03/15/2012 06:42 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

Partnerships Have the Power to Transform Schools

On Friday I had the privilege of accompanying a colleague, Laura Magruder, to the Gila River Indian Community, just south of Phoenix. Laura is Communities In Schools' state director in Arizona, and was quite excited about showing me the new work we are doing on the reservation.

Pulling up to Vechij Himdag Alternative School (VHA) about 10 a.m. on Friday morning, I was immediately struck by its simple and small physical appearance. Earthen brown, the building blended into the desert that surrounded it and looked more like a home than a school. At the door we were met by Kim Franklin, the principal. Her bright eyes twinkled in delight as she welcomed us to her charter school. Just three years into the job, Kim, a 35-year education veteran, has pulled the school from the brink of financial disaster. It's now a well-run, solvent charter school that uses blended learning and work-based and service-learning strategies to successfully serve her 70 high school students.

Knowing that this nontraditional school was the last stop for many students before dropping out, Kim has aggressively created a supportive academic environment with palpable love and equally palpable high expectations.

The dropout crisis in America is not an evenly distributed problem. It disproportionately affects students who live in economically poor circumstances. As a result of poverty's relentless violence (lack of health care and food security, unstable living conditions), students who are poor come to school with a set of challenges that schools are not routinely set up to manage. As Laura pointed out to me, the Gila River Indian Community is no exception. Young members of the Gila River Nation face a higher-than-average number of risk factors predictive of high dropout rates.

Over the years, I have visited hundreds of schools serving poor communities and have long concluded that regardless of how challenging a school is, extraordinary principals and teachers can utterly transcend such challenges and create a powerful and successful learning environment. VHA is yet another great example of this. When asked how she had accomplished this transformation, Kim didn't hesitate: partnerships.

Kim pointed to the cramped spaces and said that her office often doubles as a classroom. In addition, her students come to school with a set of challenges that neither she nor her six teachers are prepared to manage on top of their demanding job of catching their students up on courses and ensuring that that they graduate on time. This year Kim will graduate 18 of the 20 eligible seniors.

Knowing that the thoughtful integration of positive youth development and family outreach programs would be essential to her school's success, Kim connected with a group of terrific community-based youth-serving organizations. Her understanding of the role community resources could play in driving academic success led her to invite an amazing young woman, Anna Lisa -- a former AmeriCorps volunteer and member of the Gila River Nation -- to become part of the effort to transform the school.

Anna Lisa meets with VHA students, learns their stories and connects them to the right community services that mitigate the challenges holding them back. In addition, Anna Lisa runs an outstanding program, Charting for Success, that links her students' interests to internships, service-learning opportunities and work-based learning experiences that then make postsecondary options exciting and meaningful. Not only has Kim's vision of creating a community school guided her successful turnaround of VHA, but her intentional integration of community-based, positive youth development organizations and social service supports has enabled students to connect their academic experiences to real-life experiences, opening up students' horizons and possibilities for their adult life.

Most impressively, Kim's use of community partnerships -- which are often free to the school -- has not only transformed VHA, but also transformed her students' very painful experiences of school into powerfully constructive and hopeful experiences that will launch them into promising futures as leaders of the Gila River Nation.