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Building Powerful School/Community Partnerships

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    Ben Smith

An Interview with The Springfield Renaissance School Principal, Stephen Mahoney

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit dow with Steve Mahoney, principal of the Springfield Renaissance School.

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Renaissance is an EL Mentor School in downtown Springfield that is getting every student into college. Among the many things they do well is build partnerships in the community that provide Renaissance students with unique opportunities and the ability to get smart to do good.

Here's how Steve Mahoney does it:

How do you build community partnerships?

I think that the best principals have a lot of entrepreneur in them. When they see an opportunity, they run want to run with it. One great example of this is that we have this partnership with the University of Massachusetts and their clinical intern teaching project. Over six years, we’ve had over two dozen clinical teaching interns working here at the school for 180 days, for free, supplementing our professional staff. This was a program I knew I wanted in my school because it fit with our model and mission. So I just birddogged the director of the program to get it. I explained to her what we’re trying to do and how it could benefit UMass. I think you always want to say, “Here’s what you can gain from this.”

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Being successful is also important. People want to be a part of something that is successful. They’re hungry for good news about kids. If you are not afraid to speak to peoples’ better angels, and say, “This is going to be good for the heart, good for our community.” People will step up; they want to do the right thing.The other piece is having a school that welcomes people and is willing to be honest and transparent about what we can and cannot do, what’s messy and what isn’t messy. And not being afraid or embarrassed when things don’t go as perfectly as you would want them. Like in a lot of Expeditionary Learning, it’s all about the relationships.

Where do you find good quality partnerships?

Either a need forces you to look or the opportunity presents itself. And I would say, for Renaissance, in most cases the opportunity presented itself. Partly, it is about being open to opportunities and being smart about how to use them. I don’t have one formula, but putting yourself out there a lot is important. You want to be the person that community members call when they have an opportunity. You want to be on their mental list so that you get that call. Meg (Campbell, Executive Director of Codman Academy in Dorchester, MA) has been in that part of the city for years now; she is on that short list. When people think of collaborating with a school, they think, “Meg Campbell -- I know where she is and I know that she’ll deliver.” And it’s the same for us back here in Springfield.

What are the qualities of a good partnership?

A partnership needs clear and specific deliverables and an explicit understanding of how to make it a win/win. For both parties, having dedicated liaisons or people who work with one another is fundamental.

Partnerships should be aligned with the mission of the school as well. If someone wants to come in and do a dental thing…or acrobatics…or tai kwon do, you have to ask yourself if those things are going to move us forward as a school. Is it moving forward in a critical way or a tangential way? If it is not critical, you have to say, “No,” or, “Not now,” or, “Not yet.”

What are the challenges?

The flipside of what I was saying earlier is saying no. Everyone’s got a good idea and if you took every good idea, you’d be a mess. I think simple is better. Start small. One of the challenges is just to say no, and keep your eye on the ball.

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Another challenge is that when you collaborate with folks from the adult world, you need to reorient them to the world of schools. You and I are having a conversation, and I hear that I’m needed to go to a classroom, I have to get up and go to the classroom. Unless they are coming from the world of hospitals, they are not used to that type of pace...so getting people used to the pace of the school is vital.

What is an example of a project that Springfield Renaissance did that would not have been possible without a partner?

Our first really well executed learning expedition was a water-quality expedition on Loon Pond, which had been closed for years. Not only did the students analyze water samples to check for pollution, they made very concrete suggestions about fixing drainage issues in the parking lot to prevent future pollution. The kids presented their findings to the Mayor and the Director of Parks and Recreation. The students didn’t know it going in, but it was their water quality analysis that provided the data that said the pond was ready for swimming again and led to the city investing a good chunk of money, something like $30,000, to reopen the pond.

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None of this would have been possible if we didn’t have this team of city employees, university teachers, and private contractors to help train the kids, provide some of the equipment, and legitimize the kids’ findings. And that was the moment where a lot of things clicked for these fourteen year-old kids: “We’re at this different kind of school, and we’re doing things that fourteen year-olds don’t do on a normal basis. Other fourteen year-olds in the city are sitting in a classroom doing practice problems out of a textbook, and studying for Friday’s test. And we are doing this important work. When we drive by this place, we can tell whomever we’re in the car with, ‘Yeah, we helped open that pond.’” And I think that established an expectation and a sense in the school culture that this was what learning could be about.

What is the most important thing to remember about forming community partnerships?

When we are asking people for help, we are giving them an opportunity to do something that is different and maybe more meaningful than their normal workday. Most people, at the end of the day, can’t go home and say they’ve done something to make the world better. There is something about lifting up another human being that is a precious gift that we get. So when we invite people into our schools, we are giving them an opportunity to get some of that. For all the conflict and strife and frustration that we have, there’s no sweeter rasa than lifting up someone and seeing the lights turn on. And if we do it right, when they leave here, they’ve gotten way more than they’ve given us.

What works in your school? Leave a comment and tell us your story.