Effectively Leveraging Community Partnerships by Getting Clear on Purpose
One of the strategies cited by school leaders as being an effective way to meet the needs of students is developing and utilizing partnerships with community agencies, higher education, and other organizations. While such relationships can be very beneficial and enjoyable, without clarity of mission, an opportunity is lost.
The Importance of Shared Mission
When I first heard Rick DuFour talk in late 2005 about Professional Learning Communities and the shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning, I frankly thought it was just a play on words. As the newly appointed Superintendent of the Windsor Central School District, I was looking for very practical, concrete tools to improve results in my district. Although the talk of the mission made sense, I was dismissive.
What I learned over time, however, is that without precision and a clearly articulated shared mission, almost all the work we were doing was missing the point. And we were working hard! It was not until we did the foundational work of clearly defining our core purpose that we began to find synergy and alignment in our organization.
Once we truly understood that “the professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn,” we were able to begin to fully embrace our purpose and engage in meaningful work (DuFour, R., DuFour, R, Eaker, R, Many, T., Mattos, M., 2016, p. 2).
As Judith Bardwick stated, “the most important question in any organization has to be ‘‘what is the business of our business?’ Answering this question is the first step in setting priorities” (Bardwick, 1996, p. 134). After working with stakeholder groups and engagement in substantial professional learning opportunities, we changed our mission statement to be more reflective of the business of our business.
Our updated mission statement is to “ensure each learner is future ready by providing empowering educational experiences.” This has provided focus as we have engaged in our work.
Is it Cute or Does it Count?
As Mike Schmoker observes, “clarity precedes competence” (2004, p. 85). This has been particularly true when it comes to leveraging partnerships.
The Windsor Central School District is deeply engaged in the community school model where we utilize community resources to provide comprehensive supports to our students. Even though we are a rural school district, we have found great success in partnering with community organizations and colleges and universities to provide these services. The key to the success has been clarity regarding the purpose of the work.
Services we provide to students and families such as tele-health, mental health, nutrition, dental care, and many others are done so that we can ensure that each student learns at high levels. We are clear on the fact that these services are means to an end, not the end itself. As a result, when seeking a partnership opportunity, we identify barriers for students to learn at high levels and design partnership agreements intended to address these barriers. We do not engage in partnerships simply for the sake of the partnership.
One of the phrases we have utilized when making such decisions (as well as curriculum, instruction, and program decision) is, “is it cute or does it count?” If we cannot identify that the decision counts for ensuring each learner is future ready, we don’t do it. Although it sounds like a pretty simple test, without the clarity of a shared mission, we would have no basis for our decisions, and seriously diminish their potential to impact student learning.
Mutually Beneficial Relationships
Once we had clarity and precision of our core purpose, we were much better equipped to engage with potential partnerships with what our desired outcome would be.
Rather than simply focus on the inputs of a partnership, the desired results made the relationship much more concrete and manageable. In addition, it prompted us to ask potential partners about their core purpose and what the benefits for their organization might be. We would consider, “what is the business of their business?”
Equipped with clarity and a desire for mutual benefit, we have been incredibly successful in implementing the community schools mindset in our district. Students and their families are receiving services that are removing many of the barriers to our ability to ensure they are learning at high levels. We have made these partnerships count for student learning, which we now know is truly our core purpose. Rick’s words from many years ago now make incredible sense.
More importantly, they have resulted in better outcomes for our kids.
Bardwick, J.M. (1996). Peacetime management and wartime leadership. In F. Hesselbein, M. Goldsmith, & I. Somerville (Eds.), The leader of the future: New visions, strategies, and practices for the next era (pp. 131-134). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work™, pp. 2–4.
Schmoker, M. (2004). Learning Communities at the Crossroads: A Response to Joyce and Cook. Phi Delta Kappan. 86 (1), 84-89.