Over the past 22 years, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge has committed almost $28 million in grants to more than 40 school networks. The Challenge funds networks—at least three schools and an external partner such as a community group, university or reform organization—because schools cannot achieve whole-school change alone. In networks, schools are able to share resources, learn from each others’ experiences, support each other and act as critical friends. And external partners provide technical assistance to teachers, mentor principals, coordinate school and network activities and offer objective feedback on needed school improvements.

If school reform in Chicago is to continue to succeed, there must be an increased investment in external partners. First, there needs to be more of them, so more schools can be served. Second, many need help and additional resources to engage entire faculties in whole-school change rather than simply work with some teachers on limited programs.. In some cases, adding yet another program would only get in the way of whole-school change.

The importance of external partners is well recognized in Chicago. They are central to the Annenberg Challenge’s reform strategy and integral to the Chicago Public Schools’ school probation program. In addition, schools on the State Watch List are encouraged to partner with outside providers.

To adequately support a school in its efforts to achieve whole-school change, an outside organization should:

Have an organizational commitment to the entire network

Have enough staff to provide regular, direct support to schools.

Have a range of resources for schools to draw upon

Be able to stretch its program direction and offerings to accommodate the diverse needs of schools.

Be able to engage new partners to meet the school needs that are beyond what its organization alone can provide.

Sustain its work as well as build schools’ capacity to manage the change process.

The Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago, for example, has these characteristics. It helps schools use literacy as a lever for change while also working on social services, leadership development and schools’ capacity for strategic planning and evaluation. For example, principals at CSI schools use discretionary dollars to free at least two teachers to serve as lead teachers in the reform effort; a major part of their job is coaching their colleagues in the classroom. The vision is for schools to become self-guided institutions that are responsive and accountable to the needs of their students and families.

Seeing a wealth of knowledge and expertise in external partners, the Challenge has begun encouraging them to share their strategies for school change with each other. The External Partner Advisory Committee, a group of external partners funded by the Challenge, began meeting this summer to develop plans to increase participants’ capacities. In addition, some of the external partners that work with Chicago public schools that are on probation have been meeting for seven months under the auspices of Northwestern University. It is our hope that external partners will team up to offer a more comprehensive approach to school improvement.

At the same time, schools must become better consumers. First they must spend the time and hard work necessary to develop a focused plan for change. Then they must decide which programs support that plan and which don’t, and perhaps drop the ones that don’t. Dropping programs has proven to be difficult, as most principals feel they are not doing an exemplary job if they can’t point to multiple resources in their schools.

We know of one principal who called together more than 20 organizations that were operating or funding initiatives in his building. He wanted them to clarify what they were doing. However, there was little dialogue among the representatives from these multiple and sometimes competing initiatives. And the principal didn’t encourage them to work together for the greater good of the school.

To meet the challenge of the next decade of reform—increasing achievement for all students—we believe that greater support must be given to external organizations that assist schools’ restructuring efforts. Funding is needed to cultivate new reform leaders, expand the services of existing partners and build the capacity of outside organizations. In the remaining years of the Challenge, we will continue to encourage collaboration among external partners to strengthen their ability to help schools. Our goal is to leave behind strong and lasting relationships that help parents, family members, teachers, principals and community groups finds ways to work in partnership on behalf of their children.

Patricia Ford is program director and Lisa Moultrie is program officer for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which is one of nine big-city school reform efforts supported by a five-year, $500 million grant from philanthropist Walter Annenberg.

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