Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1

Cultivating Hope Through Community Partnerships

author avatar
author avatar
By understanding the deep needs of students and families—and joining forces with groups capable of meeting those needs—schools can see barriers diminish.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

EquitySchool Culture
Cultivating Hope Through Community Partnerships
Credit: FATCAMERA / iSTOCK.
Even before the pandemic hit, the well-being of students in U.S. schools was threatened. Many are weighed down by realities like living in poverty, fears about immigration status, and problems with their mental and physical health. School and community leaders realize that external factors like these interfere with young people's happiness and learning—but often don't know what to do about them. Meanwhile, many communities face a crisis of trust in health, public safety, and government institutions, sometimes including trust issues with schools.
And yet, schools could become sources of hope for addressing such severe realities by partnering with community groups to provide services students and families need—indeed, some schools currently are. When schools and communities collaborate to address community needs through an approach we call wraparound services—with the school serving as the hub of human services—students and their families can get what they need to thrive, and we begin to see trust restored in public schools.
As consultants focused on helping schools offer wraparound services, we've seen dozens of schools partner with community groups and agencies to meet students' and families' needs, often embedding such services right within schools.
Of course, building enduring, sustainable partnerships raises lots of questions for the school and community leaders involved. Which services are most needed by students, and which groups providing that kind of help should we work with? How do we fund services? Do we serve all students and families or just those in need? Where will we provide services? Should employees of the agency or of the school be doing the work involved?
To help schools get started in forming partnerships, our book The Wraparound Guide: How to Gather Student Voice, Build Community Partnerships, and Cultivate Hope (Solution Tree Press, 2020) gives in-depth guidance on seven steps for launching wraparound services. In our work, we use what we call "The Centergy Cycle" (see fig. 1), a process that's flexible, replicable, and scalable. Although this piece can't go into detail on all seven steps, we give an overview here, highlighting some of the key initial steps for building a good foundation for forging community partnerships. In particular, we discuss the importance of gathering student voice to identify needs in your school (which informs which groups you'll partner with) and the logistics of choosing credible partners, building enduring partnerships, and beginning to plan (while touching briefly on the remaining steps).

Figure 1. The Centergy Cycle

First, Listen to Students

Listening to the voices of students will help you understand the needs of your learners and families—and transform school improvement from something done to students and families to something done with them. Done well, processes that authentically engage students not only drive programming, but also promote a culture of trust as students see their ideas valued and implemented. Plus, students who trust you are more likely to reveal barriers to health and learning. When we facilitate focus groups with students, we always ask why they think it's important to gather student voice. One student answered, "Because it makes me feel like I'm valued as a human and like I can trust our school."
Schools can use various methods to gather student voice: meetings with homogenous and heterogeneous groupings of students, one-on-one meetings, and other tools or actions for gathering qualitative or quantitative information. At times, leaders might ask learners about specific barriers they're facing. As part of the first two steps of our cycle, we suggest schools use five processes for gathering students' thoughts about the needs of families connected to the school. Let's look at what those processes, outlined in Figure 2, entail.

Figure 2. Five Processes for Gathering Student Voice

Conversation circles. Conversation circles gather small groups of students to glean broad information about academic achievement, social-emotional wellness, and family engagement. Alternatively, students that data show are off track or not performing as expected can be interviewed one-on-one in off-track interviews; these students are asked respectfully what barriers each one feels thwart their success. To ensure these students don't feel stigmatized, choose carefully which adults do these interviews and use terms like "check-in" or "touch base" rather than "off-track" with the students. School adults might also seek legacy and graduation stories from students as they transition out of elementary, middle, and high school. Invite each student to provide a reflective narrative about their school experiences, focusing on any barriers they faced, what kept them engaged, and suggestions for improving the student experience.
These initial voice-gathering processes provide qualitative data to identify student and family needs. A subsequent needs assessment or universal screening provides quantitative data that can predict potential caseloads for specific services, things such as mental health counseling, access to food or other basic necessities, and language education or employment services for caregivers. Such a process should be done at the beginning of the school year and can shed light on which students might benefit from specific services partnerships.
With focus groups or one-on-ones, students who face specific barriers can delve into how these barriers affect their life and schooling. Examples of areas to ask about include anger, anxiety, substance use, or whether the school feels safe for students of different sexual orientations and gender identities. Identifying needs through student voice gives school staff the opportunity to connect with students and—because facilitators solicit students' suggestions for what kind of preventative, education, or intervention programs would help serve them—to develop innovative programming tailored to the needs of students and families.
Don't rush this process. Follow your students' lead, allowing them every opportunity to fully participate and inform the school's next steps.

