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Local Partnerships to Transform Priority Schools

Partnerships between priority schools and their communities help students succeed—in school and in life

Found In: School Life

The changes taking place at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, North Carolina, today are among the most remarkable the school has experienced in its 100-plus year history. Three years ago, it had one of the lowest academic performance scores in the state. This past school year, Oak Hill had the largest gain among Guilford County schools, increasing its student performance score by almost 20 points, to exceed 65 percent on 2010-2011 tests in reading, math, and science.

The academic growth of the school shows that educators who partner with parents, community organizations, and businesses can produce successful students in a vibrant school culture despite significant challenges.

Located in a high poverty area, Oak Hill has 450 students in grades preK-5, and 98 percent of them receive a free breakfast and reduced-price lunch. Atop economic challenges are communication barriers with students and their families, who speak a combined 17 languages.

“This has not been an easy road,” says Principal Patrice Faison, also a member of the Guilford County Association of Educators (GCAE). “We don’t have it perfect, but I’m confident that our students are growing thanks in part to our teachers, parents, volunteers, and community support—all of us are working together.”

Many of today’s students, like those at Oak Hill, face tremendous barriers that put their learning at risk. Although it’s well established that community partners play a powerful role in school transformation, engaging community members can be a challenge for schools. That’s why NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign focuses on educators and community working together in struggling schools to address student needs, increase graduation rates, and close gaps in academic achievement.

While some local associations and school districts are in the beginning phases of developing meaningful partnerships with local businesses, civic, faith and social organizations, and community coalitions, several priority schools are already seeing the benefits these partnerships can have for their students.

The Basics and Beyond

After receiving a $2.9 million School Im­provement Grant over three years, Oak Hill enforced drastic reforms under the turnaround model, which required the district to replace the principal and at least half of the school’s staff.

Oak Hill principal Patrice Faison (left) welcomes school supplies collected by community volunteer Gina Jacobs (right).

“We are digging deep, trying new strategies to determine what works best for each student,” says Faison. “We are working with parents and community volunteers to make them active partners with the school.”

One of those partners is Gina Jacobs, a board member of Ward Street Community Resources. Located one block from the school, Ward is a charitable organization that establishes programs, such as a food pantry and clothing closet, to help people who live in the community.

As Ward’s Oak Hill liaison, Jacobs spends at least 20 hours a week recruiting volunteers to assist with school projects, raising donations of food and clothing, and identifying tutors to help students and parents with math, reading, writing, and computer science.

Since she began working with Oak Hill last fall, Jacobs has shown a deep understanding of the role volunteers and community partners can play in building a strong public school. In addition to finding two dozen “lunch buddy” volunteers to help students with school work, she has recruited volunteers to teach GED classes for parents and translate for parents who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, and Urdu, worked with a local church to provide weekend food packages for students in need, secured ongoing donations to help students buy clothing, and even engaged Piedmont Opera and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival to perform at the school.

“Some of our efforts have been to simply feed and clothe our students,” says Jacobs, who persuaded Willow Creek Rotary Club to donate $2,500 toward clothing and Backpack Beginnings to give 30 weekend food bags. “These efforts are not directly education-oriented, but do affect the basics in the children’s hierarchy of needs.”

Other High Point businesses have also answered Jacobs’ call to action. High Point Bank prepared a financial program for parents. And local furniture companies contributed to the school’s Parent Resource Room, while High Point University gave the school tickets for one of its televised basketball games.

“She brought the community to us,” says Faison. “And we’ve run with it.”

Growing Together

Tilling soil, shoveling 10 tons of gravel, laying paving stones, and growing crops aren’t normal job duties for an educator. But for staff at McGary Middle School in Evansville, Indiana, that’s exactly what they are doing as they kick off a community garden project.

The idea for a community garden sprouted as students at McGary explored community issues throughout last school year. They identified hunger and the lack of healthy food choices as a major concern, especially for low-income families. Inspired by the depth of students’ interest in the issues, staff committed to transforming the courtyard at McGary into an outdoor learning space, complete with a greenhouse to grow fresh fruits and vegetables and an outdoor instructional area for reading, math, and science lessons.

NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign working in partnership with NEA’s Green Across America initiative donated $3,500 to help fund the community garden. Tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and more will be grown in the garden and sold below market rate to community residents and donated to area food banks that serve low-income families.

The community garden is a collaborative effort, a concept that staff and students at McGary are used to. In addition to being a priority school, McGary is also one of three Equity Schools in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation.

“The Equity Schools project is a joint endeavor between the school district and the Evansville Teachers Association,” explains Keith Gambill, Evansville Teachers Association president. Its goal is to transform schools through professional development for teachers and extended learning time for students.

McGary Middle School family and community outreach coordinator Julie Mullen.

As an Equity School, educators at McGary receive professional development time each day to coordinate lesson plans. In those meetings, staff realized how much the students really care about hunger and food, and helping their community get access to healthy food.

“The teachers were developing thematic instruction around science and math; the garden was a byproduct of that,” says McGary Principal Mary Schweizer. “The students realized that we need to do more than just plant seeds and watch them grow. We need to take it from seed to finished product and then give back to the community.”

