It's Not Complicated: Building Positive CBO-School Relationships

A few weeks 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 rests 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, ones that are not always part of the original partnership agreements.

This is the first of three posts in which I explore how to address these issues and develop productive school-CBO relations from the beginning of the partnership. [*Disclaimers and clarifications can be found at the end of this post.*]  

Issue 1: Trying to ameliorate the impact on children and families of long-standing, complicated socioeconomic problems while working in schools as, essentially, consultants.  

Recommendation 1: Before starting the work, set clear goals and benchmarks for the year, based on a strong understanding of school needs.

This sounds extremely basic. But you might be surprised how many organizations don’t do this. Many CBOs make rushed entries into their schools – the rationale is to get in while the funding exists and school leadership is amenable. CBOs are also under various pressures (from funders, competing CBOs, schools and the district) to get a great deal done in a very short time frame, which forces them to go on-site as quickly as possible. 

In these circumstances CBOs have a rough mandate to address particular needs, but not much inside information on the school - including if what they’re focusing on are in fact the key needs of the school; what’s been tried in the past to address these needs; and what else is going on in the building. CBOs then spend much of the first year determining what’s going on, spending valuable resources and capital getting the lay of the land.

Rushed entry and lack of data also means CBOs haven’t had an opportunity to flesh out what they will do, when, and how in the context of a particular school. Hopefully they have a model – but how it will play out in the unique conditions of a school; what modifications will need to be made; and if these modifications are reasonable or will compromise the model - is often not discussed beforehand, but rather in the moment, under pressure.  

Rapidly deploying a program means that goal-setting and planning are given short shrift. CBOs don’t have time to answer the following questions. What are your goals for the first year? How will you know you’ve achieved these goals during the first 3 months, 6 months, 12 months? What is your schedule and how does it integrate with the school calendar and school’s other work? Yet without answering these questions there is no roadmap for the work – only a plan to “do stuff.”

What CBOs must prioritize is planning with the school – even if it means they get a later start. When it comes to getting CBO-school partnerships off the ground there’s a great sense of urgency – “this is now or never moment,” the thinking goes. Yet the problems schools and CBOs are tackling are long-standing ones that will not disappear in a few weeks or months. There is always time to get organized; without careful planning CBOs jeopardize their work from the very beginning.    

Recommendation 2: Determine whose trust and buy-in needs to be earned, then earn it.

CBOs come into the building as outsiders to the school community who nevertheless provide support with sensitive, personal issues that play out in classrooms and students’ homes. Yet CBOs can function like management consultants, getting the perspective of and working primarily with leadership and support staff instead of interacting regularly with classroom teachers, students and families.  

It’s not surprising CBOs prefer to interact with administration and support staff. Principals tend to take a longer-term view; they’re more forgiving of the time it takes to get work off the ground. Support staff might come from similar work/education backgrounds and generally interact with students one-on-one, outside the pressures of the classroom. Classroom teachers, on the other hand, are responsible for two dozen students simultaneously, with middle and high school teachers having to repeat this feat with different students several times a day. They're “on the front lines” and thus view CBOs’ work from a different perspective than administration and support staff. They’ve also seen many, many organizations come and go and are skeptical of the latest promise that their long-standing problems are about to be solved. Some teachers are openly or covertly hostile, others are polite but apathetic. Their trust is not easily gained, and their disapproval can come very fast.  It’s a similar story with families and students; in New York City, students in high-poverty communities are likely to already be receiving services of varying quality and helpfulness. The prospect of another one is not automatically greeted with excitement.  

But this wariness is why it’s so important to interact with the wider school community. CBO staff often sit in their designated space and wait for people to come to them. It can be nerve-wracking to go into classrooms and other spaces you don’t control and subject yourself to the scrutiny and judgement of teachers, students and families. But, my experience is that if you go into classes with an open mind and a true desire to learn more about the school, you’ll be accepted in many spaces. That’s when you can start to make connections and advance the work; because you’re not just imposing your view of what should be done on the school, but getting the perspective of the community on how the work can be done.      

A natural place to begin this relationship-building is in the early, planning stages, as CBOs gather information on how to roll out their work.  

Issues 2 and 3 (resource coordinators, and how to focus work in the first year or two of the partnership) as well as a final recommendation are coming up in the next posts, which I’ll put up...soon!


* Clarifications and disclaimers *

·         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.