Collaborating with Local Schools
Resources for Building Partnerships
By Mary A. Brumbach and Kathleen K. Ridenour

From the February 2003

Relationships between elementary/secondary schools and colleges and universities can be beneficial for both groups, but only when there is respect for the skills, contributions, and needs of everyone involved.

It is no surprise to anyone afflicted by the latest innovation adopted at the upper levels of an institution and mandated for acceptance that most such efforts eventually fail for lack of involvement or valuing by those required to implement the change. Similarly, many school-college collaborations have been destroyed when the college experts have tried to instill their will or ideas on the schools without any real input from those who do the day-to-day work - classroom teachers.

A successful K-12-college relationship is built by finding ways to use the expertise, knowledge, and support of classroom instructors in the pursuit of meaningful partnerships and by helping those instructors find funding resources.

Who Benefits From School-College Connections?

School-college collaboration can lead to better-prepared students for the college, of course. The relationships can also aid high school student recruitment and may even help recruit some of their parents.

Students are exposed to new and different resources beyond the reach of most public schools. For first-generation college prospects, just the realization that there is a world beyond high school may be a revelation. Others, aware of college but on limited and limiting budgets, have the opportunity to jump-start college credits and get a tremendous advantage. Having college personnel on their elementary and secondary school campuses can also give students the opportunity to ask questions and seek out new educational and career opportunities.

K-12 classroom teachers, beset with constraints of large class sizes, mounting student performance expectations, student skill deficiencies in critical areas, the demands of mainstreaming of all students without adequate support systems, can find that well-planned college collaboration is a blessing. Opportunities for professional development, exposure to new techniques and technology, developing professional relationships and knowing expectations of college instructors for student competencies are but a few. Teachers who may not have the time, energy, or contacts to seek out assistance on their own can access it easily.

School-college collaborations also can help create mutually beneficial ties for program development and professional development for classroom teaches and their college faculty peers.

Critical Factors to Consider Before Beginning Partnerships

There are a number of factors to consider in initiating and expanding school-college partnerships. It may be obvious, but it bears repeating: K-12 schools and colleges are not alike. K-12 schools serve a different function, are universal, and not a voluntary choice (usually) for students. K-12 schools tend to be more hierarchical than individual colleges, with larger infrastructure and more layers of approval. The schools also have even greater public accountability with more political issues, and are governed by more regulations.

The relationship between K-12 schools and partner colleges should be similar to the relationship a college has with its donors: You need to match interest with opportunity. Again, as with a donor, avoid arriving just asking for assistance. Build on existing relationships and be certain that the people in your college who are working with the schools for recruitment or in other ways are kept informed of projects that may be developing.

You may be dealing with an entire district if it is small (such as a rural district) or with one or more schools if the district is large (such as an urban system). Find the key influential people in the school or district. It may be a deputy superintendent of instruction within a district, a principal at the school level, or the department head in a particular discipline or area of study, such as language arts. Sometimes it will be a very committed board member or the leadership of the parents' organization. Listening for real needs and issues, root causes vs. just symptoms, will yield better results.

And as with any good proposal process, let the solution be driven by the needs assessment and environment. Do not come armed with solutions for problems that aren't a real priority.

Where To Get Started

Just as no two colleges are alike, there are no templates for elementary and secondary schools. Each school has a distinct flavor and personality; various strengths and weaknesses; different configurations of administrators, teachers, and student groups; and distinctive communities that they serve. As often the very best leaders lead from within, the best avenues of help must either come from within the existing school structure or be aligned with the individual school's profile.

Do the homework! Talk to school personnel, meet the teachers, attend school functions, offer to help with local fundraising events. Look at bus routes and time spent on buses by individual children. Check to see if there is transportation available or even possible for after hours programs and special events. What are the school hours of operation? Are elementary, middle, and high schools on the same schedule? Do they share buses on dual routes? The implications for a school district's teachers' work schedules to be different at different levels may effect teacher participation in what is offered by the college.

Listen for the names of teachers who people continuously comment on as being helpful, supportive, innovative, and strong. Find out if parents work closely with the school. Are there organized volunteer groups?

Armed with basic knowledge about a school, be prepared to ask what is needed. Ask teachers about interest in a project in terms of benefits to a classroom. Do not assume that because a project is a great idea that it will be beneficial to students. There are crammed-full closets and bookshelves laden with unused pieces of inspired projects that have been envisioned by someone outside a classroom and presented in good faith. Always ask.

Basic information you should have about the prospect includes demographics (often available from the district's website) and educational philosophy and approach (watch for team emphasis, classical, etc). Gather information from state and local performance reports. Are there areas of deficiency that funding could address? Some that come to mind are K-3 reading skills, appropriate use of technology, mainstreamed students with learning or physical disabilities, or language barriers.

