Putting the Pieces Together: Comprehensive School-Linked Strategies for Children and Families

Chapter 1
Building Collaborative Partnerships

The axiom that two heads are better than one really is true when it comes to strengthening children and families in a holistic way. By thinking, planning, and working together, the individuals and groups that make a community can accomplish goals that neither could achieve alone.

Diverse stakeholders shape their holistic efforts through collaborative partnerships. These partnerships give communities a structure for organizing, planning, and implementing their ideas. Collaborative partnerships are the mechanism for designing comprehensive strategies that strengthen children and families.

The process of building a collaborative partnership is multidimensional. It involves:

Although the effort takes time and requires careful attention, it's essential to creating strong, viable partnerships that produce lasting change. This chapter addresses the work that collaborative partnerships typically engage in as they begin and as they move toward action.

How Do Collaborative Efforts Get Started?

Comprehensive partnerships begin
because individuals reach out to
like-minded people and groups to
address issues that affect children
and families.

There are many catalysts for comprehensive partnerships. Some form when school leaders or local policymakers initiate collaboration. Others begin when a community becomes aware of an urgent need for change, or when funding becomes available to respond to conditions in the community. For example, a school superintendent, notified of new public or private funds for comprehensive services, may work with teachers, parents, and community agencies to develop school-linked strategies for health care, adult education, child care, job preparation, and violence prevention programs. Or, school staff may initiate collaboration with the community to respond to a recognized need:

Sometimes, parents initiate collaboration:

Once an individual or small group of planners lights the spark of collaboration, school leaders join with families, community leaders and representatives, and health and human service providers to forge individual programs into comprehensive strategies. This core group evolves into a collaborative effort by (1) understanding the context for collaboration, (2) expanding to include parents and other community partners, (3) forming a partnership, and (4) establishing an effective governance structure.

Understanding the Context for Collaboration
Before you can determine how to develop comprehensive strategies in your community, you will want to know what local conditions will support or inhibit a collaborative effort. You can learn about the school's readiness for collaboration by talking with school administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff; parents and parent-teacher organization leaders; and teacher union leaders. At the school district level, Title I coordinators, volunteer coordinators, and other program administrators can explain the district's policies, practices, and perspectives. In the community, religious leaders, city or county council members, and representatives of neighborhood and youth-serving organizations can provide useful insights into the potential for a comprehensive partnership.

Be sure to involve community members, parents, and other partners in developing an understanding of the context for collaboration. You may want to consider the following questions:

Expanding the Involvement of Families and the Community
It isn't enough to simply round up the "usual suspects"--the core group of teachers, parents, and business leaders who already participate in collaborations between schools, families, and communities. If your comprehensive partnership is going to have a complete picture of community strengths, conditions, and resources, you'll want to enlist families and community leaders who may be disenfranchised from traditional groups but still have their finger on the pulse of important segments of the community.

Don't wait for these stakeholders to walk through the schoolhouse door; send representatives from your planning group to neighborhood association meetings, the city planning office, and cultural and community centers to invite these players to join your partnership. Try to enlist people who truly understand and are committed to the goals of your partnership--not those who are simply assigned by their supervisors to collaborate. You can also increase the investment of potential partners by asking them to help collect information about the local context for collaboration.

Forming a Partnership
As your partnership begins to take shape, you will want to make sure you are attracting appropriate participants to the collaborating table--and that they can work effectively once they get there. Experienced partnerships offer the following advice:

Once your partners are in place, you are ready to establish a governing structure for the partnership. Take some planning time to consider the following questions:

The answers to these questions will be shaped by the extent to which partners share goals, responsibility, and authority; the comprehensiveness of the partnership and its strategies; and the level of resources and policy support for the collaboration.

Establishing an Effective Governance Structure
There is no prescription for the ideal size or design of a leadership group. However, in many communities a two-tiered approach to governance helps partners balance the need for broad oversight with practical considerations. A small management group (10-15 members) that can respond quickly to immediate concerns has responsibility for day-to-day management, while a larger oversight group (30-50 members) meets periodically to consider long-term issues and ensure diverse representation.

Partnerships often use one of the following strategies to create a governance structure that encourages collaboration:

How Does a Collaborative Partnership Plan for Action?

Evolving collaborative partnerships often struggle between the desire to take immediate action and the need to plan for a sustained effort. There is no specific formula for how much time and energy to initially allocate for building relationships or for planning strategies, but experienced partnerships agree that both activities are essential to long-term success.

Planning for action involves (1) establishing guidelines for partner relationships, (2) defining a target community, (3) creating trust and a shared vision among partners, and (4) building cultural awareness. These steps take time, but they lay a firm foundation for future action.

Establishing Guidelines for Partner Relationships
The challenge of putting collaboration into action raises many practical issues:

Clear guidelines and procedures that address these issues can help ensure effective communication, minimize misunderstandings, and enhance collaboration among partners and agencies. Guidelines are an important part of team building and collaboration; the process of deciding how to work together can actually bring diverse stakeholders together.

The guidelines your partnership chooses should be based on the unique context of your community. However, two general strategies can help most partnerships work effectively:

Defining a Target Community
Defining a community involves (1) identifying a group or groups of people with whom the comprehensive partnership should focus its efforts, and (2) choosing a location or locations for partnership activities. Both steps require collaboration and inclusiveness.

