Schools act as anchor institutions in many communities, providing social services and amenities that families use on a regular basis, such as safer public spaces, health clinics, food banks, and counseling. Two-generation (2Gen) initiatives aim to promote many of these benefits by providing coordinated and complementary services for parents and children, and recent efforts have expanded the 2Gen model to school-age kids.
But schools’ most essential service is education, and pressure is high for schools to perform. High-stakes accountability policies typically measure schools against how they achieve on standardized tests, and not doing well can bring major consequences (PDF), including school closure. That laser focus on educational outcomes makes schools tricky 2Gen partners—on the one hand, they can be exceptionally invested in 2Gen as a holistic family model to support students; on the other hand, they don’t always have the luxury of time for the model to work or second chances if it doesn’t.
Community Properties of Ohio, a supportive housing organization in Columbus and part of the Family Centered Community Change (FCCC) 2Gen initiative, has figured out one way to involve its local elementary school in meaningful 2Gen interventions. From those efforts, we can share lessons about how to build 2Gen partnerships in schools.
A novel 2Gen approach in Columbus
Building an innovative 2Gen intervention into the school involved many years of trial and error. At first, the 2Gen initiative leaders asked school leadership for too much during a critical school turnaround period. The 2Gen initiative was still young and could not yet demonstrate meaningful results for students. The partnership fractured until the relationship could restart under a new principal and with fewer accountability pressures.
With that fresh start, the Columbus’s 2Gen backbone organization took the following steps:
- It placed a full-time community-school liaison within the school to help the principal manage the 2Gen collaboration and the organizational partners operating in the school. The community-school liaison became the principal’s right hand on all external relations, often attending meetings in her stead and briefing her on critical elements. The liaison measured student satisfaction of the school’s programs and services, then assessed which collaborations made a difference to students’ wellbeing.
- It offered meaningful family services within the school, including professional mental health services, child and family coaching, and community engagement specialists. These services supported children and families in the 2Gen framework and worked with teachers and staff members to shift to supportive, trauma-informed interventions to help high-risk students.
- It built buy-in with district leaders, which will prove critical as they seek to replicate the school-based 2Gen model in other communities throughout Columbus.
Lessons on how to build 2Gen school partnerships
The process in Columbus offers lessons for other community organizations and schools looking to successfully develop 2Gen partnerships.
- Schools need to have a community orientation to integrate well into a 2Gen approach. Not all schools prioritize addressing broader community needs. Some school leaders choose to focus institutional energy on academic gains in order to satisfy demanding high-stakes accountability mandates. Those leaders are unlikely to be receptive to 2Gen efforts unless they can deliver tangible, immediate effects on students’ classroom performance—unlikely outcomes when addressing the complex dynamics of poverty, disinvestment, and trauma in communities. 2Gen leaders should be honest with schools about the likely outcomes and timeframe of change so that all partners are on the same page. And they should be able to demonstrate effectiveness to school leaders if schools do join the partnership.
- 2Gen leaders need to develop relationships with local stakeholders. Many of the decisions about resources are up to district and state leaders. Forming meaningful partnerships with district or state leaders in addition to individual school leadership can facilitate better working relations between 2Gen initiatives and schools. In the event of school leadership turnover, a common occurrence in the era of test-based accountability, these relationships also provide continuity for initiatives.
- 2Gen partners need to understand the scope of school leadership’s existing responsibilities. Even if school leadership has a community orientation, a principal’s main job is to run an effective school for her students, a role which leaves little time for anything else. Putting a lot of “asks” on school leadership can wear out a partnership commitment. Working with school leadership on expectation-setting early sets the groundwork for an effectively coordinated 2Gen approach.These expectations should be revisited regularly to ensure that the relationship is functioning effectively on all sides.
- Schools need external resources and staff to make 2Gen initiatives work. Meaningful, long-term 2Gen collaborations can be time- and resource- intensive, and schools’ multiple functions as social service hubs can make it seem that schools are a low- or no-cost solution to scale up services. The reality is, school budgets are notoriously thin and typically cannot support additional 2Gen costs being imposed on them. 2Gen efforts should offer financial resources and/or staff support to school partners. In particular, 2Gen leaders should be prepared to help schools manage their relationships with external partners so it does not fall on the principal to track complex partner dynamics.
2Gen school partnerships can be strong, but they take work, as the Columbus experience shows. Building an initiative responsive to the school’s needs was a process with multiple setbacks. But the partners’ commitment to problem-solving around the school’s constraints has been the key to creating a lasting and successful partnership.