A Unique Partnership Helping Schools Meet Greater Challenges

The Issue

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Educators across the country know that the landscape of education has been changing with a much higher degree and more specifically defined level of accountability.  Public school districts now have the ability, through state-mandated student assessment systems along with district-determined assessment systems, to monitor each student’s progress on numerous indicators.  Growth for all students is no longer simply the goal; it is the expectation held by all in the school system and the community at large. There is no change seen in the near future reducing the amount of accountability for schools, nor will the expectations to support the whole child be reduced as we see more school districts supporting increasingly diverse student needs. School districts must continue to plan to meet these challenges.

What we know

Public school districts have the responsibility to uphold the tenets of IDEA, providing students with educational programs in the least restrictive educational environment.  However, many districts are faced with shrinking budgets due to an economy that may not have rebounded to the level before the downturn in 2008.  Declining enrollment in some communities also means reduced state aid.  Conversely, supporting students with comprehensive disabilities is becoming more expensive.  Generally, public school districts do not have the specialized personnel to support some of their neediest students.  Districts may have faced staff reductions, or districts may have never employed staff with the unique qualifications needed due to the very small percentage of students needing the services.  This means that school districts must seek outside help either through contracted services or an out-of-district placement for specific students.

What we don’t know (or do not see often)

Creating a partnership between a public school district and a private school, like a school for the deaf, has been proven to provide a successful way for both institutions to meet the challenges each faces and provide benefits to students in both institutions.  There are few partnerships like this across the United States, but the few that exist have been successful in meeting many of the challenges faced by each institution.  Traditional governing bodies for public school districts may initially challenge this type of unique partnership because it is new and different.  In such a partnership, it is useful to create a joint committee with members from each organization including school committee members from the public district and board members from the private school to oversee and govern the partnership.  A process for consistent and in-depth communication must be developed at all levels of the partnership so that challenges are quickly identified and solved together.  District administrators, building administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors must closely with the administrators, counselors, and teachers from the private school in order to plan, schedule, and implement programming for students.  The communication must be outlined and structured so that employees from each institution know to whom to go with questions and issues.

Implications

The immediate advantage of such a unique partnership is the increase of services that each institution can offer students.  The public school has access to specially-trained educators who can support students in the public school district and provide professional development to public school staff when needed.  The professional development is easier to schedule, to access by educators, and more consistent.  Staff members from each institution have more professional development opportunities. The private school now has the use of more facilities in the public district and can provide its students with more diverse educational opportunities both academically and extra-curricularly.  An agreement can be drafted on how and when the private school uses the facilities in the public district.  This agreement can include a fee or a lease for the use of the facilities, creating a possible needed revenue stream for the public district along with the utilization of spaces that may have gone unused due to shrinking enrollment.

Most importantly, both institutions, through the partnership, have the ability to meet more student needs, experience cost savings, and provide the opportunity of more diverse growth for students.  The goal is to allow students to experience more of their educational programming in mainstream classes with support.  As students in the private school become more independent in their learning, they have the opportunity to participate in programming in the public district.

The greatest benefit may be intangible.  Students in both institutions develop expanded social skills and a greater understanding of diversity and individual differences over the years of attending class together.   This experience helps create a more welcoming and collaborative culture for all.

Posted on Oct 20, 2015 by
Gordon C. Smith
Superintendent of Schools
East Longmeadow (MA) Public Schools
gordon.smith {at} eastlongmeadowma.gov

Further reading