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Tapping Community Partnerships to Change Education

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When the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded $16.4 million in grants to four New England school districts earlier this year, the philanthropy required a community partnership component for each district.

The grants support the districts' ongoing work in student-centered approaches to learning. Tapping these partners allows each district to harness the support and deepen learning experiences beyond the four walls of the schools involved.

Nick Donohue, CEO of Nellie Mae—the largest charitable organization in New England devoted exclusively to education—says that changing demographics and projections of future needs for workers in the economy add up to a "significant rethinking and reshaping of how we deliver education."

"Learning happens anywhere, anytime. It happens in and out of school for credit. We think [education] needs to be mastery-based not seat-time based," he told Education Week. That means bringing "relevant, real-world applied opportunities" to students.

"We're in the camp of really rethinking things deeply. We're not about making the assembly line run smoother, and batch-process kids differently," he said.

Donohue said his foundation also believes that "just focusing on policy or just focusing on investments in new practices will not be sufficient to make that big change. You have to intentionally enlist and engage the community, or you won't get very far."

Three-year grants were awarded to the Burlington-Winooski School District ($3.7 million) in Vermont; the Pittsfield School District ($2 million) in New Hampshire; the Sanford School Department ($3.7 million) in Maine; and Portland-based Jobs for Maine Graduates ($5.1 million).
Four additional Lead Community Partner grants of $130,000 were made to organizations in each district. They are Voices for Vermont's Children, the Pittsfield Youth Workshop, the Safe and Healthy Sanford Coalition, and the Refugee Services Program in Portland.

In Burlington, Vt., the foundation engaged the help of its lead community partner, Voices for Vermont's Children, to roll out its new laptop distribution program. The school district held several meetings geared to parents in immigrant communities.

In Pittsfield, N.H., the Pittsfield Youth Workshop is working with the University of New Hampshire-based CARSEY Institute, which conducts policy research on vulnerable children, youth, and families and on sustainable community development—and the school district—to conduct monthly community forums (called "Pittsfield Listens") to enhance parent engagement and create a space to discuss important issues. Competency education is only one of many issues discussed in these forums.

In Sanford, Me., Nellie Mae is funding the school district's use of a research-based approach to student-centered, proficiency-based learning to transform its high school. At the same time, Nellie Mae made a grant to a separate community entity, the Sanford Safe and Healthy Coalition, to support youth who struggle with substance abuse and to support their families.

Matching educational reform with community groups is a strategic move. "You have to disrupt the conventional educational reform conversation—with administrators, school officials and elected officials—with a dose of community engagement at the outset," Donohue said.

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