NYC’s “Summer Rising” Calls for School Partnerships. Here Are Five Ways to Make Them Work.

Today is the one day of the week my son will come home from school full of stories. On Wednesdays, a group of teachers go bouldering at the Cliffs at Harlem. A small group of children signed up to join them, all masked, distanced, and, by 6pm every Wednesday, energized after spending hours lunging across rock walls.

Tuesday wasn’t as good. Online band after school. Trying to keep a group of middle-school musicians in sync on a Zoom call lands somewhere around the fifth circle of Dante’s inferno.

Monday, bleh. In-person day. He came home confused by the mix of online and in-person content and was too embarrassed to raise his confusion in the chat.

My son’s school puts great thought and effort into offering extracurricular experiences and connecting with curricular learning. This is not just a matter of engaging education, but of equity: Diverse learners need diverse entry points into the learning experience, combining interaction with challenge, care with accomplishment.

As much as schools are trying, though, this year it sure has been hard to do.

It will take a lot to regain my son’s, and so many children’s, trust and excitement in school. As the weather warms, there are glimmers of hope. Between the federal stimulus package, the State finally making good on a promise to fully fund urban districts, and the City’s release of its Summer Rising plan, New York schools are awash in resources to do good things for children this summer.

Summer Rising structures funding to encourage collaboration, so that community-based organizations (CBOs) that provide the kinds of experiences like bouldering and music that bring interaction and care that many students are craving are coupled with experiences that bring challenge and accomplishment to help them academically. Too often, the “curricular” and “extracurricular” are treated as two separate experiences. Indeed, that shows up even in the structures in New York City: DYCD gets the care and career funds; NYCDOE gets the learning and lessons funds.

From years of working with schools that thoughtfully combine social-emotional learning and academics in integrated, meaningful partnerships, I will attest that these two can and must be combined, even and especially if we strive to be address inequities in education. As schools and CBOs work on their Summer Rising plans, here are five suggestions I have learned from great CBO-school partnerships. (Great educators also combine this at the classroom and individual level, but more on that another time.)

1. Know your communities and make sure all your staff do, too. Here’s a lesson I learned from Bronx Haven High School and their work with East Side House. For years, at the start of each school year, staff would go on a scavenger hunt in the surrounding neighborhood to get to truly know where their school was situated. This was coupled with home visits (always in pairs, for reasons both legal and professional) to get to know their students and their families.

This year is different, as COVID has made such visits unsafe. It’s time to change that. The children and families who have been suffering most are the ones that have been hardest to find in a school building or on a Zoom screen. Use the 10 weeks between now and the summer to give staff ample pay to get out, find them, talk to them, and hear what they are going through. This must still be done safely: only fully-vaccinated, appropriately labeled, and doubly-masked staff traveling in pairs. But it would be extremely valuable for it to be done.

2. Know your lanes, but also how to switch lanes. When a school partners with CBOs, the roles of staff on each side of the equation is critical. There are two kinds of mistakes I have seen undermine such partnerships.

One mistake is the “service” mentality. A school principal retains a CBO to provide, say, bouldering club, and that is the extent of the service. The problem with the “service” mentality is that it sets up the CBO to never share insights about the children with the school, and vice versa. This squanders the opportunity to learn about what motivates and engages different children in different contexts.

The other mistake is the “build it and they will come” mentality, in which the children and families who sign up for the CBO support get it, and the rest… well, don’t. This raises obvious equity issues: The people who don’t come when you built it may very well be the ones who need it the most, but you have to figure out how to constructively engage them.

In the best collaborations — call it an “education village” mentality — the kinds I have learned much about from Good Shepherd Services, CBO and school staff see one another as mutually supportive resources. That CBO who provides bouldering is getting to know something about a certain set of children and is educating and cultivating a certain aspect of their personality and growth. The CBO who provides counseling services is getting to see another part. The math teacher still another part. Educating the whole child takes the whole village.

For the education village to flourish, each partner needs to know their “lane.” Schools and CBO partners do well to ask three questions as they are forming (or reviewing an existing) collaboration:

· What is the skill and expertise that this particular partner is bringing?