Be sure that contacts with individual schools have blessing somewhere in the district hierarchy; there probably needs to be a CEO to CEO contact from the college president to the school superintendent who is running, often, a much larger entity than the college. A single point of contact for school inquiries is important so that requests are handled efficiently and without conflicts. If a number of schools or districts are involved, then a liaison for each may be necessary.

Remember that the public school teacher is constantly bombarded with expectations and suggestions concerning student outcome, classroom management, and teaching content. Having a knowledgeable, respected individual make the first contact with school officials as well as with the teachers will go a long way toward building collegiality. Mutual respect is important cement in the collaborative bridge between schools and colleges.

Every school should have stated goals and benchmarks for achieving those goals. Ask principals and teachers what would be helpful in the day-to-day operation. Be specific with your questions and specific with what you offer, and then be ready to be flexible. For example, if a certain reading level competency at third grade is an unmet goal, dovetail what you offer to help students reach that goal. Look for specific problem areas that can be addressed. It is overwhelming and depressing to have systemic change offered when one area needs immediate attention.

Read the school's mission statement. Find out what the faculty and administration of the school say they believe about students' education and lifelong learning. Listen to what teachers and principals are really saying in answer to your queries. Align funding possibilities with the district's stated goals and needs.

Some Thoughts on Strategies

  • Start Small: Suggest a clearly identified need; don't propose systemic change.
  • Build Capacity: Share funding announcements, offer brief grant writing sessions, work with the local school principal and team leaders (but all with the blessing of the school district).
  • Act Quickly: Sometimes the process will start from the district to the college; be prepared to act quickly for letters of commitment and information needs.
  • Take a Long-Range View: Plan to be involved for a long time. Emphasize the long-range view over short-range wins.
  • Establish a Grant Team: The team should include a researcher or librarian, a writer, a proofreader, and a typist or word processor.

Where the Money Is: A Brief Summary

Direct funding to schools is lodged in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education . Among the programs are the Community Learning Centers, Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, and Eisenhower Programs. The Eisenhower National Clearing House is an enormously rich resource for K-12 math and science educators. It includes a wide variety of teaching materials, lesson plans, contacts, and sources for curriculum as well as links to other important sites.

The National Science Foundation funds several teacher enhancement programs through its Division of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education . Less obvious sources are the Rural Utilities Services in the Department of Agriculture , which funds distance learning equipment; and the National Endowment for the Humanities Education Development and Demonstration.

Private sources supporting public schools are abundant, with many of them local foundations or branches of local stores for major companies. Target/Dayton Hudson, for example, funds arts related projects at the local level. Dollar General (well known in rural and lower income neighborhoods) also funds K-12 projects. Others worth researching are the American Library Association's "Live at the Library Grants", which bring in performers and authors to local libraries. Intel, Bayer, Textron, AT&T, Verizon, and Wal-Mart also all have K-12 initiatives.

One of the more interesting projects is the Wallace-Reader's Digest "Ventures in Leadership," targeted for improving the skills and performance of public school administrators.

Of course, the usual rules apply when seeking private funds:

  • Corporations give to their communities, to enhance quality of life and create a good name.
  • They tend to fund within their "product lines," such as math/science or information technology.
  • Local funds are often determined by local contributions committees; some require volunteer connections and some enhance the giving opportunity through matching if an employee is also a volunteer.

Continuing Issues for Schools

The challenges facing public schools are myriad and varied by location. Chief among them are these 10 broad areas of concern:

  • Recruiting and retaining skilled teachers who can adapt to changing student needs.
  • Retaining students, particularly at the critical middle school stage.
  • Dealing with overage students as social promotion ends in many areas.
  • Developing and strengthening leadership and management in schools as more site-based management programs are implemented.
  • Coping with increased accountability, constant scrutiny, and a continuing emphasis on testing.
  • Changing populations with greater diversity of student, culture, and language.
  • Encouraging and sustaining meaningful involvement by parents in the work of the school.
  • Providing technology support for learning, both at the individual student and classroom levels.
  • Securing appropriately trained individuals to take care of the technology that may, given the fluctuations of funding, include many different platforms and manufacturers.
  • Coping with the social service demands of today's school population with grandparents raising grand children, abusive situations, and low expectations from parents and families.

Solutions and support for resolution of any one of the preceding issues, framed appropriately by the college and developed in tandem with public school personnel, will have a far reaching impact on the college and its service area.

Useful Sites to Explore

Mary A. Brumbach is vice president of resource and economic development at Brookhaven College, Contact her at

Brookhaven College, part of the Dallas County Community College District, has a long-term partnership with the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District. Called Professional Pathways, the program sponsored K-12 career awareness events, runs a medical and teaching academy, provides tutoring, and funds outreach and career development programs and scholarships.

Kathleen K. Ridenour is a team leader at Sheridan Middle School in Thornville, Ohio. Contact her at

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