Choosing Partners

Once you've heard from students and reflected on what nonacademic services their responses indicate would be best to provide at school, look to your community for partners who can help you provide these services. Evaluating the credibility of a potential partner for wraparound services hinges on trust in the partner's character and competence. Potential partners should be credible organizations with known track records—especially when you're first starting with partnerships—and be able to provide year-round services. Look for groups with leaders willing to embrace innovative approaches to meeting community needs and share accountability. Find organizations capable of becoming your thought partner—who creatively respond to a common vision, to staffing and funding questions, and, most important, to students' concerns and needs.
One action that may help you get a sense of groups in your community to partner with is community asset mapping. This process involves taking an inventory of the assets available in your area and aligning the needs you've identified with agencies that provide resources, services, and opportunities directly related to the needs voiced by your stakeholders. Our model divides the needs students and families (especially marginalized ones) often seek help meeting into six broad categories: health and wellness, basic needs, community services, academic opportunity, college and career transition, and safety and justice. Your goal with asset mapping is to emerge with a list of potential volunteers, donors, and partners who have resources in at least some of these areas. We advise school leaders to create a "tree map" with the six categories of services across the top and specific resources or services connected to each category ("branch") listed beneath.
A school or district may decide to dive deeply into only one of the six categories. For example, a school might zero in on basic needs by creating at-school clothing closets, food pantries, laundry facilities, etc. Alternatively, a school may seek partners and services from several "branches," such as setting up services for mental and physical health plus bringing in mentors, a college application advisor, or other resources to guide students and families through college and career transition. How many partners a school approaches depends on several factors, including the urgency of their needs, the complexity of the partnership, and the capacity of the school staff. However, focusing on more than one branch will make your initiative more complex. We advise this approach only if you're going to embed a strong organizational structure for wraparound services in your district, such as hiring a director to oversee wraparound operations.
Leaders commonly assume they have a grasp of organizations and resources in their community, especially if they've been at their school or district for many years. Beware of making such an assumption. Openly enlist counselors, social workers, student support staff, faculty, school board members, and possibly organizations like the chamber of commerce in conducting your assessment of the available services. Remember to frequently compare your student voice data with your completed community asset map to find areas of need that correspond with potential partners for your first round of implementation.
There is no one right way to survey community assets. Let student voice, the capacity of your school, and community connections inform your timeline and priorities. In your first draft of a community asset map, you will likely find your district has primarily targeted quite a few organizations that could potentially meet several identified needs. Subsequent drafts of your map, perhaps focusing on only one "branch," will help you narrow down groups you will approach and prioritize what you'll specifically request of each organization you partner with.
While this approach takes time, the benefits include maximizing social capital for both your school and its students and building trust. As trust grows between school and community leaders, you'll be able to move quicker.

Building Enduring Partnerships

Building a trusting partnership requires sensitive outreach and a lot of initial planning. If someone from your school or district has an established relationship with an organization, have that person make the initial introduction. If not, the school's principal or the district superintendent should reach out.
Initial planning conversations between schools and partner agencies should occur among leaders with the authority to make decisions related to staffing, programming, funding, and policy—typically the equivalent of the CEO. Although you won't fully plan the structure and procedures for the services offered (that's step six in our cycle) until partnerships are set and funding is in place, outlines and ideas for structures will start to emerge.
A structured partnership planning meeting can help clarify the degree of alignment and compatibility between your school and a potential partner. We recommend that leaders from the school and local organization(s) use a planning template to ensure they discuss all the relevant areas and exchange perspectives on essential areas. Figure 3 shows part of a sample template we've developed, annotated to clarify what each party should discuss about key areas (the blank version of this template is available at www.thecentergyproject.com).

Figure 3. Annotated Partnership Planning Guide

In these meetings, school and organization leaders should learn about each other's immediate and long-term goals plus the community challenges they have in common. In determining the partnership's viability, leaders should gain a broad, mutual understanding of the partnership's potential scope—its goals and opportunities as well as the potential risks and problems. Once these high-level issues are addressed, other individuals may be tasked with logistics and implementation. Consider this a starting point, expecting adjustments as the partnership develops.
Once the partnership framework is established, funding considerations are critical to making the initiative possible and sustainable. Funding wraparound services is a complex long-term step (we devote an entire chapter to funding in our book), but we'll highlight here some megawatt good news: Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, federal funding previously restricted to academic programming is available for interventions aimed at developing the whole child. Such funds could certainly be tapped for partnership work to support mental health, basic needs, and so on. Additionally, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) flowing into school districts and the CARES Act funding being provided to communities because of pandemic-related needs provide financial support for innovative collaboration programming.
Securing and intentionally braiding state and federal dollars with local funding, in-kind donations, and grants is critical to the long-term impact of this work. Approach the funding of wraparound services with a future-focused, asset-minded, optimistic perspective.

