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Navigating the Culture of Schools and Communities

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Brooke Troutman, a Northwestern University intern with the Coalition for Community Schools, at the Institute for Educational Leadership, contributed to this blog.

I attended the Promise Neighborhoods National Network Conference recently, and one issue struck me as particularly noteworthy. As Director of the Coalition for Community Schools, I have long paid attention to progress in community-based approaches to education as well as the challenges that still persist. Not surprisingly, even as deeper partnerships between schools and community groups have emerged, a familiar question was posed during a community schools workshop: "What advice do you have for community-based organizations seeking to work with schools to help young people succeed?"

Given this old problem and Arne Duncan's call to create thousands more promise neighborhoods and community-centered schools, it became clear that we need to be sure everyone understands the differences in the character of these institutions and how those factors influence their capacity to work together. We examined these issues 13 years ago in a paper entitled Education and Community Building: Connecting Two Worlds. Education and Community Building identified a number of sticking points that can gum up the relationship between schools and community-building groups (CBOs). Most relevant today are issues of leadership, power, accountability, and conflict. Understanding these factors establishes the groundwork for successful collaboration between community and school that can be applied to community schools, promise neighborhoods, and other school and community partnerships.

The dynamics of leadership vary significantly between schools and community builders. Whereas schools rely heavily on credentials and boundaries of authority, CBOs' leadership structures tend to be fluid and based on the ability to create relationships. Consequently, a school leader might struggle to view a community leader as qualified, while a community builder might see her school counterparts as bureaucratic. A CBO leader requires social capital because support from the community empowers her actions. On the other hand, a need for accountability and efficiency demand tight boundaries of school leadership. Acknowledging differences in leadership structures as legitimate helps to develop bonds between school and community and creates a mutually beneficial relationship.

Schools and CBOs also understand power in different ways. Schools tend to view power in terms of tangible characteristics like size, authority, and resources. When viewing partnerships, they often evaluate the potential resources from their own institutional perspective. CBOs, however, see power as something less tangible and deriving from people. CBOs see the untapped potential in mobilizing individuals to overcome racial and class disparities. This philosophy drives organizations that are part of the Journey for Justice Alliance. While such organizations may not be the most abundant in resources and may be overlooked by a school, these organizations are overflowing in potential influence due to their support from the community to create an equitable education. A relationship between school and community will thrive if resources of all types are considered to be powerful and valuable.

Accountability is another source of potential collaboration between school and community that too often is seen as a point of tension. Today, it has become apparent that almost every reform, policy, and program must be backed with some form of accountability. In schools, that accountability is standard-driven and can be seen most easily through data, such as test scores or graduation rates. On the other hand, a CBO's accountability is used for such things as short-term funding and is much less likely to be subjected to the public scrutiny that schools face. As a result, this often translates into skepticism when schools work with CBOs. However, understanding the similar reliance upon accountability helps both schools and community organizations realize that they are working toward the same goals and are faced with similar challenges in achieving them.

The relationship between community and school in the area of conflict is another important sticking point. Conflict in terms of a school is typically viewed as problematic and negative. In terms of a community and CBOs, conflict is welcomed as a vehicle for change; conflict represents a method of communication that leads to substantial and necessary community and organizational development. Understanding these two viewpoints could create a new lens to view conflict, in which schools have a greater understanding of the origin of conflict and the means to resolve it for the benefit of the larger community.

Understanding these sticking points is just a first step. In Education and Community Building, we suggested "Rules of Engagement" to guide relationship building. First, find out just what each other's needs and interests are. Then, reach out and find ways to put into action the information acquired. When reaching out, remember you are on someone else's turf, making it vital to keep in mind the culture and values of the other's institution. Spell out exactly the purpose and terms of your joint efforts. Through this process, clear lines of comfort and priorities are established, and a strong structure is built for the final step of working out issues and building from successes.

The application of these basic rules of engagement has contributed to expanded and deeper relationships between schools and community building organizations in recent years. But, we have still a long way to go to unite school and community for student success.

Whether it be in the context of Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods or community schools, partnerships are vital to student and community improvement. Even as we push forward, it is necessary for us to step back and determine whether solutions to the problems we have can be found through understanding the fundamental cultures of institutions and organizations.