qualified cooperating teachers for the teacher candidates that are placed in the classrooms from the university, which in turn produces a higher quality initial teacher who is better prepared to meet the learning needs of the student, in the end better preparing them for college and the workforce.

It is important to note, that although the initial “idea” was supported by a grant, not all of the collaborations described in this article required grant monies. By pulling together resources, EU and districts have been able to create strong collaborations.

The Trifecta
With the push for CCSS, there has been a lot of discussion related to the college readiness of high school graduates. According to an article in “USA Today” (Adrienne Lu, 2013) one in five freshmen reportedly need remedial courses. In an effort to not only prepare their high school students for college, but also to provide a professional development opportunity for their teachers, a school provided space for an open classroom in which EU faculty taught a college preparation course to juniors and seniors. Teachers were invited into the classroom to observe the methods used in this course so that they could implement the strategies in their own classrooms. This opportunity was not only beneficial for the high school students, it also provided support to the teachers and it was an avenue for EU faculty to stay connected to today’s classrooms and students. The course was very effective and has been taught multiple semesters.

Supporting the Future
EU has also provided shadowing experiences in which high school students experienced a “day in the life of a college student.” They attended classes and experienced campus life by spending the day with EU education students. This program was such a success for the students, future teachers, schoolteachers, and the university faculty that it continues to be offered.

Strategic Planning
Collaboration with another district aligned teacher professional development and the District’s Strategic Plan’s objectives and goals. Working closely with district administration, EU offered four hybrid courses to teachers that aided in the fulfillment of the strategic plan. The courses included both online aspects as well as on-site teacher support. EU faculty members visited classrooms to facilitate the implementation process for each course. The university also accepted these courses into four of their Masters’ of Education programs so that regardless of track, the courses would apply toward the program of choice.

English as an Additional Language
With over 25 percent of the school’s population having a first language other than English, a school sought to meet the needs of their diverse student population. EU offered a hybrid second language methodologies course to the teachers. Five classes were offered at the school so that EU faculty and teachers could collaborate and discuss how the methods being taught were actually being implemented in their classrooms. The teachers were instructed in reflective practices, which would continue to guide their instruction after the course was completed. EU has also provided cultural diversity training with a focus on reflective practice to schools with growing English Language Learner (ELL) populations. The teachers were able to modify their approach through guided reflective practice.

There are several schools and districts in the EU area that are striving to meet the needs of ELLs. In an effort to develop the language proficiency levels of students, EU has been collaborating to create a program that would address not only student need, but also the needs of the community by establishing an English Language Clinic. EU is currently seeking funding to create an English Language Clinic that will be provided for adults and school-aged ELLs at a site that is easily accessible to ELLs and that will allow teacher candidates and graduate students to use the clinic as an authentic field experience.

Authentic Change
Through collaboration EU and local schools have been able to make authentic, research-based changes for teachers and the students that they educate every day. The faculty members at EU are proud of these collaborations and hope that this article inspires other universities and schools to work together in deep and meaningful ways to provide the best educational opportunities to learners at all levels.

With the many challenges facing both school districts and universities, including financial burdens, collaboration is a vehicle for improving student achievement, professional development and teacher preparation. Schools, districts and teachers seeking support from universities should contact the university’s dean of education and/or the chairperson of the education department. The first step is opening the dialog. Once conversations begin the potential is unlimited.

Dr. Heather-Lee M. Baron is an assistant professor and a Graduate Program Head for the Department of Middle & Secondary Education and Educational Leadership at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania where she created an ESL M.Ed. program. She earned an interdisciplinary PhD in Reading Education and Linguistics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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