Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Collaboration and the Calendar Invite: Building Trust through the Dreaded Meeting

Animosity between school districts and charter schools has been the norm since the nation’s first public charter school opened in 1992. In some cities, however, these deeply divided factions are now finding ways to come together to increase equitable access to schools; in a few cities, these partnerships have even helped to improve some of the schools themselves.

Why have these collaborations been attempted in a few dozen cities and not others? And of those attempts, why have some sustained progress while others have petered out?

Our research supports what others have found: that the conditions needed to initiate district-charter collaboration include someone to champion and lead the effort, the existence of complementary needs, and assets and goals that are shared or at least aligned. Initial trust between the sectors is also important. The more of these conditions a city has, the better the odds that collaboration can at least get off the ground. With encouragement and $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 23 cities with at least a few of these conditions in place have capitalized on the moment by signing district-charter collaboration compacts.

While an alignment of favorable conditions has helped spur conversations, the strength and the curse of sustaining district-charter collaborations, like any collaborative endeavor, is its reliance on relationships. When the relationships are strong and mutual trust exists, people can find common ground and work together to make things can happen.

But relationships alone are not enough. People must have something to show for the time they spend together or they will (and should) take what little time they have and spend it elsewhere. Although innumerable factors influence the outcome of these efforts, they cannot succeed without a vehicle to both engender trust and drive traction. For good or ill, the most effective vehicle for both is the dreaded meeting.

CRPE researchers have followed and provided support for these cities’ collaboration efforts for almost five years. We have seen how some cities have made dramatic progress and others have made almost none. In trying to understand what makes collaborations tick, we have attended meetings in several cities across the country, and here is what we’ve learned:

  1. Meetings need to happen.
    Most compact cities, including Denver, Sacramento, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, committed to and scheduled regular meetings with district and charter leaders. Some cities initially held meetings, but stopped when tensions surfaced and priorities shifted. But meetings can take different forms. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the then-district superintendent was not deterred when charter leaders stopped attending larger meetings. She simply approached each leader directly and met with them one-on-one, and progress continued.
  2. Meetings must be productive.
    In several cities, leaders ensured that key decision-makers were on the invite list and that there were clear goals for each gathering. Chicago’s Andrew Broy, who leads the Illinois Charter School Network, helped draft and drive meeting agendas in concert with leadership from Chicago Public Schools. The meeting playbook was based on their Compact document, which maps out specific goals, assigning responsibilities and accountability to all participants. Chicago’s collaboration stacked up impressive wins—all in the midst of one of the most polarized political climates of any compact city. Some cities, including Cleveland, San Jose (Franklin-McKinley Independent School District), and Boston, hired outside facilitators. These neutral third-party players not only handle the drudgery of logistics (meeting location, calendar invites), they keep parties on track by gently holding them accountable with reminders of goals and commitments.
  3. Meetings must allow for trusting relationships to form.
    While the odds that a meeting is productive increase with planning, facilitators can’t anticipate all the issues that may be lurking beneath the surface. Meetings can be an opportunity to work through common issues to build trust. In the early stages of collaboration in Cleveland, frustrations between both sectors emerged around the issue of aggressive student and teacher recruiting tactics. Although not officially on the agenda, the executive team convened a special meeting to work out standards for acceptable recruitment tactics. This removed a roadblock to collaboration, and developed better communication among members of the Cleveland Compact. Similarly, during a meeting in Boston the district informally shared a vexing challenge: the state law requiring the district to provide transportation to all schools, including charter schools, was breaking the bank. They did not ask for help from charter schools, but were simply sharing a challenge. Charter leaders were moved enough to voluntarily shift their bell times, saving the district over a million dollars by one estimate.

We all know the pain and time drain of the poorly run meeting, but when done well they provide us with a way get to know each other and tap in to the power of the personal connection. Compact collaborators have an advantage given the shared passion for educating children and a common allegiance to their home city. When these connections are made, deepened, and put to work, we move a little closer to what we all want: better schools and happier families.