· Who supervises their staff, and how does that individual connect with the school principal?

· How does each side of this partnership identify when another partner can help them to better serve a child, and how will they communicate that need with that partner?

These questions help identify lanes and mutual strengths. But you also need to be able to switch lanes carefully and humbly. In this example, you’d need to cross-train staff, so that teachers, the counseling CBO, and the bouldering CBO are all in a shared professional development session where they learn about one another’s skills and expertise. You won’t teach a counselor to be a teacher or a teacher to be a mountain climber, but in just a few hours together you can build common language and mutual respect that are invaluable.

3. Partner around leadership with small, structured, consistent meetings. When I was helping to start new transfer schools, Jean Thomases, a mentor who shaped my thinking and that of so many great practitioners in New York, would always insist we create a school “Core Team.” This team included the school principal, the supervisor of key partnering CBOs, and the district supervisor (that was me).

Core Teams built the trust and modeled the partnership that staff needed to emulate. When we got it right at the leadership level, it became part of the lifeblood of the school. The best Core Teams had a few regular items on the agenda:

  • Update on staff and partnership. Just as educators should start from the place of the children they are supporting, leadership started from the place of the staff they are developing.
  • Review of a specific set of data. This could be quantitative (like the number of families visited last week) or qualitative (like the experience of a specific student last week). It could be outcomes-oriented (like reading levels from a diagnostic assessment) or process-oriented (like attendance rates). What was important was that pre-compiled data focused everyone on a shared and depersonalized issue through which progress can be celebrated and problems explored together.
  • Agreement on next steps and needs for the leaders. An action-focused and partnership-oriented mentality kept everyone thinking together about how they would share this important load.

Our Core Teams met once a quarter when, but more frequently when a partnership was first forming. For the summer, short though it may be, I suggest that partners form Core Teams and get them meeting more frequently, not just to serve this summer well, but to look ahead to ever greater partnership in the future.

4. Partner around children with small, structured, consistent meetings. From schools like Jill Chaifetz Transfer School, which partners with Bronx Works, I have learned to make great use of small, strategic meetings where staff talk about specific students and how to help them.

If well-structured, these meetings can be quick: ten minutes to discuss one child. At that rate, staff given three one-hour blocks can get to 15 children in a week.

This takes a bit of thoughtful logistics to set up first: Make it so that all teachers and partner staff who work directly with specific children can sign up for time slots based on children’s names with, say, Zoom meetings spaced 12 minutes apart. In the signup, one person volunteers to be the note-taker who shares notes, one to be the facilitator, so that things move well.

In the meeting itself, a few structured questions can help groups stay focused and constructive:

  • What is the top current goal each person has for the child? Stating these goals without further commentary is a helpful start to information sharing.
  • What is this child proud of or what have they accomplished recently? Can at least two people in the meeting commit to finding an opportunity to praise the child for this in concrete, specific terms?
  • Do we have any major concerns about this child’s mental or physical health or engagement? If so, who is following up on this, how, and when?
  • Has this child been constructively attending and engaged? If anyone in the group is struggling with this, have one person speak to what has most engaged the student and why. Alternatively, if the child is not attending or is disengaged across the board, have one person commit to a next step to re-engage the child. What help do they need to from a supervisor or another partner to do this? How will we get them that help?

5. Partner across schools, too. Finally, the idea that half the schools in New York City will be offering summer learning opportunities this year is simultaneously hopeful and daunting. Some schools have a longer track record than others of partnering with CBOs. Some have more teachers who are ready to work in the summer. Some have had more success maintaining attendance and genuine engagement during this challenging year.

By offering schools and CBOs funds to make their own plans for the summer, New York City is making the smart move of decentralization that enables creativity and nimble action. But this decentralization also risks inequity. If ever there was a time for schools to help for each other, now is that time.

If a school is not going to be able to develop the CBO partnerships and teaching staffing necessary, or if it has been struggling to engage its children and families all year, then use these funds to partner with other nearby schools that have been able to do this better. Swallow your pride, school leaders. If we are all educating New York City’s children together, we can all help each other do it right.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.