The team knew they would need some help to get the project going. “We are a full-service community school so we understand as a staff that we cannot do the work alone. We need our community partners,” says Schweizer.

McGary’s active Site Council, which consists of students, staff, parents, community groups, and local businesses, meets once a month to talk about the challenges McGary faces, how community partners can help, and how the school can help its community partners. Julie Mullen is McGary’s family and community outreach coordinator and chairs the Site Council along with Schweizer.

“It’s wonderful because you get to know the community around your school and you’re able to work with your community,” says Mullen.

She and Schweizer built relationships with the community through face-to-face interactions. Together they went on neighborhood walks, visited apartment complexes, and introduced themselves directly to local business owners. Mullen later called on those business partners to donate materials and equipment, such as shovels, wheelbarrows, and concrete, for the garden project.

Other relationships established through the Site Council are ongoing. Several local churches help collect clothes for students, the local Red Cross chapter offers CPR classes for both parents and students, the YMCA and Girl Scouts help with afterschool programs at McGary, and community libraries donate books to the school.

“It’s a huge networking system,” says Mullen of the community partners. “They are here for the teachers, and they are here for the students. The biggest benefit is for our children and our families to get what they need to help the kids succeed in the classroom, at home, and in the community.”

The benefits of all of the collaborative work are clear. Results of Indiana’s statewide tests show that the districts greatest progress was in the three Equity Schools. Eighth-graders at McGary increased their math and English/language arts scores by 7 percent in each subject. Eighth-graders at other schools in the district increased their English/language arts scores by 1 percent and math scores by 2 percent.

In return for the community’s support, McGary students volunteer at food banks in Evansville and work with the Ronald McDonald House. During Site Council meetings, community partners mention events they need help with, and McGary staff can always be counted on to show up.  

“We try to make it a one big family atmosphere,” says Mullen. “The kids see you’ve got to help your community for them to also help you.”

Real World, Real Learning

In one Salem, Oregon, community, a cup of coffee can provide more than a jolt of caffeine. There, a public school is partnering with a local coffee shop to connect at-risk students with meaningful lessons that support their classroom learning.

“These are students who haven’t made it in the traditional system, so in order to make them successful, we need to have a different kind of system,” says Jane Killefer, a 12-year classroom veteran of alternative education. “You still have the rigor; you can still teach to the standard and have quality educators, but you have to be different in how you approach the student’s relationship to learning.”

Dean Lohrman, program coordinator for the Tech Prep Academy at Roberts High School, one of the city’s two alternative public schools and one of NEA’s priority schools, says tailoring programs to students’ individual needs is the best way to boost their learning. Tech Prep Academy provides students with lessons based on the core curriculum, with a strong literacy foundation in a small group setting. Half of each instructional day is spent at internships with local businesses, with academic support.

An outstanding example is the plan Roberts High brewed up with the help of a local coffee shop, The IKE Box. Students who work half-days at The IKE Box get hands-on experience with everyday math while improving communication skills. Their duties include everything from making and serving coffee to setting up for in-store rock concerts—and yes, they even clean the bathrooms.

Tech Prep Academy aims to customize the internships: A student who displays an interest in auto mechanics, for example, can have the opportunity to work at a local body shop. “Our program is unlike others because we’re

trying to prevent fires instead of putting the fires out,” says Lohrman. “We’re trying to catch the kids in high school and get them into a program that’s going to work for them so they can graduate and go on to be successful.”

“[The program] gives good experience,” says Matt Godwin, a senior at Roberts who is participating in the program. “Part of it is getting a real job but also getting the experience I need in order to build my résumé and build my future. I set goals and keep working until I finish them. It makes me feel responsible.”

It’s also rewarding for the businesses helping at-risk students succeed in Salem. “The coffee shop is a really important part of the community in building relationships with the students that come through our program,” says Chas-Grant Foster, who is the assistant coordinator of interns at The IKE Box. “It kind of takes you outside of your comfort zone. It allows you to engage and challenge yourself with people who you never thought you’d be able to connect to otherwise.”

The benefits extend to the entire community: Research indicates that when schools, families, and communities work together to support learning, students tend to earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, and stay in school longer, plus they are more likely to enroll in higher education programs.

Says Godwin: “It feels like I’m accomplishing something in life that means a lot to me compared to doing something and not getting a whole lot of respect, or getting something done and not getting a whole lot of good stuff out of it.”

When schools, families, and communities work together to support learning, students tend to:

  • Earn higher grades
  • Attend school more regularly
  • Stay in school longer
  • Enroll in higher level programs

NEA's Priority Schools Campaign offers tips and techniques on how schools and the community can work together. Go online to find out more about the Campaign, a movement of educators across the country working to help struggling schools raise student achievement through partnerships with families, communities, and government.

Read more stories about what it takes to help students achieve. Check out


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Priority Schools Campaign

Turning around lower-performing schools (Priority Schools) will transform the lives of tens of thousands of students.

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