Place-Based Community Partnerships
MiSTEM Network Playbook
Community Partnerships for Place-Based Education
This chapter will help you to:
- Understand the benefits of school-community partnerships for place-based education
- Learn how to develop school-community partnerships
- Broaden your thinking about what community partners can bring to place-based education in K-12
School-Community Partnerships for PBE
School-community partnerships take many forms and exist for many purposes. In the context of place-based education (PBE), we are focused on partnerships that draw on the knowledge and missions of community organizations to provide specific support to students and teachers involved in an experiential, community-based learning experience. Such partnerships enrich students’ learning, lead to meaningful improvements to the community, and build quality relationships between a community’s schools and other institutions.
What are the characteristics of school-community partnerships for place-based education?
School-community partnerships bring a variety of benefits to the practice of place-based education (as well as other approaches to education). In PBE, school-community partnerships lead to:
- More meaningful community impacts: Place-based education includes hands-on projects to benefit the community. Community partners help school groups identify opportunities to engage in authentic community issues, where student contributions can make a meaningful difference. Partners bring practical knowledge and expertise to bear on the work students do to improve their communities and help students find and choose projects that will result in valued community outcomes and benefits.
- Better education: Because partners know their issues, they can lend expertise to students about a specific community issue that a teacher doesn’t have (or would spend hours trying to develop).
For example, if students are working on a water-quality issue in the community, the partners may bring knowledge about the local river system; human impacts on local water quality; man-made infrastructure like culverts, dams and shoreline development affecting the river; governmental regulations that govern polluters and clean-up processes; recent studies and actions by environmental groups; and more. Additionally, partners model the careers that relate to the issues students are studying and engaging in, and can explain and model what professionalism and effectiveness looks like in this context.
- A better environment for thriving schools: Organizations in the community may or may not have officers and leaders with students in local schools, and may have only limited understanding of the value provided by schools and the challenges local schools are facing. Meaningful school-community partnerships help to build understanding in schools about community needs – and in community organizations about school needs. Mutual respect and cooperation are assets for any school district. Unleashing the power of students can help businesses, nonprofits and governments meet their goals as well.
Who is this chapter for?
Administration: Administrators can learn how to initiate and foster school-community partnerships and their potential value to schools and districts.
Educators: Place-based educators can learn how to initiate and foster school-community partnerships and their potential value for teaching and learning.
Community organizations (businesses, nonprofits, units of government, higher education and more): Outside organizations can learn about roles partners can play, potential benefits to their organizations from partnership, and what schools and teachers are hoping to accomplish through partnership.
How to Develop
Most people, when they hear about school-community partnerships, think they sound like a great idea. However, individual people working within schools and community organizations are often fearful about taking the first steps. Both sides can feel awkward about reaching out to new people whose work situations are foreign to them (or in the case of school, far in their past).
The steps may vary a bit depending on whether it is a teacher or other school official, or a representative of a community organization, who is taking the first steps to explore a partnership. However, the basic steps are these:
Step 1: Clarify for yourself the benefits for you and your partner.
Teachers might hope for access to a partner’s specific expertise and for ways to expose their students to one or more career paths. Partners might hope to spread awareness of an issue that is central to their mission, or to engage youth in community life, or to give back or elevate their corporate reputation through quality community service. As part of this step, it might help to consider what subject matter or focus areas are options for you in a place-based education experience.
Step 2: Conduct a scan of potential partners in your community, particularly those that dovetail with your support needs or content-area needs.
Conduct a scan of potential partners in your community, particularly those that dovetail with your support needs or content-area needs. It can be helpful to talk to others in your industry who are partnering successfully: Teachers can talk with other teachers they know who have established successful school-community partnerships, while those in community organizations can talk to others in their industry or in the broader community who have relationships within the school system. Organizational websites are often excellent guides to whether and how a school or community organization likes to partner.
Step 3: Many exemplary PBE efforts involve a strong role for students in choosing a focus and direction for PBE.
Many exemplary PBE efforts involve a strong role for students in choosing a focus and direction for PBE. If you represent the school side of a potential school-community partnership, before you meet with partners and begin to discuss specific opportunities, stop to think about the role you want students to play in identifying and designing a project, if any. It is possible (and beneficial) to co-create an effort among students, teachers and partners, but if this is what you want to do, you’ll need to be clear about it with potential partners upfront. (Adults tend to go straight to the solutions and the actions.)
Step 4: Approach one or more potential partners for an exploratory meeting.
Approach one or more potential partners for an exploratory meeting. It’s important in an initial meeting to both share your hopes and to listen carefully to the needs, interests and constraints of the potential partner.
Step 5: Host one or more planning meetings with partners and work toward an understanding of what each entity will be contributing.
Host one or more planning meetings with partners and work toward an understanding of what each entity will be contributing. Some groups formalize this in a memorandum of understanding.
Step 6: Carry out your PBE effort and celebrate.
Carry out your PBE effort and celebrate. Share the credit among all contributors. Discuss what you liked and didn’t like about the way the partnership went and how it could be improved next time. Discuss interest in continuing a long-term partnership.
There’s no single right size or structure for a school-community partnership. Some are intensive while others are limited in scope and purpose. Some are project-bound while others are long term. About the only thing that is always true of a good school-community partnership is that each organization within the partnership feels it has benefited.
Some of the roles a partner can play in PBE include:
- Content or field experts help teachers and students understand content as it translates to real-world situations.
- Opportunity makers/door-openers can help teachers and students access a community work site or join an important community discussion.
- Leadership developers or coaches help students build their skills for working in teams and advocating for themselves and their projects.
- Judges or assessors help students evaluate their work products against real-world standards.
- Funders offer financial support.
- Promoters and “leveragers” help teachers and students communicate their achievements and maximize impact.
- Career liaisons provide an inside view of a career path related to a PBE effort.
- Stakeholders help teams understand the varied perspectives on a community resource or proposed change that may exist within the community.
- Resource providers offer relevant tools and materials.
- Volunteers expand capacity to get fieldwork done.
This YouTube video shows how Hood River Middle School in Oregon works with community partners.
Duck Habitat Project at Southwestern Classical Academy
This case study of a place-based education effort supported by Discovering Place, a hub of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, includes a section focused on the teacher team and their nonprofit and municipal community partners.
Schoolwide Stewardship Education at Whitehall Middle School
This case study of a place-based education effort supported by the West Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative includes a section focused on the teacher team and their diverse community partners.
Superior Stewardship at Washington Middle School
This case study of a place-based education effort supported by the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative includes a section focused on the teacher team and their community partners at the local university and from public agencies.
The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative has many resources on place-based education.
“A How-to Guide for Building School-Community Partnerships” offers insights on developing successful partnerships.
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