Professional Learning

What We’ve Learned About School Partnerships

If you’ve participated in conversations about inservice at NWP sites, you’ve heard something about partnerships. They most likely have been mentioned in wishful tones, as if to say, “Yes, we’d like one of those.” But what exactly is a partnership? What does it take to make one? And how does partnership work benefit a site?

Partnerships are described in the NWP Continued Funding Application as follows:

An NWP site often establishes partnerships with schools, school districts, or county offices as part of its inservice work. A partnership is a formal collaboration between a writing project site and a school or district that includes shared goal-setting, planning, and reflection/assessment with the intent to offer a variety of learning opportunities and a commitment to work together long-term (a year or more). A partnership normally includes the commitment of significant resources on the part of the participating school or district. Services that are offered by the site evolve over time and are responsive to the changing needs and status of the teachers and students in the school/district.

In 2004 the National Writing Project at Rutgers University (NJ) embarked on the partnership journey, and in the four years since then we have been exploring the nature and purpose of partnerships and discovered their value—both to our site and to the region it serves.

Our site is currently engaged in six partnerships with the area’s urban, suburban, and rural districts, and each of these partnerships has been individually negotiated, planned, monitored, and refined over time. The programming in each case has been collaboratively designed in response to the needs of the particular school, and may include a yearlong inservice series composed of half- and full-day workshops, a one- or two-week open institute, an off-campus graduate course, or study groups.

Here are some of the lessons we have learned, as identified by site director Kim Lanza.

Mandatory “One Shot” Inservice Doesn’t Work

In 2004, while a few of our teacher-consultants had offered one-shot workshops on demand, our site leaders realized the need for the site to have a sustained presence in schools. Our vision was to collaborate with teachers over time, in ways that would support not only improvement in the quality of instruction and student writing, but also the emergence of teacher leadership at our partnership schools.

By the time Newark Public Schools (NPS) came to us looking for an inservice provider for middle schools and high schools, we had learned the pitfalls of mandatory, one-shot workshops. We shared with our new partners how important it was to engage a voluntary cohort of teachers to participate in a series of workshops over time.

Flexibility and Adaptation Are the Keys to Partnership Success

The original NWP at Rutgers partnership model for working with Newark Public Schools middle and high school teachers consisted of four full days of work during the school year, but while that number has remained constant, our design for the work has evolved over the past four years.

Each year, drawing on feedback from participant evaluations and collaboration with our lead contact in NPS, we considered refinements for the next year. The first year we scheduled three demos per day and learned that the teachers were faced with too much information and not enough time to process it.

So in Year 2 we moved to two demos a day with a debriefing session in which the teacher-consultant presenters from the previous session returned to lead a sharing session and short activity.

Year 3 brought changes as well. We kept two demos per day, but we dedicated one hour per day to a project called “Follow One,” where each teacher followed one student over time, bringing in samples of the student’s work to analyze and discuss, also over time. This addition embedded our professional development work into the teachers’ practice.

Administrators Need to Be Kept in the Loop

As we planned for Year 4, our NPS contact/supervisor, frustrated by principals not providing release time for teachers to attend all of the sessions in a series, proposed that I go on the road, co-presenting with her the rationale and model of partnership work and the value of professional development. We shared the words of Newark teachers and the writing of Newark students.

The result: Year 4 brought even more support from NPS and more participants. To accommodate the needs of busy teachers, we continued to refine our model, offering a demo in the morning and study group in the afternoon to provide time for professional reading and writing as part of each session.

Openness to Change Is Essential

When Kristen Turner, our first inservice coordinator, suggested that we should have a facilitator who was present at every session, we didn’t get it. What would this extra person do while another teacher-consultant was presenting? Now we see the value of having a facilitator who attends all the sessions in a series: She knows the group and plans debriefing and closure activities. She gauges audience response and chimes in to clarify and redirect where necessary, and gives feedback to the presenting teacher-consultant in what we call a “demo memo.” And, perhaps most important, she builds a relationship with the cohort, identifying themes and making connections across sessions over time.

When Planning a Partnership, Teachers Need to Be Included

While our ideal vision of a partnership is highly collaborative, we were surprised by how difficult it was to get input and assistance from participating teachers in planning our partnership work. Our main contact at each school is often a language arts supervisor, but we want the teachers’ input about their needs, including the timing and format of the workshops. A recent sign of progress is that four of our six partnerships for 2008–09 include teachers contributing to the planning for the series.

Partnerships Benefit Sites as Well as Schools

In addition to forging relationships with teachers and administrators and raising the profile of NWP at Rutgers as a professional development provider, our partnership work with Newark Public Schools has helped us refine our understanding of our work and develop our leadership capacity.

As the partnership program has grown, we’ve developed a team of site coordinators who plan and, in most cases, facilitate all sessions of the series.

Teacher-Consultant Presenters Need Training

While these team members identify teacher-consultant presenters and schedule the series, we realized that coordinators don’t have time to work individually with these presenters to rehearse and refine their demonstrations.

Although we don’t want every workshop demonstration to be identical, we do want to ensure that essential elements we value are embedded in each demo. As a result, we have now designed a mandatory session each fall, supported by a stipend, in which teacher-consultants can refine their demos. Presenters for all six partnership sites come together on one day. We share the essential elements of effective demos and provide time for teacher-consultants to work in partner-school groups.

Two years ago, our teacher-consultant presenters and coordinators were often left on their own to figure out what they were supposed to say. Now, knowing how important it is for these presenters to have a sense of their audience and purpose, we make sure they come prepared with agendas and handouts, along with a clear sense of where their session fits in to the series and the overall professional development plan.

Reflection and Evaluation Are Necessary Components of a Successful Partnership

As the content and design of our work with partnership schools developed, “partnership site reports” became increasingly important to maintaining the quality of our programs. While we always had a standard protocol for reports, at first they simply summed up what everyone on the inservice committee already knew. Now that we have six partners, it has become essential that reports provide more reflection to allow us to analyze and refine the content and processes of our work with partner schools.

Now these reports are posted on Yahoo Groups and are included in the site’s Continued Funding Application.

While not without its challenges, partnership work at the NWP at Rutgers has provided the site with rewarding, collaborative work with schools. In addition to developing leadership capacity, it has also prompted the use of technology to make planning more transparent and egalitarian and, once again, has illuminated the importance of collaboration.