Making Learning Meaningful through School-Community Partnerships

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This paper explores the ways in which schools can create meaningful learning experiences through school-community partnerships.



    Making Learning Meaningful through

    School-Community Partnerships

    Stephanie Watson

    Simpson College

    May 9, 2011


    We all remember what its like to sit through a class that is seemingly useless, and there

    are reasons why phrases like, Im pretty sure my IQ just dropped ten points or I totally just

    lost brain cells or Thats an hour of my life Ill never get back, exist: because students believe

    they are true. And maybe they are. Too often, many researchers say, students are disengaged

    from the teaching methods and material they are offered in school and they are missing the

    chance to have meaningful experiences and challenging, pertinent knowledge (Jensen, 2006, p.

    208, Cole, 2010, p. 15). And it is not fair, the author believes, to expect them to stay interested,

    or to stay in school, or perform at their highest ability, or any other number of things educators

    ask of them, if parents, community members, and teachers are not willing to take the steps to

    make schooling worthwhile, to make what they are learning mean something other than a good

    grade. Well-implemented school-community partnerships are one way in which teachers and

    administrators are working to build these meaningful experiences. By turning traditional

    classrooms into contextual immersions, students can start to build identities as contributing

    members of a larger community and to see learning as rich and meaningful (Cole, 2010, p. 15).

    The author chose this topic because she had an interest in finding ways to make content

    relevant and interesting to all studentsnot just the college bound, not just the academically

    inclined, and certainly not just the privileged. As a future teacher, building vibrant school and

    community partnerships has the potential to make education into something that everyone

    pitches in on, that everyone values, and that makes sense to ones students. Research has shown

    that if students do not see the point in learning something, they either will not learn it or will not

    retain it for long (Jensen, 2006, p. 68). School-community partnerships are one way in which the

    author is interested in exploring to alleviate this problem. This paper first outlines what school-

    community partnerships are and how these partnerships can support classroom teaching. The


    second part of the paper then moves into a discussion of a few research-based models of school-

    community partnerships and the success rate of schools that have applied them. The last part of

    the paper looks at what can be learned from research on school-community partnerships and how

    educators can utilize this research to build better partnerships in the future.

    What is a school-community partnership?

    Most simply stated, a school-community partnership is a relationship that is created

    between a school, district, or classroom and a community group, organization, or entity that

    works together to support learning and student success. This type of learning, called community-

    based learning, is active, connected with the classroom but taking place in meaningful, dynamic

    environments (Cole, 2010, p. 15). Community-based learning is also longitudinal, involving the

    building of a long-term community of support rather than just having students take part in one-

    time community service projects. They are not merely made up of organizational sponsorships or

    donations, or any other form of surface level involvement on the part of the community.

    Successful school-community partnerships are about real relationships between students and the

    community, ones that have the potential to turn contextual immersions into lessons that mean

    something to students and that build [their] identities as contributing members of a larger

    community and that make learning rich and meaningful (Cole, 2010, p. 15). School-community

    partnerships are also each unique, because they offer the full richness of authentic contexts,

    contexts that are specific to each students life and the community that surrounds them (Cole,

    2010, p. 15).

    Why should educators be concerned with increasing authentic interest in school and what

    happens to a bored brain?


    For a long time it was believed that the interchange between genes and the mind was one-

    way. The common belief has been that our genes are fixed and thus our intelligence and our

    tendencies are fixed as well. In his book titled Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every

    Learners Potential, Eric Jensen (2006) proposes just the opposite idea. Through his own

    research and the recent studies of neuroscientists, it has now been proven that people actually do

    have the chance to change their brains, to maximize their learning potential, and even to

    potentially raise their IQ scores through the occurrence of gene-environment interplay called

    gene expression (p. 6). As Jensen points out, this theory has huge implications for educators.

    Jensen refers to this maximizing of gene expression as enrichment, or the positive biological

    response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes

    have occurred (2006, p. 47). The results of proper enrichment, then, are an enrichment

    response, which results in two happenings: the first enhances students ability to learn and

    retain information and positively affects the cognition of average to gifted learners; the second

    includes the possibility for enrichment to improve the cognition of those with impaired learning,

    the disadvantaged, or brain damaged (Jensen, 2006, p. 81).

    Central to obtaining the enrichment response, Jensen writes, is the application of the law

    of contrast, or the law that says for learning to stick and influence gene-expression it must be

    novel, challenging, and meaningful (2006, p. 80). While many teachers are good at making

    classroom learning novel and challenging, the meaningful part often gets pushed to the side. And

    so we have bored students. Or we have students that think, School just isnt for me. Or they act

    out. Or maybe even they drop out. And they do so because brains do not handle boredom well:

    they want to novel and challenging tasks. In fact, Jensen records that in animal studies, the

    negative effects of boredom on the dendrites of brain cells are significant (2006, p. 70). In


    fact, he says, theres a greater negative from boredom than there is a positive from

    enrichment (Jensen, 2006, p. 70).

    Why would a school or district consider establishing school-community partnerships?

    Not many adults are forced to spend their days doing tasks that do no make sense to them

    or that seem meaningless. A good question, then, is why do we expect it of our students? It has

    been stated why learning must be meaningful to be enriching. But how to make learning

    meaningful is probably the more difficult question. For learning to be meaningful it must address

    students present lives and be pertinent to their future; in other words, it must be worthwhile

    (Jensen, 2006, p. 67). Anna Gahl Cole (2010), a researcher from the University of Arizona who

    studied a community partnership at an urban magnet school called the Second Tuesday

    Project, points out that at the heart of school-community partnerships is the desire to make

    learning relevant, meaningful, challenging, interesting, and novel for all students by situating it

    in local and familiar issues, contexts, and challenges. Curriculum is deeply connected to the

    people, landscapes, cultures, and politics students can know and experience locally, she says. In

    order to create these authentic learning community contexts, schools must build local

    partnerships that can enrich student learning. Many researchers go on to argue that community

    partnerships bring about a sense of civic duty and connectedness. Community partnerships, they

    say, can also increase student motivation and engagement while guiding students to see the

    world as an interdependent place where they play a vital role (Cole, 2010, p. 15).

