Webinar Replay — Planning for Changing Scenarios: School-Community Partnerships to Foster Resilience
When schools and communities work together to support learning, everyone benefits. Strong, authentic community-partnerships can lead to expanded opportunities for learners; shared responsibility among diverse stakeholders to ensure student outcomes; and transformative benefits for schools and their surrounding communities. Furthermore, school-community partnerships are essential to expanding when, where, how, and what students learn.
A recent webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology on October 27 explored the elements of effective school-community partnerships, focusing particularly on how these relationships can help address connectivity, digital equity, and the digital learning gap. You may watch the full recording for the complete conversation.
Moderated by Chris Rush, Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Innovation and Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, a panel of prominent leaders shared how school districts have identified and worked with community partners to support learners and their families during the ongoing pandemic, offering examples and stories from schools across the country.
Scenario Question: In what ways can school-community partnerships provide continuity of services throughout the school year and help ease school transitions or disruptions?
Schools and districts can leverage the expertise and resources of faith- and community- based organizations and industry partners to drive innovation in education. Ector County Independent School District in Texas recognized early on in the pandemic that 39 percent of their families had limited or no access to the internet. Led by Dr. Scott Muri, the district quickly turned their efforts to ensuring every family had high-speed broadband in their home through fundraising and securing hotspots. However, upon further analysis, the district — which serves the city of Odessa and the surrounding areas — realized that a scarce and in some cases non-existent supply of internet service providers in the area further exacerbated the lack of connectivity for students and families.
To address the need for internet connectivity in some of the most remote areas of their reach, the district teamed up with consultants and a local organization called the Permian Strategic Partnership (a collection of large gas and oil industry leaders) to approach SpaceX about a high-speed internet solution. The district is now running a pilot program with 45 families using SpaceX Starlink satellite technology — making them the first district in the country to utilize SpaceX satellites to provide internet for students.
“It only happened because of partnerships and collaboration. In the beginning, it was a lot of ‘Why are you talking to us?’ because SpaceX had never worked with a school district. Our local community partners were open, and certainly, we were open. So, it was our collective desire to figure this out,” Dr. Muri said.
Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, pointed out that the pandemic simply worsened connectivity challenges that had long existed in communities, necessitating inventive solutions. For example, in Roanoke, Virginia, a community member attached hotspots to digital traffic signs to connect surrounding areas. In South Bend, Indiana, schools dispatched Wi-Fi-enabled buses to reach families.
“Those solutions have really [shown the courage] of teachers and administrators to work in partnership with the private sector, industry, and government to get this done,” said Dr. Turner Lee. “The question becomes, can we replicate [this synergy]?”
Schools can turn to faith-based community organizations and non-profit partners to act as role models and provide additional support to students. Similarly, in Middletown City School District, ensuring families had access to child care and connectivity while parents were at work was critical. The district created learning centers throughout the community to fill this need, establishing sites in partnership with their faith-based community. “We really leaned heavily on the expertise of a lot of different stakeholders internally and externally,” said Marlon Styles, Superintendent for Middletown City School District.
Yet the district faced challenges with connectivity at the learning centers as well. “It created a different dynamic that we had to really embrace to try to find solutions,” Mr. Styles said. “We had to get deep in the conversation with those partners to find ways to [support] kids being able to do virtual work in the basement of a church.”
In addition to connecting families to the internet free of charge, learners benefited from role models and additional support services at these sites. The district is now considering what the next iteration of learning centers might look like.
“Is this an opportunity for us to turn that concept into an acceleration center moving into the future? I’m just awfully proud of the community for stepping up and really supporting not just the district, but more importantly, our children,” Mr. Styles added.
The ongoing digital divide also revealed that the “binary construct of having access and not having access, or having a device and not having a device, is much more complicated,” said Dr. Turner Lee. “The most important thing that we learned is that equity is at the square center of this.” Closing the digital divide is crucial because interruptions to learning will continue to pose challenges for schools and districts.
“We need to differentiate what worked and in what context it worked. We need to figure out what was promising and didn’t work, but could work in the future. And we need to figure out what didn’t work and won’t work in the future,” said Chris Rush. “There are a lot of strengths to community engagement but they don’t always inherently set things up in equitable ways either.”
Scenario Question: How can community-based partnerships move forward with equity and not exacerbate the divide we already see happening in our communities?
Understand and determine the strengths of each partner, and build partnerships where every stakeholder benefits. Dr. Turner Lee agreed that school districts — and more broadly, the education sector — should categorize what worked and didn’t so that schools may learn from one another and replicate or scale solutions. In addition, she noted the need to determine who is responsible for innovation within schools. Dr. Turner Lee suggested creating an asset map of accessible resources to see how the surrounding community can complement the learning being provided to students.
In Ector County, Dr. Muri described how an asset map helped their district understand their connectivity problem locally. By creating a map of where fiber was present in the community, they were able to illustrate inequities and identify connectivity opportunities. The asset map illuminated large swaths of the population who simply did not have connectivity options, namely areas where families experiencing poverty and rural families lived.
“We realized, while it is a utility for some, it is nonexistent for others,” Dr. Muri said. “We all came together [to] find solutions to address the needs of the underserved.”
Scenario Question: How can schools and districts build sustainable relationships in the community?
Be intentional about developing equitable, rather than transactional, relationships. In addition to identifying what students need and looking for resources to fill their own gaps, school districts should also understand what is valuable to their partners and how their districts might also fill gaps out in the community. They also prioritize gathering community feedback and developing accountability metrics to ensure partnerships are improving students’ experiences.
According to Dr. Muri, school-community partnerships should strive for symbiosis: It’s important to create “win-win situations” for both school and community partners so that relationships are reciprocal and sustainable.
Mr. Styles suggested slowing down to be more impactful: “If we leverage the right expertise and talent to address and tackle intentional strategic priorities, the outcomes will be desirable” and the students will be served well.
Don’t blame the relationship when a solution isn’t working — reconsider the solution. When challenges or difficulties arise, Mr. Styles reminded districts to lean into relationships and to focus on the solutions that partnerships were initially formed to solve. If a solution isn’t working, district leaders should allow the partnership to evolve by reimagining and redesigning what the solution could be:
“The reason you enter into a partnership is because you share the same values and beliefs about serving children. Some ideas go off without a hitch, and they serve children perfectly, but there are some that have hiccups or just don’t work out,” Mr. Styles said. “Revisit the solution and start from scratch and change the solution. Go through different iterations, try different design processes, try different approaches.”
Mr. Styles also noted that partnerships should invite students to the table to ask and answer questions, present their needs, and share why an idea is not currently meeting their needs.
Dr. Muri connected this point to Ector County ISD’s shared vision of providing equity of access to high-speed, affordable broadband for their families.
“Even though separately, we may have our own unique opportunities, passions, and desires, the singular focus of that community-wide effort has kept us moving forward and kept us being very successful and effective in our efforts for our community.”
It must be a community effort to ensure schools are successful. Just as school systems must be open to collaboration with local, state, and national partners, other sectors must also be open to engaging in conversations to develop new ideas and support the innovations that are currently happening in education today.
While the pandemic was a forcing mechanism, there are new skills that students, families, and teachers have taken from this time period that will serve them in the future, including digital literacy and resiliency. Moving forward, the education community must codify these lessons in order to build and put contingency plans in place before disruptions arise.
The conversation continues: Join us on Wednesday, November 10 from 12:00–1:00 p.m. EST for a free webinar to discuss what the “next normal” means for education and how schools and districts can be prepared. Register here.