Partners practicing what they preach

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Collaboration and networking are prominent themes in the book of school reform sermons. Until recently, though, Chicago’s external school partners weren’t practicing what they preached.

“We are always asking our teachers and principals to build support and learning networks,” says Sharon Ransom, director of the Interactive Teaching and Learning Program at Northeastern Illinois University, which works with 17 schools on probation. “But we had not built our own networks. … In many cases, we didn’t even know what other groups like us were doing. Some groups didn’t even know they were working in the same schools.”

That began to change last fall when Charles Payne, then a professor at Northwestern University, sent an e-mail message to other groups working with schools, suggesting that they get together. “During a conversation with a colleague, a question arose: How does one go from doing good things in a couple of schools to doing good things in many schools?” he recalls. “We believed that there were other groups who were struggling with this issue, and we felt talking about it would be helpful.” Now a professor at Duke University, Payne continues to work with Chicago schools.

Twenty-two people took Payne up on the suggestion, gathering on a Saturday morning in a meeting room at Marshall Field’s to share experiences and brainstorm solutions to problems they all had encountered. The group has met eight times since then and grown to a core group of six organizations. Initially, the conversations revolved around support for teachers, and the group called itself the Teachers Support Network.

“We know that school change happens when teachers take responsibility for the character of the whole school,” says Arnold Aprill, executive director of Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE). “It doesn’t come from us; it comes from teachers.”

RaeLynne Toperoff, executive director of the Teachers’ Task Force, says, “One of the reasons I started coming to these meetings is because we all believe in high-quality professional development for teachers, and that’s what we do, help change professional development for the better.”

Gradually, the conversations ranged farther: How can outsiders work effectively with principals? How can outsiders change the way a school, as a whole, operates? What are indicators of success?

“Even though we all use different approaches in schools, we all have to deal with specific issues, such as resistance to change. We can learn from each other in that respect,” says Michael Klonsky, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which works with five schools on probation as well as another 72 in Chicago.

Out of these discussions came a name change and a new acronym: ASPIRE, for Association of School Partners in Reforming School Education.

“This group is a diverse mix of universities, organizations and races, but because we are all doing the same kinds of things, you don’t have to explain the jokes,” quips Ransom.

“I’ve met a lot of people I didn’t know at these meetings,” says Aprill. “We’d run into each other at things like funding events, but that was different. I think it’s a very important need to bring together people who do work in the areas of curriculum and pedagogy. After all, folks in other professions get together.”

Aprill and others concede that this new collaboration didn’t come easily. “There is a competitive framework set up among people who work in schools, which is debilitating,” said Aprill. “This is dangerous. If you can’t tell someone you are stuck in an area and you need new ideas, you hinder what you do.”

ASPIRE members also run the gamut in approaches to school change, but they resolved not to get bogged down over these differences. They agreed there is no one right way, no one right model. They also agreed that while each was free to stake a position, everyone would listen to each other.

“This has now become a safe place for people with different ideologies to have those ideologies,” says Aprill. “I knew it took growth for me to listen when I disagreed [about] pedagogy. We now realize we have different strengths.”

ASPIRE’s aspirations

The group tries to meet at least once a month on weekday evenings or on the weekends. “You know people have a real commitment when they have to buy their own bagels and show up to meet on a Saturday at 8:30 in the morning,” laughs Klonsky.

ASPIRE members who work in the same schools also are beginning to coordinate their efforts. “We are now saying to each other, ‘OK, since we’re both here, what can we do together to push this school forward?'” says Ransom. “We’re looking at collaborating.”

They are also throwing business each other’s way. In September, Aprill tagged along with Klonsky on a visit to Robeson High School, which is creating schools-within-a-school. And the Comer School Development Project, another external partner, steered Aprill to Nash Elementary, whose principal was looking into arts integration. Comer also tapped CAPE to help it use the arts to increase parent involvement.

ASPIRE has aspirations of its own, too. It is recruiting new members and plans to host a conference, publish an annual journal of external partner programs, and reach out to school partners in other cities. The goal is to form a national network of organizations that work with schools to change.

“All of these things will add credibility to the kind of work we do,” says Ransom.