Better Together

“This year, in partnership with the United Way of Greater Toledo Women’s Initiative, the Toledo Public Schools, and the Toledo Federation of Teachers, our focus will be on creating caring learning communities that help us all do our best,” announces East Side Central Elementary School principal Tony Speaks.

It’s the culmination of Parent Open House night the first week of school, and the principal directs his comments to a sea of parents, students, and community volunteers. Throughout the evening, United Way volunteers have grilled hot dogs, passed out cookies and drinks, and talked about how they will be involved in making East Side Central a place where all students feel a sense of belonging and engagement with their learning. Teachers have shared their excitement about a Responsive Classroom training they attended this summer and new practices they’re using to promote students’ social, emotional, and academic growth.

This optimism is something new at East Side Central Elementary School. In past years, low attendance, high suspension rates, chronic discipline problems, and poor academic performance left many staff members feeling depleted. There was little hope and few resources for turning things around.

Three years ago, something changed. The United Way of Greater Toledo (UWGT) Women’s Initiative, the Toledo Public Schools, and the Toledo Federation of Teachers formed a partnership to address problems in the area’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. They started with two schools, East Side Central Elementary (ESC) and Sherman Elementary. Each school committed to a three-year whole school improvement process. After a comprehensive review of available approaches, the Responsive Classroom approach was chosen as the schoolwide initiative.

How the Partnership Worked

The partnership between ESC and the Women’s Initiative was multi-faceted. In addition to providing funding for training in the Responsive Classroom approach, the Women’s Initiative was able to provide a range of people resources:

  • Volunteers helped increase parent involvement at the school. One teacher noted: “The work of the Women’s Initiative in helping us organize quarterly family events offered the motivation and resources we needed to get started. Now we are able to sustain these events on our own.”
  • One of the Women’s Initiative leaders, Dr. Elizabeth Ruppert (a noted scholar in Pediatrics), volunteered as a consultant with staff on student evaluations, referral processes, family engagement, and mental health interventions.
  • Women’s Initiative leaders served as advocates for the Responsive Classroom approach, speaking regularly with district and union leadership to update them on progress and successes. As a result, the district funded Responsive Classroom week-long workshops in Toledo this past summer.

Why the Partnership Worked

Such a partnership needs to be reciprocal, said ESC’s principal, Tony Speaks. “They invested their time, their money and their effort,” he said, “But we had to be willing to invest ourselves, too.”

Another key to success was the strong personal relationships that were built. Pilot schools needed to trust their partners enough to share difficult problems. “School faculty members can often be fearful about open discussion because they may get into trouble with their school, district, or union if they reveal an issue of concern,” said Dr. Ruppert. Overcoming this fear and developing trust took patience, time, and ongoing communication.

Highlighting Successes

The Toledo Public Schools sent newsletters to each family, highlighting the successes of the initiative. To measure improvements, they adopted evaluation tools such as the school climate survey. They also analyzed the school report card and reported improvements they were seeing.

After three years of Responsive Classroom training, positive outcomes were documented in social and academic performance in both schools, but most dramatically at East Side Central. Attendance rose steadily to 95%, which exceeds the state standard. Discipline referrals and suspensions dropped significantly, perceptions of a positive school climate were higher, and students demonstrated increased empathy toward classmates. Classrooms in which teachers received Responsive Classroom training tested one grade level higher on math tests and one half grade level higher on reading tests. In previous years, these classrooms had reported no significant changes in test scores.

In addition to highlighting this data, the leaders of the partnership looked for ways to recognize daily contributions. Changing teaching practices is challenging, and school staff didn’t always recognize the progress they were making.

For example, during the first year of implementing Responsive Classroom practices at East Side Central, the staff began the school year with high hopes and great enthusiasm. But as the year progressed, they felt discouraged that they hadn’t seen the dramatic changes they’d hoped for. When outside volunteers who had been coming to the school all year pointed out that students in the hallways were more organized and purposeful, “buzzing at a hum in an orderly fashion,” the staff felt energized again.

Starting a Partnership

Establishing and sustaining a community partnership requires a high level of commitment from school leaders. Here are a few suggestions for how a school community can get started with the process. (For additional resources, visit our funding page.)

  1. Bring together a small group of faculty, staff, and administrators. Begin by brainstorming what community partners are available, including nonprofit organizations, businesses, foundations, and mental health providers. (See Resources, below, for ideas.)
  2. Identify people within the system who may have personal connections to possible resources.
  3. Specify ways in which a community partner could be involved (aside from funding). Put together a handout or ensure that your group’s ambassadors are able to articulate these involvements. Keep the focus on the potential partners’ needs, wants, and interests and help them see the difference they could make.
  4. Conduct research on a variety of relevant organizations (on the web, Chamber of Commerce, United Way, etc.) to learn about their priorities and determine if there is a good fit with the school’s needs. Look for shared values and goals.
  5. Identify a contact person within prospective organizations. This could be a personal connection or someone designated as a community outreach person within the organization.
  6. Arrange for a face-to-face meeting between the school’s ambassadors and the prospect’s contact person to discuss the school’s and the organization’s priorities and needs. If a match seems possible, clarify next steps and the roles of each of the partners. It’s as important for potential partners to understand the process as it is for them to understand the desired outcomes.

Our experience in Toledo has shown that students and school staff benefit enormously when the adults in the students’ school, home, and community strive to work together in partnership. Because education is a fundamental building block of a community, it’s to everyone’s benefit to contribute.

Jennifer Miller, MEd, is an educational consultant with fifteen years of experience working with school and community leaders to implement programs, policies and practices that help prevent risky behaviors, promote academic success, and build social and emotional skills.

School-Community Partnerships

School, Family and Community Partnerships: Preparing Educators and Improving Schools, by J.L. Epstein, Westview Press, 2001.

Center on School, Family & Community Partnerships

Potential Community Partners

These organizations have locations in multiple states, in many cities, and in some rural areas. They all provide funding in education and other areas.

by Jennifer Miller

Tags: Professional Community, Working with Families