Collaborative Partnerships Give All Students “the Right to Rise”

Girls jump for joy during a garden harvest, part of the Middle Grades Partnership involving Baltimore City (Md.) Public Schools.

Girls jump for joy during a garden harvest, part of the Middle Grades Partnership involving Baltimore City (Md.) Public Schools.

Interested in creating a high-performing women’s gymnastics team to participate and be at their best in the Olympics? Pull together a group of hard-working, athletic young women from across the country, hire a coach, rent a training facility, and put the women through a top-notch training program. Easy enough, it was done in the 2012 Olympic Games. The model can be repeated.

But how about creating public-private school partnerships nationwide to engage and guide our nation’s youth in the 21st century? Can you pull together unique pairings of schools filled with full-of-promise young people and begin the work?

Yes, you can. It happens. It turns out that creating educational partnerships established for particular needs and focused on community involvement are currently, and have been, part of the story in American education.

A recent part of that story includes public-private school partnerships that have inspired a growing movement of such partnerships and a national nonprofit organization, the National Network of Schools in Partnership (NNSP), that is dedicated to fostering both knowledge of and support for public-private school partners.

Opening doors — and keeping them open — through collaborations

The momentum of the 1960s civil rights movement elevated and broadened the idea that education in the U.S. should include all children and provide them with access to a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education. These educational partnerships turn this idea into a reality. The partnerships open doors allowing for all students to not only have a chance for a good education, but also to, over time, grow in their mental, physical, emotional, and social well-being through diverse communities of experience and in positive, developmental settings.

And where better to engage students who have typically grown up in challenging circumstances than in a summer enrichment program that encompasses mind, body, and heart? One striking example where the “braiding together of two communities” takes place is in northeastern Ohio. Commitment among the organizational participants is key for the North Star Collaborative’s success. Foremost, though, is the pledge made to see the young girls realize their abilities and achieve academic success over the course of their developmental years. Everyone involved benefits through this entrustment. As Ann Klotz, head of Laurel School says, “I think North Star is about the power of collaboration and what happens when two smart institutions join hands together on behalf of girls.”

The North Star Collaborative is a one-of-a-kind partnership between Laurel School and Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Warner School Girls Leadership Academy.

Despite today’s hyper-connected, information-dense environment, the message of collaborative power through educational partnerships often lies beneath the surface of our consciousness. Good works can often go unnoticed by the news media. As a result, the public does not know of the many benefits that can grow out of even the smallest of partnerships. With resources of all kinds tight for school and district budgets, savvy educators and school leaders turn to a resource that doesn’t stop giving: one another. Who benefits from these relationships? Foremost, our children.

A few years ago a young woman from the Philadelphia area said, “What if everybody in the city of Philadelphia felt the same way and put their good intentions into action? Maybe then we would all stop bemoaning the state of public education and join a partnership that helps all children achieve.” Earlier this year, these thoughts were shared at a meeting of the School Reform Commission. The Pennsylvania board that oversees the school system was deciding which schools to close. The fate of a particular public elementary school with a long-standing, local private school partnership was soon to be announced.

One aspect of a private school’s public purpose might be service learning through mentoring, as it is for this Sage Hill High School student and her public elementary student mentee in Newport Coast, California.

One aspect of a private school’s public purpose might be service learning through mentoring, as it is for this Sage Hill High School student and her public elementary student mentee in Newport Coast, California.

The public elementary school remains open. The school partnership stands. Both public and private school communities continue to reap the benefits from a public-private school partnership. Fellowship like this is a valuable way to combine efforts and produce effective change for all children.

A longtime supporter of private schools with public purpose, Ellen Moceri, head of Ransom Everglades School in Miami, notes in a TedX Coconut Grove talk that Abraham Lincoln’s words — “Everyone should have the right to rise.” — can inspire us in this effort to build educational partnerships.

Around the same time that Philadelphia’s public school community and its partners heard the news about possible school closings, in another part of the city a new organization, the National Network of Schools in Partnership, found the public eye. The launching of NNSP this past February filled the need for a critical organizing link among schools — public and private — to provide implementation support, thought leadership and advocacy as they develop and maintain partnerships. Individual examples of success exist and NNSP exists to capture, codify, and scale those to the benefit of all students.

Meet Claire Leheny and NNSP

To find out about NNSP — how it came about, its current work with public-private education partnerships, and the implications of that work — Debora Southwell, a management and program analyst in the Office of Non-Public Education, interviewed Claire Leheny, the executive director of NNSP.

Debora: Why has the National Network of Schools in Partnership launched now?

Claire: In our educational and social landscape there is a great divide between students and families with access, privilege, and opportunity and those without. That gap is wide, and some say it’s widening. We believe this is a disadvantage to all students, not just those who have limited access and privilege.

Claire LehenyThere’s growing momentum for all schools, from all sectors, to be part of building a brighter future for our country’s children. The answers will come from engagement, not isolation.

Why now? Continuing public school district budget cuts, combined with an increasing demand to provide specialized forms of instruction and service, are stressing, in some places in the country, our ailing resources. Our charter school leaders, especially start-up charter school leaders, do not want to reinvent the wheel or build anew what they can borrow and provide through partnership.

Independent schools have always been committed to service — but many are seeing the benefits of moving from a traditional, one-directional service model to one that is more fully engaged. Also, a powerful articulation of a contribution to the public good will be required of independent schools in the years ahead as lawmakers may require higher and higher standards to earn a tax-exempt status. Financial aid is a mechanism to provide access and opportunity to those with limited access and opportunity that has reached its limit in many independent schools.

Finally, educators everywhere recognize they must prepare students for a highly connected, collaborative, and international workplace. If learning takes place in racial and socioeconomic silos, we threaten all children’s futures.

