School & District Management Opinion

Becoming A Community School District

By Urban Education Contributor — May 17, 2018 4 min read
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In this post, Kendra Fehrer, Senior Research Associate from the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities (Gardner Center, @gardnercenter) talks with Ali Metzler, Community School Leadership Coordinator, from the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD, @OUSDNews) about partnership work on OUSD’s full service community schools initiative.

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: Partnership for Equity: Learning from Oakland’s Full Service Community Schools.

Oakland Unified School District (OUSD): When we embarked on the community schools work, we knew we couldn’t do it ourselves. We wanted someone who could be a long-term partner, who we could learn with together, who was an expert in the field of education and community schools, who could share best practices with us.

The Gardner Center is constantly sharing resources and links to the broader field and pushing us to lift out things that seem ordinary to us but, from your experience in the field, you know are unique. Our partnership helps us pause, reflect, do more analysis, which really helps with continuous learning. And lastly, the Gardner Center is so respected, having you as a neutral party really adds validity to what we’re doing. It can help us get in the door, even with our own principals and staff!

GC: How has this partnership with the Gardner Center been helpful? How has OUSD used the research?

OUSD: The first week I was in my role, I got handed our Theory of Change [System Strategy Map co-developed with the Gardner Center, found on page 5 here] and I thought, “Wow, this is beautiful!” The theory of change has really been a signpost that helps us keep moving, making incremental change, thinking about how our work will affect things 3, 5, 10 years from now. In the 2.5 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen so much more buy-in in what we’re doing, both nationally as well as in the district. The partnership has helped keep us on that trajectory, moving forward, growing, and evolving.

Related to that, I think that having the Gardner Center come in as someone neutral and external, to interview on our school sites, interview our teams, interview district leaders helps everyone pause and reflect on the work. It helps us have a common message for where we’re going. For example, in our work with school sites, our role with principals is often so operational: staffing, hiring, evaluating people, doing workshops... The Gardner Center’s time with them to help them reflect is really helpful.

The research briefs have really helped us articulate this work in a concise and intentional way that speaks to different audiences. For example, we use the briefs when we introduce the community schools work to prospective principals, we ask them to read the briefs as part of their application, to help reflect on the work we’ve done in Oakland, and articulate their vision for their own school. When we do our orientations with new full service community schools (FSCS) principals, we have them read the briefs to show the validity of what we’re doing. In our federal grant, we always highlight our partnership with the Gardner Center.

GC: What are some of the findings or research you’ve been most excited about?

OUSD: As a district, I think we’re great with quantitative data. The Gardner Center really helps us understand the deeper work on the school site and helps tell the story behind and beyond those numbers.

I’m also really excited about the teacher survey that we’re about to embark on [for this year’s study on teaching and learning in community schools]. I think it really reflects where we’ve wanted to go in our research, and we might not even be thinking about it without this partnership. Of course, we’d be thinking about our work with teachers, but we may not have the capacity to gather this kind of deep data. I think this is going to help us in our efforts around deeper impact, alignment, and accountability. I also think that with teachers, even just asking them those questions might have them reflect more deeply about their role in community schools.

GC: Reflecting on our partnership, what do you think has worked well? Any challenges?

OUSD: I think we work great together. I think we’re in sync about how we see things and complimentary in how to get the information we need. I think it’s worked out great. The Gardner Center understands Oakland, the context of our district, and you help us be more aware of what’s happening regionally and nationally. It helps us be less isolated in the work.

I also think the Gardner Center can push us more to see our gaps, asking us, “have you considered this? Are you thinking about that”? Also, here in the district we’re always so busy, moving at such a rapid pace, it can be hard to maximize our partnership. We’ve done great with the time we’ve had, so in the next phase, where can we take it to be even more powerful?

GC: Where do you see our joint work going in the future?

OUSD: The more we’re talking, the more I think I’d like the Gardner Center to work more closely with our data analyst. She’s relatively new to the department and is doing an amazing job, really changing and innovating our work with data dashboards. Pairing her with the Gardner Center would be amazing. She could give you direct access to things that I don’t have access to. And I think your work could help inform some of her dashboards with deeper purpose. Your knowledge of our district, where we’re headed, paired with someone who has access to that additional data would be really interesting. That would help us too. I also think we could go back to some of our family engagement work to go deeper, and also look at community schools within the context of some of our other new initiatives.

Photo courtesy of Oakland Unified School District (@OUSDNews #ousdcommunityschools)

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