"Can you give us a little help with this?" : Balancing school-CBO needs

A back to school post, wrapping up my series on CBO-school partnerships. I'm putting this up much later than I planned to. Work deadlines are hard on blogging. As are vacations...

A while ago I posted about some of the issues the NYC Community Schools initiative will face as the project gets off the ground, noting there are three school-based issues that, particularly in the early stages, community school stakeholders need to keep in mind as they’re planning.

1.    Community Based Organizations (CBOs) are trying to address complicated issues, on an individual child as well as group basis. They’re doing this while working part-time in an institution they don’t manage, that has its own set of priorities - which don’t always match those of its partner(s);
2.    Implementation and management of school-CBO partnerships rest very heavily on one individual – a Resource Coordinator – who is expected to have a very wide and deep set of skills and experience.
3.    Schools want their CBOs to tackle a range of school needs, needs that are not always part of the original partnership agreements.

This is the last of three posts in which I explore how to address these issues and develop productive school-CBO relations from the beginning of the partnership. I’ll be focusing on issue three in this post. Here’s the discussion on working with schools as an “external provider”.  And here’s the one for Resource Coordinators.  

[*Disclaimers and clarifications can be found at the end of this post.*]  

Issue 3: Inevitably, there will be tension between schools and CBOs in terms of additional work the CBO can address.

Recommendation: Concentrate on getting your model off the ground, but provide targeted support in areas important to the school, complementary to your work

An organization and school may sign an MOU that clearly states the focus will be on attendance; but, as the organization spends time in the school, staff will ask about student behavior, classroom culture and family engagement – issues related to attendance, but not directly addressed by the organization’s intervention. The questions will range from the more basic: “can you tell me how I’m doing transitioning kids from classroom to lunch room?” To the more complicated: “can you sit down with me when I talk to the family about their child’s performance?”   

What’s a CBO to do? There are opposing factors at play. CBOs come into schools to help students and teachers. But they also have goals to meet and accountability metrics of their own (i.e., did they accomplish what they told their funders they would accomplish). In the long term, the best way for them to help the school is to get their model smoothly running. In the short term, CBOs, especially ones putting in place more complicated interventions, ask a lot from schools without providing immediate, tangible results (i.e., they’re taking more than they give). So it would behoove them to provide support during this ramp-up. Finally, while CBOs may have staff expertise in a number of areas, it might not be distributed evenly. Managers might have wide knowledge of school issues, while the on-the-ground staff might only be able to implement specific interventions. This is especially the case when field staff are recent college graduates (e.g., Americorps) or volunteers.

Keeping all this in mind, there are a few ways CBOs can approach requests from school staff to help them with issues beyond the immediate mandate:

o   Decline to provide feedback or assistance in these areas, because CBOs have been brought in to help with attendance and need to focus on that;

o   Get very involved in one or more of these areas, as they’re the school’s top priorities and CBOs should support the school;

o   Think about ways that behavior, culture and engagement can impact attendance, and provide feedback and/or other support that will help reinforce the ongoing attendance intervention.

From my experience, the third option is the best one. The issues schools grapple with are highly inter-dependent – attendance impacts classroom culture and student behavior and vice versa. A well thought out approach to classroom culture or behavior can bolster an organization’s attendance intervention, or at the very least build significant good will with the school while the organization deploys and adjusts its intervention. Approach three is also the most proactive, giving the organization room to figure out the best way to provide support (according to its capacity), rather than simply reacting to school requests for assistance.  

Ideally, a CBO’s feedback and support should empower full-time school staff to do the work (i.e., the CBO shouldn’t take on additional work it will then be primarily responsible for). It might consist of: providing support to (school, non-profit) staff engaged in complementary work; sitting in on classes and giving feedback; helping staff evaluate what the results of their work are; helping them to do research (e.g., into a program, source of funds); and leadership support.      

This middle ground is all part of understanding partners’ priorities and trying to align with them. Saying “yes, let me take a look at this and get back to you with some data and thoughts” is taking concerns seriously without derailing the organization’s core work. In a flexible model like the one community schools have, this should be feasible to accomplish.

And one final recommendation…

Set expectations and be honest in your communications with the school

Every school wants an outside provider – particularly ones focused on mental health, behavior, and/or social-emotional learning - to “fix” the children who command a disproportionate share of staff attention. But this goal is very, very difficult to achieve in a sustained way. Yes, there are cases where a new pair of glasses or mental health referral or reading intervention dramatically changes a child’s behavior and academic performance in school. However, most of the time there are complex, long-standing reasons that children act out and perform poorly in school. Gaining the family’s trust and participation, determining what course of action is best for the child and family, and maintaining this course over time can be extremely challenging. For every gain made, there will setbacks (also known as one step forward, two steps back). School staff can then become frustrated when week after week, month after month, children make little or very slow progress.

CBOs, in their excitement to start work in a school (or to get into a school), must be careful not to overpromise what they can deliver. It can derail an entire organization’s work if it declares or implies its intervention can improve the behavior and academic performance of individual children the school has struggled with for years.

On the surface, these are not complicated recommendations. But in practice they’re pretty tough to achieve. They require discipline and focus – from CBOs, schools and those supporting them – to carry out and maintain over time. In today’s highly charged, resource pinched, ever-shifting educational environment, this can be a lot to ask for. But I firmly believe they’re essential to follow if a CBO-school partnership is to achieve success.


* Disclaimers and clarifications *

·         I’m using the term CBO to encompass non-profits as well as community-based organizations deploying a particular program or intervention in a school.

·         I’m talking about programs that provide student supports (e.g., counseling, mental and general health, enrichment, attendance and behavior, family outreach) more than a specific academic intervention

·         This is a less evidence based post than usual. I’m working from my many years of experience and have numerous examples, but am not going into all of them  for the sake of brevity. If anyone is curious about what I’m basing the recommendations on, email me and we can get into the details.

·         Chalkbeat has covered the gap between DOE rhetoric around what must happen in schools versus what rollout has actually happened so far.