Engaging Community Organizations to Support Student Achievement
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: The Role of Community Organizations in Supporting Student Success
Monday's blog post discussed why education research-practice partnerships (RPPs) should think about actively engaging community organizations in their work: Whether they are early learning providers, community centers, advocacy groups, local and state government offices, museums, zoos, or theatres, these partners work tirelessly to support children and families in our community. Particularly for vulnerable children and families, community organizations can play a vital role in ensuring student success.
Acknowledging this role, community organizations often relish the opportunity to engage with schools and districts to support student success. However, there are challenges to engaging community partners in RPP work in meaningful ways. Sometimes it can be difficult to identify a community partner, especially in under-resourced communities. Conversely, sometimes there are so many partners that it's overwhelming, especially in larger school districts and communities. Sometimes community organizations are willing partners, but new to the research process. Unlike school districts and universities, they don't have staff dedicated to research, evaluation, and data. Yet, like school districts and universities, they have many competing priorities that affect how they engage in an RPP. Despite these challenges, community partners take their role in improving student outcomes seriously, and so should RPPs.
The Urban Child Study Center partners with community organizations in all of its RPP projects. In fact, many of them traveled with us to the 2018 National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships Annual Forum. Representatives from the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, from Sheltering Arms Early Education and Family Centers, from the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, from Easter Seals of North Georgia, from the United Way of Greater Atlanta, and from Get Georgia Reading all participated. In order to better understand how best to engage them in our RPP projects, we asked them to share their insights from the forum and from our own interactions. Here's what we learned:
What community partners enjoy about participating in RPP work:
Our community partners emphasized the relationship building aspect of partnership work, and how meaningful relationships impact the joint work and help "identify ways to accelerate each other's work," as one partner put it. These relationships "foster a community of sharing," another community partner added, which "leverages our collective resources to better inform our work at the program level and beyond." Deep and meaningful relationships with researchers and practitioners also allows the collective partnership to "respond to the right issues, iterate, and communicate and disseminate findings to a broader audience." That's because partners work together while planning the research and not "after the fact"—these "ongoing implementation discussions" ensure that the resulting research "will be something we can use to inform our work." Community partners also pointed out that being part of an RPP allows them to "stay connected to both the research and the practical applications of [their] work that [they] don't have the infrastructure or capacity to implement directly."
What community partners find challenging about participating in RPP work:
Engaging in RPP work can also be challenging for community organizations: Our partners named the many players that can be involved in partnership work as a challenge they needed to learn to navigate. As one partner reflected: "The most challenging part for me has been the various systems that I have had to work with to get the work done—such as government, nonprofit, and school systems. Every system is different. Sometimes the willingness to innovate is as barrier because the system isn't nimble." Another partner echoed that thought: "There are so many players! Multiple players means multiple personalities, differing priorities, and sometimes conflicting perspectives." It can also be challenging to position and define the partnership within other city-wide efforts: Our partners spoke to the need to ensure that our partnership builds on existing partnerships throughout the city so that there is no duplication of efforts.
What helps community partners stay engaged in RPP work:
Yet, a "meaningful" partnership's potential to really "convert [research] findings to make practice better and improve outcomes for kids" makes it all "worth it," our community partners agreed. This intent and joint mission and the "promise of conclusions that can guide our investments and strategic partnerships forward" helps them stay engaged in the RPP. The "diverse perspectives and expertise" that the various partners bring and a "positive and productive climate" were seen as important to staying engaged. Strong relationships and regular communication and meetings help everyone stay connected, our partners said. Above all, having "a personal stake in the work" is what makes community partners want to be and stay engaged.
As we continue our joint work to support student success, we will also continue to refine partnership goals, processes, and strategies to facilitate and enhance our engagement with community-based organizations and further leverage our impact.
Photo courtesy of The Urban Child Study Center