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School Governance

If we could redraw governance and management in service of children at the local level, what might it look like?

We know that a majority of school children today come from low-income families, and we know that many of these children, along with their families, require additional supports if they are to have the opportunity to reach the middle class. Yet, over time, we have continued to maintain governance and service-delivery systems that look like they did decades, if not a century, ago. In each community there is a school board and a superintendent tasked with governing the local education system. Local school governance has neither a connection with—nor the authority to deliver—the needed social services, nor should they. The job of the schools is big enough. In those same communities are agencies and programs whose mission is to work with young people and their families to provide these much-needed supports. Rarely, though, have these organizations had the opportunity to collaborate with the education system.

Fortunately, the tide may be turning. We are working with a growing number of organizations that are creating school district and non-profit partnerships to provide students with a broader array of services. Among these are Tulsa City Schools, which is adopting a district-wide community schools model; Communities in Schools, which brings community support into schools in many cities; and a growing number of cities that have created afterschool networks to improve access to services.

However, the most ambitious effort to date has been developed by Say Yes to Education, a NY-based non-profit, and piloted in Buffalo and Syracuse. Those communities now provide a shining example of the active collaboration and mutual accountability for delivering what is needed to give children the opportunity they require to be successful in school and in life via the creation of shared a governance system. Say Yes combines the promise of a scholarship incentive with structures and processes that ensure sustainability and offers expert facilitation to redefine ownership and local governance.

The leaders in both of these communities, including non-profit providers and philanthropic organizations, meet regularly to iron out problems and to share accountability. In Syracuse, the county worked with the schools to co-locate mental health clinics and to provide family support specialists to work in schools. In Buffalo, family support specialists, mobile health clinics, and mental health clinics are in place throughout the system.

While this approach takes hard work and a great deal of trust among community leaders, many more communities would benefit greatly by adopting this approach.

Note that this does not relieve schools of their accountability to educate all children to their highest potential. It does mean that partnerships are driven by a shared commitment to ensure that the academic, social emotional, and health needs of students are met so that all students are post-secondary ready. It also becomes essential that actions like the election of school board members, mayors, and other local officials, as well as the selection of school superintendents, take on new meaning and that communities need to consider the election of all public officials in a new light.

In this day and age in which fiscal austerity is ever more important, a community that mobilizes in this fashion should see economies emerge as public investments are coordinated and focused and as children become the beneficiaries of this focus.

In the coming years, Say Yes to Education will be selecting new communities in which this shared governance model will be initiated. Tracking and documenting this expansion will give us many insights into the efficacy of this approach so that other communities will learn from what Say Yes pioneers.

There is a terrific case study on the Say Yes to Education strategy commissioned by Grantmakers for Education. It can be accessed here.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross