• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D., and Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2002 • Josie CortezDr. Albert Cortez

What is collaboration? Why is it an important alternative to changing schools? Who should be involved? Who are principle stakeholders and what roles can or should they play in a local educational reform process? These and many other questions were at the forefront of a Ford Foundation effort designed to bring about systemic educational reform in a selected number of communities around the country.

Project ACCESS, a collaboration involving six organizations based in San Antonio, was one of the projects selected for funding. This article traces some of the collaborative’s early work, and includes descriptions of major activities undertaken to date and significant insights that may be useful to others considering a collaborative approach for implementing an education reform model.

In the spring of 1998, the Ford Foundation began a major 10-year initiative – the Collaborating for Educational Reform Initiative (CERI) – to increase the number of minority students achieving academic success from pre-kindergarten through college graduation. Eight communities around the country, including San Antonio, were awarded grants to form broad collaboratives to achieve this goal in their communities.

The San Antonio collaborative is comprised of six organizations:

  • Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA),
  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund,
  • University of Texas at San Antonio,
  • Alamo Community College District,
  • San Antonio Independent School District (ISD), and
  • Communities Organized for Public Services.

Originally, the Ford Foundation invited the six groups separately to submit proposals for planning grants for CERI. Yet, clearly the foundation was interested in greater impact through collaborative approaches to local educational reforms. The active support of leaders of each local organization was considered crucial for ensuring both the short- and long-term viability of the project. With the goal of significant impact in our community, the six organizations came together to collaborate instead of compete.

The Collaborative’s Vision

In the initial discussions, the collaborating organizations identified critical issues and barriers to access for local students to complete high school, successfully transition into college, and persist in post-secondary schools through graduation. Representatives also considered what they might contribute to a local education reform effort that would use a collaborative approach to change specific aspects of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education as well as targeted post-secondary operations.

They developed the planning grant application submitted to the foundation. The goal of the planning grant as outlined in the proposal was to: “Develop a strategic plan for a seamless system of support for families and educators, such that students experience educational success as they move through the kindergarten through college educational pipeline and into the workplace.”

The group would hold a number of information-gathering and decision-making sessions over the course of the planning period. Topics of discussion included assessing factors that impacted the extent of successful student transitions through all levels of the educational pipeline, particularly those transitions at the elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to college levels.
The group would explore strategies for more engagement by parents, school personnel and college staff in supporting student success at the various levels.

Participants would research strategies to develop local parent, teacher and student leadership that would help promote and sustain reforms.

They would assess professional development efforts that would be required to initiate and sustain the specific reforms envisioned by the project during the subsequent implementation phases.

They also would design the types of curricula and program alignments needed to create a seamless system of educational support.

To achieve these ends, the collaborative – first named Seamless Support for Educational Success – outlined four objectives for the planning year. These objectives follow.

  • Develop a network of parent, student and community leaders to identify barriers to academic success and create a plan for improved parent and community involvement.
  • Develop a network of school district and higher education faculty and administrators to identify barriers to student academic success and create a two- year professional development plan for all involved campuses.
  • Establish structures for communication and support systems between and across the providers (teachers, administrators, and university student service providers) and their clients (students and parents).
  • Define policy issues within four areas of focus (access to services, public engagement, school-university connections, and in-service and pre-service teacher training) to better equip schools and universities for the challenges of growing student diversity.

The collaborating organizations chose to designate IDRA as the lead organization and fiscal agent for the collaborative. The planning grant budget would be allocated across the collaborating organizations in amounts proportionate to their level of involvement. This approach proved to be essential to the continuing engagement and commitment of the six entities involved in the effort.

Official Planning Stage Begins

In August of 1999, the Ford Foundation selected the San Antonio collaborative as one of the invited city applicants to receive planning grant funds under the foundation’s CERI initiative. The planning grant informed the development of a full-fledged implementation effort and outlined the specific roles that each of the collaborating organizations would take in that developmental effort.

Capitalizing on each organization’s unique strengths, the collaboration divided its efforts across five distinct workgroups, each led by one of the collaborating organizations. Each workgroup designated a lead person who became the workgroup liaison to a coordinating committee, which ensured consistency and alignment across the various efforts proposed.

The workgroups were organized around the major themes outlined in the planning grant application:

  • School-to-school workgroup – focused on coordinating transition issues within the pre-kindergarten to 12th grade system.
  • School-to-college workgroup – concentrated on communication, alignment and coordination issues across the school levels.
  • School-to-work workgroup – examined issues related to strengthening connections between schools and community colleges and business and community.
  • Parent and community engagement workgroup – focused on strategies for more meaningfully including parents and community members in all levels of school decision making.
  • Policy workgroup – helped identify local, state and national policy issues that supported or hindered successful student transitions and high school and college graduation.

