Thinking Outside the School Building

Published apr. 04, 2012

In a March 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, writes:

Progress requires institutional change to reinvent not just products and services, not just organizations and industries, but entire interconnected systems.


As an example of one of those interconnected systems, she points to the Harlem Children’s Zone where a network of not-for-profit organizations are working together and leveraging resources across sectors to improve student outcomes in a 97-block area of Manhattan in New York City.

I must say that for those of us working with off-track and out-of-school students, this approach is not entirely new. Community-based organizations are used to tapping into community resources to serve students. CBOs know full well that to be successful, they need to go well beyond the school building and reach out to a range of critical partners including healthcare providers, religious institutions, law enforcement, courts, family members, and others to remove the multiple barriers their students face. The problem is that in the majority of community-based organizations, these efforts are still small in scale and limited in scope. And that’s why in my view Ms. Kanter’s assessment is particularly salient.

Successfully reaching beyond a school (or program) enables a school to build comprehensive and sustainable institutional relationships based on a common purpose, a commitment to continuous improvement, and mutual accountability; all areas of work focused on helping young people realize their life and career aspirations. There are several examples nationwide of community-based organizations and community colleges around the country forming partnerships to improve college retention and completion rates of first generation low-income students:

These strong school/program-community college partnerships are helping raise postsecondary completion rates for older youth and first-generation college goers. One key goal of these partnerships, I should add, is to create effective bridges to college to prepare not-quite-ready students for entry into college credit-bearing courses without the need for remediation.

This is a no-brainer strategy if you think about it because it draws from the strengths of both partnered institutions. CBOs are generally flexible in their programming and services, exist in neighborhoods where students and families live, and are therefore well positioned to provide the kinds of targeted supports students need to be successful in college. Community colleges on the other hand have access to expert faculty and curricula, and oftentimes strong relationships with the business community. The $64,000 question of course is: What makes a CBO-community college partnership stay successful?

There is no silver bullet, of course, but looking closely at these innovative programs suggests some key steps to building strong collaborations that result in student success:

  1. Seek partners and staff within institutions who share your mission and vision. Schools and programs, for example, want to make sure a postsecondary institution or specific postsecondary program within that institution is committed to serving first generation low-income students before entering into a partnership;
  2. Set clear goals and metrics for the partnership and periodically review them together to help you track progress and do course corrections; and (if each of these conditions are met)
  3. Commit resources to developing and sustaining the partnership for the long haul. Examples of needed resources are: staff time, shared office space, and supplies. Partners can do this by developing a joint fundraising plan and/or by redirecting existing resources from all sides to support the partnership.

To help you get started, here's a tool for planning CBO-community college partnerships from the Youth Development Institute. What successful partnerships have you seen—and what do you think is key to their success? Tweet @JFFtweets and let us know.