    What does research say about the influence of school-community partnerships?

    Research on school-community partnerships indicates that they have the potential to be

    very powerful support systems for learning, but that it is easy for problems implementing the

    programs to hinder their success. Jensen takes up this topic in his chapter called School and


    Classroom Solutions (Jensen, 2006, p. 228). He cites complex learning projects, such a the

    project Minuteman High School in Foxboro, Massachusetts which uses a school-community

    partnership to annually involve 120 students from all different classes, teams, and groups in year-

    long projects to design and build a house (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). Theres no doubt, he says,

    that, compared with what those students would have gotten in a more traditional school, their

    curriculum is vastly more likely to lead to enrichment (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). Career-based

    learning is another avenue that can utilize the local community and provide enrichment that

    students may not obtain in the traditional classroom. Jensen gives the example of David Douglas

    High School in Portland, Oregon, a school of 2,600 students with forty-nine percent in poverty,

    thirty-four percent are minority, and twenty-seven percent are ESL, that, incredibly, boasts

    having eighty-four percent of the high schools students pursue higher education opportunities

    (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). This phenomenon can, at least in part, be attributed to their efforts to

    establish career-based education and community mentorship programs that provide meaningful

    curriculum and make learning relevant to students futures. Other examples of community-based

    learning programs that can provide enrichment are after-school educational partnership programs

    such as The Boys and Girls Club or programs such as 4-H (Jensen, 2006, p. 234-235).

    Results from studies on school-community partnerships by The National Network of

    Partnership Schools (NNPS), on the other hand, have been a little more conflicting. The NNPS,

    established in 1995 by Dr. Joy L. Epstein of Johns Hopkins University, is a program that

    provides professional development to enable school, district, and state leaders to develop

    research-based programs of family and community evolvement (NNPS, 2011). Based on

    Epsteins theory of overlapping spheres of influence, the program emphasizes the importance of

    schools, families, and communities recognizing the individual influence they have each have


    over the growth of Americas children and urges each entity to work together to meet the needs

    of Americas students (Sanders and Epstein, 1998, p. 3). Her theories have been the driving force

    behind the implementation of NNPS for sixteen years now, integrating educational, sociological,

    and psychological perspectives on social organizations, as well as research on the effects of

    family, school, and community partnerships (NNPS, 2011). The Partnership Schools model

    claims to be one of the few research-based approaches designed to help schools, districts, and

    state departments of education organize, implement, and sustain goal-linked programs of family

    and community involvement. The research identifies essential elements for effective programs

    and specific processes and paths that strengthen leadership for partnerships, program plans,

    outreach to involve more families, responses of families and community partners, and impact on

    student achievement and other indicators of success in school (Epstein, 2005, para. 2).

    Like Jensen, the NNPS found that children with well-developed social networks have

    more positive educational outcomes than children without them (Sanders and Epstein, 1998, p.

    2). In spite of the enormous amount of effort that has gone into creating partnerships across the

    country, however, the conclusion of many of the NNPS reports have provided are not quite as

    convincing as one may hope for. In 2007, for example, Steven Sheldon (another NNPS

    researcher) reported that analyses of his study showed that in schools working to implement

    school, family, and community partnerships, student attendance improved on average only .5

    percent (p. 267). Moreover, his analysis suggests that it was the schools effort to reach out to

    families, not to the community, that was the driving mechanism that caused this effect (Sheldon,

    2007, p.267). Better family involvement throughout middle school and high school was also

    found to contribute to positive outcomes like higher achievement [] more course credits

    earned, more responsible preparation for class, and other indicators of success in school


    (Epstein, 2005, para.7). A possible conclusion from this study could be that working on school-

    family partnerships may be more beneficial than school-community ones.

    On a similar note, Anna Gahl Coles study of the Second Tuesday Project found that

    without carefully guided conversations about the purpose of such projects, students are often

    unable to fully benefit from the partnerships. Coles article examines the struggles and successes

    of teachers and students collaborating with community organizations on the Second Tuesday

    Project, a community-based research and service program at an urban high school (2010, p. 15).

    The project takes place as part of the capstone course in The Human Services Program at

    Jefferson Center High School, a magnet school that utilizes the school-with-a-school framework.

    The capstone courses central focus is a community-based research project (Second Tuesday

    Project) that endeavors to increase understanding about the citys efforts to improve the quality

    of life for its citizens. Cole records that teachers describe the project as a team based, multi-

    disciplinary, senior level project that requires each student to research a specific social issue

    within the Riverside community (i.e. homelessness, hunger, poverty, pollution, etc.) and

    implement a plan to help resolve that issue. Students perform secondary research on the issue at

    a nearby university throughout the year and spend every second Tuesday of the month doing

    research in the field by volunteering with an agency affiliated with their topic that oversees

    their service. The students work in whatever capacity their mentors deem useful and are expect

    to observe and record research findings throughout the year in support of their final research

    paper and presentation. The conclusion of the project is a weeklong symposium of students

    research: students present their study to classmates, faculty, administrators, parents, and

    community agency representatives (Cole, 2010, p. 16).


    Cole used qualitative data from interviews, participant observatio...