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Tapping Into the Power of School and Community Collaboration

Business can play a leading role in shaping and advancing local collaborative efforts to prepare children in poverty to thrive in school and life better. “Lexington 88, Sampson 75, Halifax 84,” might sound like a Cam Newton signal to his center that it’s time to snap the ball and create some magic. In the world of free and reduced lunch percentages, these numbers are shocking. A child who is hungry struggles to learn, but the effects don’t stop at food. A broad spectrum of important issues impacts the student coming to school from an impoverished home. Research demonstrates that tackling child poverty is the most effective way to move test scores up and improve learning.

Examining interdisciplinary bodies of research and time-tested results reveals a number of strategies for evening outcomes for impoverished students. In a departure from traditional top-down models which use leaders as solitary decision-makers delegating activities of their own creation, Participatory Leadership style uses the leader as an active participant who involves others in the decision-making process. The participative leader realizes the importance of collaborating with those with direct-service stakeholders. In educational matters. Participatory Leadership has the potential to yoke the strengths of business leaders, who have an obvious stake in leadership outcomes, with the insight of educators and administrators who possess first-hand insight into the mechanics of running vast school systems with significant challenges, anchored by the insight, wisdom, and strength of parents and caretakers.

A) Without deliberate participant leadership and activity, educational efforts fail;
B) Through inclusion of the business community in collective impact work around education positive  change is accelerated;
C) In chronically under-resourced systems when performance results are critical, shifting roles can create enormous results for children;
D) Through the active involvement of significant existing systemic human and performance capacity, education benefits.

Without Genuine Parent and Teacher Involvement, Failure is Inevitable

Family involvement supports all children, especially those less likely to succeed in school. In The Prize (Dale Russakof, 2015), considered a case study for national education reform, the author describes a saga of attempted education reform in Newark, NJ, where the unlikely trio of Mark Zuckerburg, Chris Christie, and Cory Booker worked together to transform the educational system in Newark. Zuckerburg pledged $100 million, which the community matched with another $100 million. The reformers unveiled their staggering initiative with a dramatic announcement on the Oprah show. Unfortunately, the reformers ignored parent and teacher input in the very design of their strategy and the entire enterprise failed, an expensive and obvious lesson.

In Newark, the parents, guardians, and teachers could have shaped the reform effort from its infancy and contributed to a positive outcome. Too often, reformers from the outside overlook educators and families as the irreplaceable resource that they are. The participatory leadership model rests on creating positive and trusting relationships with parents and teachers, resulting in stronger positive academic outcomes.

“Business Seen as a Key Driver in Collective Fix for Local Schools”

In a Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina article of this name, Todd Cohen describes a Harvard Business School report called “Business Aligning for Students: the Promise of Collective Impact”. According to Cohen, Harvard researchers scoured the data from 145 communities in which business, government, nonprofits, public schools, parent groups, and religious organizations coordinated their work through a strategy known as “collective impact.”

In those communities surveyed in which students have shown progress, business leaders and employees have been instrumental. In Greater Cincinnati, the report says, leading business executives concerned about stagnant performance in public schools helped launch one of the first collective impact initiatives eight years ago, in a partnership that continues today.

As a result of that community-wide effort the outcomes speak for themselves. The number of children ready for kindergarten is up 13 percent; reading proficiency in 4th grade is up 21 percent; 8th-grade math proficiency has improved 24 percent; high school graduation rates are up 14 percent. Post-secondary enrollment has grown 11 percent.

What are the Results When Education Administrators Become More Like Nonprofit and B-Corp Executives?

The best executives define customers as those served by the organization and put those customers in charge of their own experience. This approach means each example is unique to its circumstances. In its September 20, 2015 edition, The Washington Post profiled the Jennings School District located north of St. Louis. With 3,000 students, Jennings has demonstrated it is possible to develop a system that works for students in poverty. In the district, according to online site Niche, 90 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. Despite the challenges inherent in this statistic, Jennings has been able to able to focus on instruction while addressing persistent resource needs.

“Schools can do so much to impact poverty,” says Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Anderson. “Some people think if you do all this other stuff, it takes away from focusing on instruction when it ensures that you can take kids further academically.”

Although school districts do not usually operate homeless shelters, run food banks, have a system in place to provide clothes needed by kids, offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, and make washers and dryers available, Jennings does. Anderson has also launched Saturday school, a college-prep program that offers an accelerated curriculum beginning in sixth grade, and a commitment to paying for college courses so students can earn an associate’s degree before they leave high school.

In a broad interpretation of what roles schools play in kids’ lives, Anderson has reimagined what a school is.

Academic achievement, attendance, and high school graduation rates have improved since Anderson’s arrival. Recently, state officials announced that as a result of the trend, Jennings had reached full accreditation for the first time in more than a decade.

It is critical for school administrators to create choices for their students. When districts restore arts programs, academic performance increases. Jennings restored music, dance and drama programs that had been eliminated, a departure from the approach in many other high-poverty districts that view these “extras” as a drain on resources. Anderson was able to find the money for those and other innovations by closing two half-empty schools, cutting expensive administrative positions and welcoming new grants and a tide of philanthropic contributions. The district was running a deficit of $2 million before Anderson arrived and balanced the budget.

Capturing Even Greater Educational Results through a Shift in Paradigm

In North Carolina, the school system is the largest employer in 59 counties. Economic progress and schools are clearly connected in our state. Recent causative, foundational, and longitudinal research by Carrie R. Lena highlighted in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “The Missing Link in School Reform” shows that schools thrive and outcomes improve when principals increase the time they harness in participatory leadership to engage in external facilitation and resource gathering. Further, when principals facilitate collaboration among teachers, teachers are become empowered to improve educational outcomes, clearing the way for schools to boost academic outcomes.

Schools thrive when:

The larger educational administration pipeline is bolstered by principals trained to interact with and garner resources and input from the external community they serve. When principals spent more time building external social capital, engaged in activities such as meeting with parents, going to community meetings, and interacting with outsiders, such as foundations and publishers, the quality of instruction in the school was higher and students’ scores on standardized tests in both reading and math were higher. Conversely, principals spending more of their time mentoring and monitoring teachers had no effect on teacher social capital or student achievement.

Further, principals can engage community members such as parents, business people, the faith-based community and others by building community-based social capital in conversation and goal-setting that directly impacts education, economic development and other issues such as health and poverty.

Effective principals were those who defined their roles as facilitators of teacher success rather than instructional leaders. They provided teachers with the resources they needed to build social capital—time, space, and staffing—to make the informal and formal connections possible. The superintendent and the district need to support these concepts of the principal as protector and teacher collaboration as a proven, evidence-based way to improve academic outcomes.

Principals foster teacher-teacher relationships, cultivating trust and engagement. By teachers working collaboratively, academic results increase dramatically compared to those teachers that do not work collaboratively. Teacher social capital is a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom. If a teacher’s social capital was just one standard deviation higher than the average, her students’ math scores increased by 5.7 percent.

Also, student outcomes improve when teachers remain at the same grade level over time; and when administrators nurture teachers as human capital, honoring a teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience. This recognition benefits students most through building high social capital and harnessing relationships among teachers.

Finally, the research found that even low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital. Strong social capital can go a long way toward offsetting any disadvantages students face when their teachers have low human capital.

Darryl Fisher

Darryl Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, who served most recently as the Senior Director of Elementary Education for the Wake County Public School System. Before that, Fisher was the principal of Wilburn Year-Round Elementary.

Jane Cox

Jane Cox is the principal of Eno River Consulting, a full-service leadership and management consulting firm.