Capacity-Building Strategies for Scaling Up and Sustaining Community School Systems

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National News    The SUN Community Schools initiative in Multnomah County, Oregon, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. According to Diana Hall, Program Supervisor, SUN Service System, over the last decade, SUN has moved from a small-scale effort to a system of community schools, expanding from eight community school sites in 1999 to 58 in 2009. SUN’s ability to not only sustain but also grow the number of sites and deepen its collaborative partnership has relied on consistent capacity-building efforts at multiple levels: community/site, lead agency, operations/administrative and leadership.

Building capacity within the SUN system occurs across the four Critical Capacities for Community Schools articulated by the National Center for Community Schools: Comprehensiveness, Collaboration, Coherence and Commitment.

Capacity-building activities are led by the County in its role as managing partner for the SUN collaboration, but involve staff from the other key sponsoring organizations including the City of Portland, six school districts and non-profit lead agencies. A range of methods are employed:

  • Building champions through individual meetings, presentations to leadership groups and convening of key stakeholders
  • Coordinating and facilitating meetings and trainings such as:
    • Yearly kickoff meetings for community school site coordinators and principals
    • District-level collaborative agreement meetings
    • Bi-monthly site coordinator meetings
    • Bi-monthly lead agency meetings
    • Principal gatherings
  • Consulting, individually and in groups
  • Developing tools, reports and other marketing materials
  • Informing and building skills around advocacy
  • Negotiating written agreements and institutionalizing partnerships
  • Analyzing and disseminating key data and evaluation results

Although all levels and methods of capacity building are important, SUN has found that consistent attention to commitment — particularly the commitment of key leaders and funders — has been essential in its ability to weather changes in leadership and sponsorship. These changes directly affect long-term sustainability. Ongoing public funding streams are important sources to tap to ensure long-term sustainability of an initiative, and yet bring with them the inherent challenge of changes in elected leadership. For example, SUN began with a vision by elected officials in the City of Portland and Multnomah County; the cash funding for the base of its community school model continues to come largely from the City, County and a local children’s levy. Schools and districts contribute significant in-kind and leveraged funds (such as Title I). Currently, however, the mayor and county chair are the third officials in these seats since SUN began and the largest school district has had four superintendents in the last decade.

SUN’s “lessons learned” around building commitment reflect national best practices related to developing collaborations, and fall into four core areas:

Engage & Maintain Champions
Include key leaders in the planning and implementation at the outset. Identify common agendas with leaders based on community issues and understand what they need in order to serve as champions. Give leaders visibility – in the media, at community events and at conferences.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Keep leaders informed and involved. They are busy, so staying on their radar is a necessity. Establish relationships with their staff people, as well as define who the key communicators are in the organizations and how information will get disseminated. Share program updates and organize site visits. Additionally, marketing helps keep leaders engaged and develops public awareness and support. For SUN, branding the initiative with a consistent name, logo and look produced successful results.

Drive Your Work with Results
Define a results framework that includes cross-system measures linked to the shared vision and outcomes. After collecting data and analyzing results, use the information at all levels: program development and quality, system alignment, maintaining champions and advocating for funding.

Get It In Writing
Although it may sound counter to the community-building approach of community schools, becoming embedded in institutions through written commitments, contracts and policy creates stability over time. The process itself of negotiating institutional agreements also deepens relationships and alignment.

Perhaps SUN’s most important lesson, however, is that it takes capacity to build capacity. Though not as tangible as the thousands of youth SUN serves, our capacity-building efforts are equally important to achieving our vision. These efforts require attention and resources, both human and financial, and will not happen if they are not intentionally included in job roles and budgets.