10 rules for community partnerships in service-learning projects

5850406535_432c9d8879_zService-learning projects give students the chance to contribute to their communities while they are learning. To create these opportunities for students, schools often need to reach out to the community and enter into partnerships with community agencies and researchers.

What are the key elements of successful partnerships among these different entities?

In a recent study in the Journal of School Health, researchers provide schools with 10 elements for cultivating successful partnerships for service learning projects. The researchers studied Lead Peace, a middle school service learning demonstration study, created by a partnership between the Minneapolis Public School District, Hennepin County Village Social Services and University of Minnesota Prevention Research Center. They developed the 10 elements based on semi-structured group interviews with program facilitators at each Lead Peace school at the end of 2006 to 2007 and 2007 to 2008, interviews with key school administrators and observed partnership meetings. Here are the 10 elements:

1. Communicate regularly. Regular meetings help partners keep informed about implementation and evaluation issues. Change the location of meetings between school and partner sites. While regular meetings take time, they build trust and provide an important forum for sharing of ideas.

2. Share decision making. Seek input on program topics, activities and resources. Share decision making on all facets of the program even in areas where you feel you have more experience and knowledge.

3. Share resources. Everyone should pitch in and feel that they “own” the program in equal parts. Partners should all contribute staff time, space, transportation and other capital to operation of program.

4. Share expertise and credibility. Besides resources, each partner should expect to be generous with its own skills and experience. A social agency’s deep roots in a community, for instance, can help better tailor social programming to a school’s social context.

5. Allow sufficient time to develop and maintain relationships. A partnership is likely to thrive when it is founded on strong relationships, but can founder if those relationships have never been formed. Working on relationships can be as important as developing program features.

6. Have a champion and patron saint. Collaborative enterprises can lose momentum if no one feels particularly responsible or accountable for their success. Each school should have a lead facilitator who serves as a “champion” for the service-learning project. The champion should be responsible for communicating regularly with school administration. Each school also should have a patron saint for the service-learning endeavor, a key administrator with the necessary authority and influence.

7. Be present. Beyond attending regular meetings, partners should have an ongoing presence in the schools by being involved in a range of school activities, attending functions or having office hours.

8. Be flexible. Partners in the Lead Peace learning service project had to respond to several events such as a homicide, school fights and a school closing. Lead Peace had an important research component to it and when one school closed, partners had to be flexible to accommodate newly transferred students into the program.

9. Share youth development orientation. All partners should share a philosophy that youth has the ability to lead and contribute. They should mobilize all their knowledge, expertise, relationships and resources to create opportunities for positive youth development.

10. Recognize other partners’ priorities. While all partners share the goal of serving youth and community, it’s important to recognize the distinctive mission each brings to this common goal. Schools are focused on academic and behavioral issues and have their own approach on behavioral and disciplinary matters. Community-based agencies need to accommodate academic testing dates and school calendars. Schools should recognize researchers’ needs to have access to parents and students for rigorous evaluation purposes.

“School leaders should allocate sufficient time to get to know organizations before inviting them to begin partnerships, learn more about an organization’s goals and time commitment, and how their resources will complement other school programming,” the authors write.

“Elements for Successful Collaboration Between K-8 School, Community Agency, and University Partners: The Lead Peace Partnership,” by Linda Bosma et al., Journal of School Health, October 2010, Volume 80, No. 10, pps. 501-507.

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