Published in: Access Learning
Date: March 2005
Partners in Community: When community groups forge partnerships with school districts in support of curriculum goals, everyone wins.
by Stephanie Gold

In the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Wash., community ties were sadly missing from the middle-school experience. “Middle school students didn’t know what existed outside their own little world,” says Kurt Miller, program director of TEACH Tacoma, an initiative of the Northwest Leadership Foundation. “Kids didn’t know what was out there for them,” he adds. “So we asked community people to visit us—architects, service dog trainers, somebody with a falcon—they sit at a lunch table and the kids come to them.” The weekly visits don’t have community members doing a big speech, they just talk to the kids one-on-one, or more often, twenty-on-one. Today, four Hilltop schools are served by a creative network of after-school classes, summer enrichment activities, and more in alliance with groups such as the Boys & Girls Club and Metro Parks.

In St. Louis, the Cable Television Education Commission (CableTEC) was formed when a portion of the local cable company’s franchise fee was dedicated to education. Recently, CableTEC introduced topic-specific grants to inspire new creative partnerships, focusing on topics such as Lewis & Clark, health and fitness, and the arts. These theme grants are generating considerable community involvement, reaching out to organizations as diverse as the Discovery Expedition, National Park Service, the St. Louis Department of Health, the St. Louis Fire Department, and local arts organizations such as Sculpture Park and Young Audiences. “Every time we do a grant with a school we’re forming partnerships,” says Marlene Sachs. “The teachers meet with us, present to their peers, and they partner with all these different groups in the community.” Sachs adds that grants foster passion, “and when teachers have passion, they’re better, more effective teachers, and the learning process is greater.”

Utilize Existing Community Resources
The TEACH Tacoma philosophy is to find, fund, and support programs that already exist. Says Kurt Miller, “Rather than butt heads, we decided to work together. Our motto became: Let’s not recreate the wheel. Let’s see what’s already here and then support those organizations.” The result is a community that’s cohesive, not fragmented. The efforts go to strengthen existing services, including groups devoted to youth mentoring, health, arts, Christian leadership, higher education, technology, and sports, to connect school children to neighborhood organizations and foster an atmosphere of stability.

One example is the Maxine Mimms Academy, a program for suspended and expelled youth. It pre-existed TEACH Tacoma, but was expanded and supported through a grant. One 7th grader had a mother getting cancer treatments. The boy was kicked out of school for disruptive behavior, but the Academy staff found he was so worried, he just needed to call his mother during the day, to hear her voice. With that phone call allowed, his internal problems resolved considerably. He’s back in school, with no Academy re-visits. In fact, no children this year have had a single suspendable slip-up after receiving Academy support.

In St. Louis, CableTEC’s health and fitness grants sponsor student video-production programs that partner with a dozen St. Louis health organizations. The students are creating public service announcement videos about health. Representatives from throughout St. Louis, including the Heart Association, the Police Department, the American Red Cross, the Dental Hygienists, Cardinal Glennon Hopsital, and Fontbonne University’s Dietician program, brought the community into the classrooms by visiting schools and expanding students horizons, instructing on health practices, and in the process, informing kids about the health organizations in their city. Then the students integrated that instruction with their technical skills and put the message back out to the community via their public service announcements the students created then shared on their cable network.

Collaboration Sparks Passion
When groups join funds and forces, innovation soars. Take, for example, the collaboration between Club Friday, a group that uses hip hop culture to nurture at-risk youth, TEACH. Club Friday knew the high schools but wanted to bring something different to elementary schools. The result: hip hop dance class. High-school students taught grade-school kids, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 15 Bryant Elementary School children strutted their stuff at Lincoln High. “It was outrageous. The high school kids went wild!” said Miller. If you’re in 4th grade, life doesn’t get much better than wowing an auditorium full of high-school kids.

The Lewis & Clark grants in St. Louis likewise kindled ingenuity. The Core Discovery people—a costumed re-enactment group sailing keelboats up the Missouri River—partnered with St. Louis and enlivened their curriculum. Teachers were on the trail with a satellite feed, writing curriculum. One teacher even played Meriwether Lewis. Marlene Sachs, CableTEC Utilization Director, says, “They did science experiments, math applications, art projects. It was so cross-curricular!”

To start germinating ideas for the 2005-06 school year, CableTEC’s upcoming Show Me Networks Conference has presentations from nine local arts groups, from crafts to circus arts to theater. Teachers will rub elbows with artists and, hopefully, initiate partnerships and generate creative grant proposals for 2006. By putting all the players at the same lunch table, the CableTEC hopes to fuel the collaborative energy that sustains their topic-specific grant proposals. “We’re going to encourage teachers to meet with artists,” explains Sachs. “They’ll create partnerships with the arts, whatever groups they choose, and apply for a grant for next year. That’s how we reach out to the community.”

Tap Community Leaders
Both programs rely on leadership groups to make the collaborative programs fly, providing the leadership, planning, training, and budgeting that a group needs to stay focused. CableTEC has a commission, consisting of nine representatives of the educational community, including deans of colleges, leaders in the arts community, and representatives of all the districts in St. Louis, and together they plan CableTEC’s educational goals and budget. And of Tacoma, Miller explains, “The Northwest Leadership Foundation calls themselves an incubator of programs. They provide the infrastructure—the accounting and technology services—that most start-up non-profits don’t have. The NLF enabled us to develop more programming in collaboration with what we were already doing with the TEACH Tacoma program.” If you utilize strong leadership that already exists, leadership from the community, you get more than paperclips and computers—you get people who know the needs of their community, know the resources, and know how to work most effectively within the community culture.

Sustainable Community Centered Partnerships
Programs that come and go, usually because funds run out, leave the community bare-handed and feeling used. In Tacoma, as with most grant-funded programs, the funds aren’t bottomless. In their third year, with funding for two or three more, TEACH Tacoma is looking towards the future. The plan is to spin programs off to community groups. This keeps overhead to a minimum, streamlines administrative tasks, and nurtures community ownership and pride. “For instance,” Miller says, “our Summer Urban Excursion, we’re spinning that off to our Maxine Mimms Academy because they already work with summer youth programs. Our office will still be here, though, to provide support, even after the grant runs out. We’ll find funding for that.” Miller’s seen new programs flow into the neighboring community, but when the money runs out, so do the programs—making the community jaded. “We don’t want to be like that,” says Miller. “We want to keep it going, with the community running it.”

Connect to Home
St. Louis’ Christ the King Catholic School has a 20-day health unit for K-5 that involves the whole family. Sponsored by St. Louis Children's Hospital, “Fit and Fun” provides daily health cards with nutrition facts and homework activities, like “walk on tip toes counting to 40” or “eat a piece of fruit.” The children fulfill their nightly assignments, such as “drink a full glass of water,” or “dance to your favorite song,” and parents sign off on the cards. The returned cards advance along an adventure board, and awards such as jump ropes and playground balls are distributed at the successful completion of each week’s activities.  “It was fun,” said Rosemary Hiss, Technology Director. “It involved the whole family, and it made the children aware of healthy activities.” It also forged a link with the most essential partner group—the parents.  Reaching home is the best advice Kurt Miller can give a district, too. “Most school districts” says Miller, “they reach out to the community and say ‘Come to us, we want you to be part of us.’ We need to reach out, but we have to learn their culture, their needs. We have to reach in to communities, before we reach out.”