Connecting Students and Families with Services

Once you've established partnerships, you'll be ready to set up procedures for connecting students and families with the services you'll be offering. It's crucial to keep these procedures simple so students and caregivers will be likely to seek out the services. Erect as few barriers as possible to stakeholders seeking assistance.
We have found it's generally best for the leadership team to deputize specific staff members—such as school counselors, family liaisons, or a school social worker—as "navigators" who connect students and their families with the right personnel. Of course, it's key to let everyone know who these navigators are. Choose personnel carefully: these should be people who communicate warmth and respect and can establish a rapport with students or adults from various backgrounds.
In our book, we discuss strategies for designing ways to connect students with services that involve as few barriers as possible, like individualized student surveys to enable students to request personal assistance and beginning-of-the-year communications regarding available services. In all forms of communication and activities, remember to honor voice and strengthen relationships. In addition to individualized student and family assistance, we recommend activities such as lunch-and-learns on priority topics, community symposiums involving partners, and provider fairs open to students and families.
Your highest priority is straightforward: connect students and families with services. When determining your goals and specific "targets," your wraparound team needs to balance what's easily achievable against a stretch goal requiring more commitment and focus. If you make your targets too easy, your team will lose steam and coast; too hard, and those involved may become discouraged. Keep in mind two critical measurements when creating stretch goals: (1) the number of services or partnerships your wraparound center provides and (2) the number of unique students and families it serves.
Here's an example of a stretch goal: During the 2022–23 school year, we will connect 30 percent of our students and 15 percent of our families with services. In this case, your team will be able to monitor progress toward the goal during the school year, and it will know at the end of the school year whether it met the goal. With connections with services as your goal, your subsequent strategic plans will focus on keeping track of service-oriented objectives, which, depending on your focus, could be such things as students' use of care closets for clothing, toiletries, and school supplies or days of offset suspension through restorative practices.

Equitable—and Hopeful

Unfortunately, our society doesn't equally distribute social capital and protective factors, leaving many students at higher risk of adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty and trauma. Without collaborative community building, schools' efforts are frequently insufficient to fill gaps, leaving teachers and administrators fatigued and disillusioned—and eroding trust in schools' effectiveness among both students and families. But when schools offer wraparound services, the school campus can become the hub of a network of services that can create equitable access to opportunities and key services for those they serve. We've seen many schools do this successfully. By embracing a whole-child approach, such schools are moving from reaction to response—and spreading hope.
September 2022 Beggs Key Issues

Reflect and Discuss

➛ The authors stress getting students' take on the kind of services they and their families need most. What does your school do, if anything, to seek students' views on their needs beyond academics? How might you survey students?

➛ What local groups, resources, or services has your school traditionally partnered with? What other groups might you approach that could help provide what families need? How might you deepen existing partnerships?

End Notes

1 We've developed a sample community asset map available in our recent book that lists under each category 10–15 probable types of services that might exist in a locality (such as adult education and GED services under the community services branch or grief support groups under health and wellness). Schools can use this map to prompt thinking about who in their community provides specified services.

Leigh Colburn is an educator, community leader, education consultant, and speaker. A former high school principal, in 2015 she founded a school-based, wraparound center in Marietta, Georgia. 




Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Equity
Building a Diverse Teacher Pipeline Starts with Students
Dwayne Chism
in 3 days

undefined
The Support Black Teachers Need Now
Ayanna Taylor & Tiffany Fick
in 3 days

undefined
A Strong BOND Supports Teacher Retention
Daman Harris
in 3 days

undefined
Doing Better by Refugee and Immigrant Families
Louise El Yaafouri
1 month ago

undefined
The Power of Liberatory Research
Kimberly N. Parker
1 month ago
Related Articles
Building a Diverse Teacher Pipeline Starts with Students
Dwayne Chism
in 3 days

The Support Black Teachers Need Now
Ayanna Taylor & Tiffany Fick
in 3 days

A Strong BOND Supports Teacher Retention
Daman Harris
in 3 days

Doing Better by Refugee and Immigrant Families
Louise El Yaafouri
1 month ago

The Power of Liberatory Research
Kimberly N. Parker
1 month ago
From our issue
September 2022 EL Cover
Strengthening School-Family Partnerships
Go To Publication