Today, the landscape is much brighter, with public, private, and nonprofit organizations teaming up to improve education for all. YEP-DC recently hosted a panel discussion on the intersection of school and afterschool programming and explored the questions: What makes a partnership between schools and community-based organizations successful? What is the secret sauce that makes some partnerships succeed and others fail? The panel consisted of Joan Massey, CEO of Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools, Abby Green, Program Manager at Reading partner, and Traci Callender, Director of Programs at Higher Achievement. The discussion highlighted a few key elements of partnership success -- the need for partnership alignment on objectives, leadership, and programming; as well as strategic execution of the program, communication and the use of metrics to target and measure program impact.
As someone who has spent her career in business and management consulting before her foray into education policy, I would say a single term captures the essence of successful partnerships---strategy. So what strategies do Cesar Chavez, Reading Partners, and Higher Achievement use in common? Their secret sauce hinges on several critical success factors that I believe are applicable to all sectors of the economy, not just education. Among them are:
Partnership Agreement: For a partnership to be successful, there must be an alignment of objectives. The primary goal of both schools and afterschool organizations is student success and outcomes. In addition to objectives, it calls for leadership alignment between both partners. For instance, a shared commitment to increase student achievement and close the racial gap is a win-win for Cesar Chavez and Reading Partners. For its part, Higher Achievement’s afterschool program for middle-schoolers supports this goal by enabling students to participate in an additional 650 hours of learning that reinforces and expands the school-day.
Objectives and leadership alignment are implemented through programming tailored to support students’ long-term academic success. Thus, both parties must work together to examine the gaps in students’ understanding and mastery of the curriculum and identify the strengths that an afterschool provider brings to the table that address this gap. For instance, Higher Achievement collaborates with Cesar by creating individual student achievement plans that address gaps in student learning. Student learning is further supported through skill building, mentorship and personal encouragement.
Metrics: Every successful business incorporates metrics in measuring progress towards objectives. In this case, Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools has defined shared commitment to data outcomes as a key metric for partnering with community-based organizations. For instance, Reading Partners’ data shows that 93 percent of students attending their program have accelerated their reading level, and 82 percent of their attendees have narrowed the achievement gap. Metrics are examined continually for relevance so strategy can move the organization toward reaching the goal.
Execution is Key: A successful business is often credited with having a secret sauce. Look at Apple’s ubiquitous products: everything from its iconic newly released iPhone to the Apple Watch. Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, the mouse, or the smartphone; rather, he took existing ideas in the marketplace and refashioned them into must-have everyday technology. Apple’s secret sauce is its flawless execution -- taking an existing idea or technology, perfecting every detail of its design, making ease-of-use a priority, adding a cool factor and deploying the famous Apple marketing machine. This is a case in point of Apple’s secret sauce sauce being flawless execution.
So also, Cesar Chavez and its partner organizations attribute their success to a focus on the nitty gritty of daily program execution. This is a key ingredient of achieving the larger goal of increased student outcomes. Joan Massey, CEO of Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools, and panelist Abby Green of Reading Partners talked about the school’s need for having a check-in with each afterschool program’s coordinator that works with them. They stressed the importance of having “real” points of contact that keep the partnership going and for the partner organizations to know who to reach out to in the event of a struggle. Ms. Callender talked about how successful program execution requires building relationships with the entire school community, from the custodial staff to principals, and teachers. Reading Partners has an AmeriCorps site coordinator at each school that checks in to ensure their reading curriculum ties in with the school’s, and fine-tunes it based on the reading level of each student.
Communication: As the adage goes, communication is king. All three panelists stressed the importance of maintaining frequent communication between both parties that can help re-align objectives every time they veer off course, and sharpen content and delivery. This facilitates a continuous feedback loop that helps increase student outcomes.
Fine-tuning Strategy: Just as business partnerships fine-tune their strategy over time to accommodate partners’ diverging interests or adjust to unforeseen results, so too do partners in the school /community-based organization space. Ms. Massey referred to the many requests that Cesar Chavez receives from current partners that want to increase the scope of their partnership or potential partners that seek to engage with the school. The school has developed a policy of not engaging with partners in both instances if the results are unsatisfactory or their goals are not aligned. Sometimes, she assured, it’s okay to walk away.
Partnerships between schools such as Cesar Chavez and afterschool programs such as Higher Achievement and Reading Partners are instances of public-NGO models that work. Continued focus on critical success factors helps partnerships flourish. As in any marriage after the first blush of romance, it takes work to keep things humming!
Usha Chidamber is an independent consultant In Education Management and Policy.