The multiple stakeholders who form a partnership often work with different communities, based on geographical location, service boundaries, funding constraints, and other factors. As schools, agencies, and community organizations build collaborative efforts, they cannot assume that all children or families interact with the same agencies and organizations. (If they did, comprehensive strategies might not be necessary.) So, a collaborative partnership must determine which community or communities it will work with and eliminate any barriers that prevent children and families in the community from benefiting from the comprehensive strategies.

To define your target community, consider the following factors:

Community members are the best source of information about many of these factors, and their input is vital.

Creating Trust and a Shared Vision
In many communities, the partners who join a collaborative group may not have worked together before; they may not even know each other, or they may come from organizations with long histories of conflict and competition. And although diversity among partners gives multiple stakeholders a voice in the comprehensive partnership, it can also mean differences of opinion about issues involving children, youth, and families and the best strategies for addressing them. In order to shape a group of diverse individuals into a focused, trusting, effective partnership, you will need to find common ground and develop a unified vision for success.

Find common ground. Take time to help partners familiarize themselves with each other and with the participating agencies. As discussion develops around general issues affecting children and families, encourage your partners to exchange specific ideas, perceptions, and concerns. Discussion topics may include:

Develop a shared vision. For example, a comprehensive partnership in El Paso County, Texas, developed a vision statement focusing on families, schools, and communities. The vision for each of the three groups began with a broad objective--such as, "Schools actively involve families and communities in their operation"--followed by specific goals such as:

As you explore perspectives within the group and find common ground, you can begin to shape a vision that will guide your partnership. This process will evolve from discussions to consensus to a final written vision statement that reflects the conditions, interests, and issues of the community's many groups and organizations. The vision statement expresses your partnership's dreams, aspirations, and concerns for children, families, and the community. The vision may include concrete goals, but it also encompasses broader purposes.

Because a shared vision sets the tone and direction for school-linked comprehensive strategies, it's worth investing time in formulating and reviewing your vision. This is an opportunity for you and your partners to think creatively about traditional strategies and to imagine innovative changes.

The process of developing a shared vision is open-ended and exploratory (Kagan, 1994). It requires partners to set aside individual and agency-specific views in favor of a broader, community-wide perspective. The vision statement should reflect the fact that fulfilling the vision will require collaboration among all partners, so they are prepared for the collaborative nature of the path they have chosen.

Building Cultural Awareness
Collaborative groups function most effectively when participants recognize, understand, and value cultural diversity. As you establish guidelines, define a target community, and develop your collective vision, try to learn about the cultures of individuals and groups in the community.

Ethnic groups, organizations, and communities each possess a distinct culture. A group's culture includes the informal rules, beliefs, and practices that guide interaction but are invisible to those outside the culture (Boyd, 1992). Encourage your partners to consider the following questions:

Parents and other community
members help the partnership bridge
cultural differences and support the
home cultures.

Parents and community leaders are valuable sources of information about cultural diversity. They can provide insights into the match (or mismatch) of cultural beliefs, values, and practices between families and institutions. For example, staff involved in a comprehensive partnership may unwittingly contribute to cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding by making direct eye contact (a sign of disrespect in some cultures) or by scheduling appointments on families' religious holidays. Parents can bring these concerns to the attention of other collaborators and suggest solutions that bridge cultural differences.

Learning Opportunities

The process of creating comprehensive strategies offers opportunities for learning at every stage. As collaborators join forces and begin to work together, they need to learn about:

Collaborative partnerships often bring together individuals with very different knowledge bases, attitudes, and assumptions. Each partner possesses unique knowledge and skills that can benefit the others. As partners organize, plan strategies, and move forward, they create learning opportunities for themselves and each other.

It is tempting for new efforts like comprehensive school-linked strategies to "just do it"--to assess, plan, and organize for action as quickly as possible in order to begin program implementation, leaving "staff development" for a later time. But the time it takes to build knowledge and support is essential if you want partners to reflect on the effort as they develop it and develop a shared understanding of the work they are doing. This is the real work of a partnership: to build a community of learners by allowing different stakeholders to come to consensus and common understanding.

Because developing a partnership is essentially a learning process, it is artificial to separate "professional development," "parent education," and "community involvement" from the rest of the work. This guidebook is organized to promote opportunities for learning in every phase of building the partnership, organizing for action, and maintaining momentum; each of the following chapters will provide suggestions for reflective learning and engagement.

Learning Among Partners
As collaborators initially come together, they need to spend a considerable amount of time learning about each other and the community. For example, school superintendents and heads of other public agencies often do not know each other, despite years of working in the same community. "Horizontal" relationships (among people at the top levels of partner organizations) need to be built, as do relationships that span roles in the community--for example, between parents and agency staff. The goal is to develop a sense of collegiality and common purpose throughout the partnership.

Successful partnerships suggest the following approaches to create learning opportunities for partners:


The impetus for forming a collaborative partnership often comes from an individual or a small group of community members seeking answers for a particular problem, or from funding that is available for broad-based change. A core group of planners evolves into a partnership after assessing the context for change and expanding to include additional partners and parents. The governance structure for a collaborative partnership can come from a lead agency, a nonprofit agency created to lead the partnership, or a consortium of agencies.

Partnerships begin planning for action by establishing guidelines for partner relationships, defining a target community, creating trust and shared vision among partners, and building cultural awareness.

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