Debora: Please talk about one example of a public-private school partnership that is directed at improving student academic success, particularly for those who are underserved.

Claire: Great partnerships come in all forms. Each has its own fingerprint, built around the opportunities and needs of the communities involved. Structurally, some partnerships are organized in a one-to-one, school-to-school relationship. Or it can be one school to many. For others, as a consortium model is the right approach. Here’s a particularly strong example of a school-to-school partnership:

William Penn Charter School was founded in 1689 with a mission to educate all students of Philadelphia. The original civic purpose has evolved into the very strong community- and service-oriented school of today.

One of the schools that Penn Charter has been engaged with over many years is Bayard Taylor Elementary School in Philadelphia. Taylor is not unusual compared with many other schools in the country. It has 600 students; 97 percent of students there are classified as economically disadvantaged, and 75 percent as English language learners.

The 18-year partnership between Taylor and Penn Charter is multi-faceted, but all of the work is rooted in an awareness that both communities gain from the collaboration.

This relationship between Taylor and Penn Charter took on added importance several months ago when the Philadelphia School Reform Commission had to consider closing 26 city schools. Taylor was one of those slated to be considered for closure. Penn Charter’s Jim Ballengee testified on behalf of the school — “we are invested in Taylor’s success just as they are invested in ours” — identifying the wider impact of the school being closed.

It was only one of three schools that survived. And one of the commissioners specifically mentioned that the partnership with Penn Charter was one of his reasons for voting to keep Taylor open.

Young elementary students eagerly participate during a public-private school partnership event.

Young elementary students eagerly participate during a public-private school partnership event.

Debora: What are some of the opportunities that schools face in embracing a public-private school partnership?

Claire: We see schools maximizing the potential of this work to expand professional development for teachers and enrich curricula, to name just a few opportunities. This is important and should continue. We hope that in the near future public and private schools can come together to tackle industry-wide challenges such as leadership development, new teacher training, and technology integration into the classroom.

Debora: What are some of the challenges that schools face in embracing a public-private school partnership?

Claire: Interestingly, the academic schedule itself can be an impediment to partnership. For schools that have not yet engaged in partnerships a common mindset can be “we do not have time for that.” And those schools with partnerships often struggle to sustain the work because of an already packed school day for students, teachers, and administrators.

At worst, partnerships can be viewed as a distraction rather than as a transformational element to the curriculum and educational experience. It takes a lot to see beyond those constrictions, those very real constrictions, and imagine what is possible.

Debora: Can you identify three steps that schools can take to begin to form partnerships?

Public-private school partnerships can build community and good will.

Public-private school partnerships can build community and good will.

Claire: It’s about relationship and intention. One without the other won’t lead to a productive, sustained partnership.

Some schools start by building on strong existing relationships to establish a partnership program. Others begin by having a clear intention of what they need and go in search of a partner. Whatever the beginning, if there is not a trusting relationship working in service of a shared outcome, then it won’t work in the long run.

The third “step” or success factor is about leadership. The leaders of a school community need to give clear, visible support of the work and always be on the lookout for partnership potential.

Debora: What about an example of this type of leadership?

Claire: Kaye Savage, the CEO at Excel Academy in Washington, D.C., is a leader who has very clear intentions about what she wants from a partnership. She is quite a powerhouse. Once the right partner is found, she and her team work tirelessly to integrate the organizations and have relationships formed at all levels — students, teachers, administrators.

Debora: In this time of “do more with less,” how do you encourage private and public schools to consider partnerships as valuable?

Claire: Adversity can force new behaviors, new ways of thinking. While this can be tough, we should harness the drive for innovation. The value of a partnership is unique to each school and community involved. The role of NNSP is to help articulate that unique value, support its success, and share it with other educators as they search for answers for their communities.

Debora: What resources does NNSP provide schools and organizations in partnership? What additional resources do you see on the horizon?

Claire: We serve our members in three inter-connected ways. First, we provide implementation support as schools develop, sustain and enhance partnerships. This support comes in many forms, but members have told us they gain great value from our regional meetings and from our growing website. The regional meetings, held in Honolulu, New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and the District of Columbia this fall, are a chance for educators to come together, solidify relationships and find answers within the network to their most persistent challenges. Our website serves as an ongoing resource center for school leaders as they engage in their day-to-day partnership work, a place where they can get answers quickly and easily.

Thought leadership is our second focus area. We need to help our members with their work today while keeping our eye on the horizon. This means being diligent in our search for leading practices and research and interpretation of their practical application for schools and communities.

Finally, we provide advocacy for our member schools. This is not about lobbying. We help schools articulate the value of partnership to their stakeholders and we drive a national conversation about the benefits of partnership.

Debora: What else should people know about the work of NNSP?

Claire: Partnerships bring together various forms of capital — physical, intellectual, social — in a reciprocal and mutually beneficial context. These collaborations can benefit schools, communities, and students across the education landscape. And it’s never been more needed — or more important — than it is today.

Partnerships can spur innovation

Nadya Chinoy Dabby, acting assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which includes a number of discretionary grant programs, appreciates the value of such partnerships.  “Collaboration between public and private schools can enrich the educational environment for schools and invigorate teachers’ professional experiences,” she noted about the work of NNSP. “The Department supports the kinds of meaningful school partnerships that the National Network of Schools in Partnership is seeking to expand. As we have seen in the our programs for Charter School Exemplary Collaboration, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods, new collaborations can spur education innovation, and public and private school collaborations are no different.”

To learn more about the variety of public-private school partnerships, from wrap-around programs (WP) to professional development (PD) to partners sharing facilities and/or resources (SFR), visit these partnerships:

Debora Southwell is a management and program analyst in OII’s Office of Non-Public Education.