Exceeding Needs Through a Partnership Perspective
As a coordinator of science for a number of districts in the northern suburbs of New York City, I have the opportunity to work with schools with a tremendous array of needs. For some, finances are the primary culprit in educational challenges they face. In others, high populations of language learners or mobile student populations make it difficult to provide for each and every student. In still other cases, a combination of factors makes meeting student needs an uphill battle.
What's the common denominator? That every district, especially in today's educational climate, is facing drastic challenges. What's different is how districts and schools are dealing with those challenges. Are they embracing and working through them? Or are they brushed under the carpet, in hopes that "magical thinking" will take care of everything?
Richard J. Bailey School, a 4–6 grade building that is part of Greenburgh Central School District 7, is a school that has not only learned how to identify and understand its needs but has seen the benefit of approaching these needs from a "partnership perspective" as well. The population of R. J. Bailey is diverse both culturally and from a socioeconomic standpoint. Nearly 10 percent of the student population has a limited English proficiency, and slightly less than half receive free or reduced price lunch. These data, paired with the added challenge of a 2 percent tax cap in New York State, pose multiple challenges to meeting state aid for districts like Greenburgh Central 7. Happily, though, R. J. Bailey wasn't (and isn't) willing to "roll with the punches." Instead, through innovative partnership generation, the school has been able to go from worrying deeply about all needs, to meeting and exceeding many of them.
It Starts with an Idea
Marge Clarkson, principal of R. J. Bailey, believes in an important educational philosophy, "What we've known all along works for students; we can't afford to lose sight of this." One of the "knowns" that Clarkson is referring to is the importance of making learning relevant for students. A number of years ago, Clarkson received a phone call from a representative from the Dannon Corporation, located a few hundred feet down the road from Bailey. "Dannon called inquiring about the ability to do some outreach in our school," Clarkson told me. "It started with a simple visit from some of their IT staff to help students build and design presentations."
What students and teachers soon realized was that the bond formed between the Dannon representatives and the school was exceptional. "Students from Bailey and the IT staff realized that they were speaking the same language when it came to discussing their presentations," Clarkson said. "This was the start of a wonderful 'Good Neighbor' partnership design."
Since the very first visit by the IT staff, Dannon and R. J. Bailey have expanded their partnership to focus on something Dannon knows quite a bit about: food choices and health. With one of Dannon's tenets being healthy living, the school and Dannon worked together to secure funding for changes to the school cafeteria and food selection. "Students were asking for healthier options during lunch," Clarkson stated. "But we just didn't have the resources to make some of the modifications necessary to provide our students with the food choices they wanted." Through student-generated research and planning between both partners, Bailey was able to secure open-air refrigerators that allowed them to incorporate healthier choices into menus, all based on student feedback. Since beginning their partnership a few years ago, Dannon has helped R. J. Bailey add a climbing wall, a sprint track, and—during a holiday season when many community members were being deeply hurt by the recession—the company provided every student with a gift: a sled to be used for fun in the winter outdoors. "You could feel the love for the school and the community that had truly been cultivated in Dannon," Clarkson told me as she reminisced. "This partnership has made our school, their business, and the community-at-large, much richer." The benefits of the Dannon partnership helped solidify an idea in Clarkson's mind: If partnerships could allow needs not only to be met but exceeded, why not develop these further?
Partnerships as Far as the Eye Can See
Since the initial pairing with Dannon, R. J. Bailey has reached out and secured partnerships with the Town of Greenburgh, Americorps, Manhattanville College, and the NFL, to name a few. Each of these partnerships brings something different to Bailey and the Greenburgh Central 7 community, and each allows for students to be safe, healthy, engaged, supported, and challenged, the key tenets of the Whole Child Initiative. For instance, in a continuing partnership with the town, Bailey has worked with the Greenburgh Nature Center to explore environmental changes and sustainability. The nature center wanted to encourage mulching in the community and, through a program with Bailey, taught students the steps involved in the process and how to provide evidence on its benefits. The center also gave students an overview of the importance of understanding our carbon footprint. Bailey students, in turn, shared this information with family and friends. This experience led to an increase in mulching throughout the town, with requests pouring in to the nature center for more information and mulching products. A partnership with the Theodore Young Community Center has resulted in a closer relationship with the town. The community center will even be sponsoring a student from the town in the Scripps National Spelling Bee!
Through a Professional Development School (PDS) partnership with Manhattanville College, Greenburgh Central 7 works with preservice teachers and education professors up to three days per week to explore learning opportunities with students. In addition, Manhattanville holds college-level classes within the Bailey school building, and during the year, students visit the Manhattanville campus. The ability to visit a college campus has provided students with a desire to strive for higher education and helps students see the importance of being a student throughout life.
In working with AmeriCorps, R. J. Bailey has found a wonderful resource for positive role models for students. Volunteers come from different backgrounds and fields, providing students with exposure to the world around them. "People are so busy," stated Clarkson. "Any opportunity to build relationships and encourage human contact is so important. Engaging with others isn't an option, it's a true need."
Finally, in a partnership with the NFL and its Play60 program, Bailey had the opportunity to meet with a player from the NFL, who visited the school and worked with students and staff to encourage healthy eating and living. Getting to meet a sports star and hear his story proved very rewarding for students and encouraged them to keep not only their minds healthy but their bodies as well.
An Atmosphere to Support the Whole Child and Whole Learner
As an educator who has visited Bailey a few times over the last few years, I can speak to the positive vibe that emanates from the building. Clarkson attributes a portion of this to the partnerships formed. "These partnerships provide more than financial resources," she emphasized. "They show students that the world outside is truly interested in what they do with their lives, and they give teachers the opportunity to take on multiple roles in the building, from partnership leaders to data gatherers." To go beyond just meeting needs, Clarkson encourages all schools to build connections within the surrounding community. National organizations like AmeriCorps and the NFL are a phone call or e-mail away, and villages and towns across the country are always looking to build relationships within the districts in their boundaries.
"You just have to reach out," Clarkson told me. Though that first step can sometimes be difficult, judging by the impact these connections have had on the Bailey community, keeping a "partnership perspective" is something that all educators must be sure to do.
New York State Education Department. (2011). Greenburgh Central School District report card. Retrieved from https://reportcards.nysed.gov/files/2010-11/AOR-2011-660407060000.pdf
Fred Ende is the director of SCIENCE 21 and currently serves as regional science coordinator for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES. A 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader, he shares his thoughts on his blog, ASCD EDge®, and SmartBlogs on Education. Connect with Ende on Twitter @fredende.