Thursday, January 21, 2010

School-Community Partnerships for Extended Learning

Catalyst Chicago just published a great set of stories on how Chicago might extend its abysmally short school day and year. The lead story shows how Marquette Elementary extended the day for its middle school students by one hour with money from Elev8.

To add real time to the system would require a generous infusion of cash. District officials and local nonprofits like the Academy for Urban School Leadership are pinning their hopes on the federal Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants as possible sources of money to extend learning time across the system.

At today's Catalyst/BPI policy luncheon, a city official made the case that out-of-school time programs will be essential however the effort to extend learning proceeds. "I don't think we're going to extend the school day or school year any time soon, given our budget constraints," said Mary Ellen Caron, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. "Even if we do [extend school time], we still need to provide robust out-of-school time programming."

This is where community partners come in. Today's lunch featured the dynamic duo of Lila Leff, executive director of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, and Sean Stallings, until recently the principal of Manley HIgh School. Umoja has long partnered with Manley, and under Stallings' leadership the partnership went deeper and pushed the school in a positive direction. Both of them talked turkey about the challenges schools and outside partners face in working together--the importance of shared vision and hard conversations to make sure both parties are on the same page. Both said if the meeting of minds isn't there, you've got to walk away, even when that is hard.

"As a school person, we're inundated with programs. They're all over the place," said Stallings. School leaders have to be willing to weed out the ones that don't fit the vision, and support the ones that fit well, including pushing staff to get on board with the partnership.

From the nonprofit community side, "being a critical friend is really important," Leff emphasized. "At every place we operate, we operate as a thought partner with the school." Partnerships may start off with everyone thinking they are on the same page, but as the real work begins "the conversation gets messy, louder, a little hostile sometimes. We've learned to say 'let's have the tough conversations.'" As it has expanded its partnerships with more schools, Umoja has also learned to judge when it can help a principal move a faculty in the direction of supporting youth development and promoting youth voice, and when it can't. "We try to help the principal think like a community organizer about the school." When that's not possible, Umoja pulls out--and has done so "on occasions that almost fill one hand." Leff acknowledged.

During questions and answers, someone asked whether there's training for schools and community groups to partner successfully? "No," said Leff. "It has really been a process of inventing it," and talking with others involved in the work. "It is an art and a science. Both these roles need to be honored."

On a more hopeful note, Suzanne Armato of the Federation for Community Schools said her group offers a two-day training on this topic. For more information, check out the Federation here.

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