The workgroups convened a series of meetings over the planning year gathering input not only from their own institutions, but also from parent, community and student representatives. They identified major obstacles and developed strategies that addressed the problems identified in each of the major areas. Planning work also included convening focus groups of parents and students in high school and college who were asked to share their perspectives of major barriers to student educational successes and possible reforms needed to help address the shortcomings they had identified.

Following months of workgroup meetings and coordination committee deliberations, the collaborating organizations designated a sub-group of members from the various committees to develop the implementation proposal. Critical to the process were the synthesis and convergence of the initiatives proposed by the various workgroups and the development of a budget that appropriately allocated resources across the various tasks. Commensurate with those discussions was the designation of the lead organization – IDRA – which continued primary responsibility for efforts in specific areas and the corresponding budget allocations required to support those efforts.

Implementation Phase Begins

In July of 2000, the Ford Foundation advised IDRA that the San Antonio collaborative – renamed Project ACCESS (Academic and Community Collaborative Ensuring Student Success) – was one of the collaboratives selected for implementation funding for two years. Ford Foundation funding continued for another year in 2001 with a new emphasis on scaling up best practices for institutionalization and sustainability.

Project ACCESS is an evolving model of institutional engagement with educators, communities and families becoming pro-actively involved in improving student achievement and increasing college enrollment and completion rates.

As we begin this third year of implementation, Project ACCESS’ six collaborating partners continue their commitment to significant systemic reform through school alignment, professional development, support for school-to-school and school-to-college transitions, community engagement and systematic policy review and reform.

Over time, the collaborative refined Project ACCESS’ shared vision which drives the effort: “Students and families will be supported by a seamless network of systems from school-age through college graduation resulting in economically self-sufficient, professionally competent and responsible citizens. Students will achieve above state and national standards, exhibit personal growth, and serve others.”

The partners are working toward a common understanding and consensus on the third year’s plan of action, based on projected impact, for example what activities will yield the greatest impact for the greatest number of students this year?

In addition to the team meetings, the chief executive officers of each organization convene on a quarterly basis. This is an important mechanism for engaging the organizations at the highest levels, providing opportunities for further leveraging of resources and intellectual capital.

Also factoring into the third-year plan is a set of “elements of success” that the foundation provided to the CERI sites in July 2001. These elements are based on CERI premises that “large-scale, sustainable and measurable improvements in the quality of urban schools can take place when key educational reform stakeholders collaborate toward a locally-determined and shared vision for improving student experiences and outcomes by engaging in strategies at multiple levels (classroom, school, cluster, district and state).”

With all of this in mind, the collaborative has concentrated on activities that will provide opportunities for scaling up and sustainability with a focus on alignment or “vertical teaming” with a “school-within-a-school” concept beginning with the Burbank cluster of schools in San Antonio ISD. Within each cluster, a cohort of teachers stewards a cohort of students, ensuring easy and safe transitions from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, high school and college, and throughout college.

The use of data to inform decision-making has also been a focus for the ACCESS partners. For the first time, the school district has been using interim assessments to inform curriculum and instruction. New efforts are underway to critically analyze the transition point between high school graduation and college enrollment. Campus-based activities – such as “Adopt-A-Hallway,” which increases college visibility and awareness – have increased this fall semester with more planned for the spring semester.

Lessons Learned Thus Far

Throughout the planning and implementation phases, the collaborative has identified and used lessons learned to fine-tune its efforts in each subsequent phase of the collaboration. A major insight obtained during the planning was that creation of a successful working collaborative requires clarity of intent, extensive communication among all partners, persistence, and nurturing high levels of trust across organizations involved.

Clarity of intent means not only in terms of the goals and objectives of the project, but also in the collaborative’s intention to create long-term inter-relationships. This was one of the pillars of the Ford Foundation effort. Extensive communication across the collaborating organizations and the various workgroups was essential to keeping everyone informed and all activities aligned. More importantly, the communication nurtured the development and strengthening of bonds across groups. Creating and sustaining trust across very capable, yet distinct entities served as the mortar for the building of the ACCESS collaborative.

This trust became essential in the process of breaking out the planning activities across the six partnering organizations. It was particularly important in crafting a budget that was not equally distributed across groups, but tied to the level of activities that each organization volunteered to undertake or coordinate.

Through it all, participating organizations have been willing to persist in a challenging process that does not lead to quick and neat conclusions, but sets the stage for long-term sustainable reforms.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Josie Cortez, M.A., is the IDRA production development coordinator. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2002 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]