Sustained School Partnerships: Mentoring, Collaboration, and Networks

No two schools are ever alike, but lots of good schools share the same convictions.” – Ted Sizer

The truth about how to create sustainable conditions for powerful teaching and learning is bred in the bones of schools rather than the brains of researchers or policy-makers. Motivated by this belief, new and restructuring schools that aim to incorporate the CES Common Principles forge connections with other Coalition schools. They rely on each other for support, mutual learning, and perspective.

Twenty years ago, the Coalition of Essential Schools was born when a handful of schools realized the power of networking as they focused on personal connections, academic and personal growth, and equity. Ever since, CES’s central mission??”through Fall Forums, regional centers, the CES National website and more??”has been to share school-based insight across its network in the service of creating a critical mass of equitable, personalized, intellectually vibrant schools. Bolstered by increased resources, research, and national support, the remarkable results of a number of these schools has propelled a groundswell of new and restructuring schools, hungry for knowledge, inspiration, and experience and seeking critical friends and mentors.

This demand for school practitioners’ wisdom is thrilling. But the potential burden on well-established schools??”schools that are finding ways to help students think critically, find academic and other kinds of personal success, and stay committed to themselves and their communities??”imperils both their daily work and their evolution. To help share the wisdom of established schools without draining their resources, schools and support organizations are building systems and networks to share knowledge, foster personal connections, enrich both new and more established schools, and hold each other accountable for results.

Three qualities characterize sustained, mutually enriching interschool collaborations:

  • Mutual learning. Participants acknowledge equity among partners. More experienced schools can accelerate new and restructuring schools’ learning; the newer schools can reflect to their partners both strengths and areas that need more work. Sustained, generative professional relationships are designed for mutual benefit, not for the transmission of on-high wisdom to acolytes.
  • Building on cultures of collaboration. Mutually beneficial interschool collaborations are an extension of the professional learning communities that are well established within many Coalition schools. They use experiences??”such as looking at student (and teacher) work together??”that deepen professional capacity within individual schools. And they use communication techniques??”such as protocols??”that help people who don’t know each other well focus quickly and get to work solving problems and building bonds.
  • Allying within larger networks. School-to-school mentor relationships create networks for stability and support, strengthening the efforts of Coalition schools locally and nationwide, creating systems for accountability, and building capacity. These networks facilitate learning among like-minded schools and help them stand together in the face of inevitable policy, fiscal, and other challenges.

This issue of Horace looks at high schools in Texas, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York that have developed the habits and skills to build strong interschool collaborations.


Parker and Leominster: Opposites Attract
During the summer of 2003, at a New England Small Schools Network (NESSN) Summer Institute workshop on advisories and performance-based assessment, staff members from Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School and Leominster High School??”about a fifteen-minute drive apart in central Massachusetts??”realized that they had a great deal to teach and learn from each other. While close geographically, the schools might seem like unlikely partners. Leominster, founded as a comprehensive high school, serves one town, is forty years old, and has 1,800 students in grades 9-12. Parker, founded as a Coalition school, draws students from forty-two different towns, is nine years old, and has 365 students in grades 7-12.

CES Small Schools Project

Inspired by examples of collaboration among schools, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CES National has begun a new initiative to designate twenty outstanding CES schools as mentor schools. These schools, working with CES National and our regional centers, will provide guidance for the creation of ten new small high schools and for the transformation of five existing large high schools into smaller units.

At press time, the first cohort of five mentor schools hasn’t yet been chosen from among the candidates, but many of the schools that contributed stories and information to this issue are candidate mentor schools. To find out which schools are in the first round and to learn much more about the CES Small Schools Project, visit the CES National website. If you are interested in forming a team to start a new small CES high school, drop us a note at SmallSchools@ We’ll put you on our mailing list for the call for proposals, which will begin in December 2003.

But within these differences resides a potentially fruitful opportunity for partnership. Leominster sought support from NESSN while considering changes that would allow it to reach its goals, which include using multiple measures of assessment, lowering student-teacher ratios, and making itself more student-centered. Parker aimed to strengthen connections to local communities and was looking for ways to expand opportunities for its staff. “There’s a real need for schools involved in change to deepen their information over time rather than offer the same introductory workshop over and over,” says Parker’s principal Teri Schrader, addressing Parker’s faculty’s need to keep learning even as they teach.

As a school designed around the Common Principles, featuring an unshakable student-centered focus, employing top-notch teachers, and featuring founding trustees and active participants Ted and Nancy Faust Sizer, Parker has attracted considerable attention in its nine years. Planning teams have traveled from far and wide to see the school. In response, and in order to heed the call in its charter to support other schools, Parker established the Regional Teachers Center, an independently funded program area offering visitation days, in-depth workshops and customized programs designed to “teach Parker.” Most of the time, people came, learned, and went home. What was missing was a chance to build sustained connections and find allies in a semi-rural, somewhat isolated setting. The opportunity to work with Leominster High School on advisories and more afforded Parker the chance to build regional capacity and to delve deeper into its faculty’s expertise.

The partnership has started with ten faculty members from Parker traveling to Leominster to facilitate a day-long in-service on advisories for the Leominster High School entire faculty, with ongoing exchanges, visits, and professional development to follow. The Leominster High School collaboration offers Parker’s faculty members an opportunity to develop sustained relationships with other teachers??”an important advantage for all schools and especially small schools, which need to maintain connections to avoid isolation. Ted Sizer comments, “We’re moving closer to being a mentor school. As that has evolved, the Teachers’ Center is organizing itself to respond to not just a school’s interest in advisories or something else we can talk about in a few hours, but to a school’s comprehensive redesign and development.” Working with both restructuring and new schools draws on different elements of the experience of Parker’s staff members and adds a dimension of growth and challenge to their outreach efforts.

But it’s obvious that working collaboratively with other schools considerably increases the workload for everyone at Parker, potentially jeopardizing student success and inviting faculty burnout. Teri Schrader readily acknowledges this downside, suggesting that the solution is to be realistic about the extra work and find ways to support it. “This is all on the backs of the Parker faculty,” she says. “Our school isn’t a show. Facilitating change and actively mentoring a few schools over the long haul draws on the good will of teachers. So we need to find ways to overstaff the school so we don’t disadvantage our own students. I’d feel good letting a teacher rearrange her teaching load for a year in order to work with other teachers. It’s great professional development for seasoned teachers to take on leadership.”

Ted Sizer agrees, suggesting that the Parker faculty’s experience with critical friends groups and other forms of collaborative inquiry has created a strong foundation for its move into the mentor role with Leominster. Sizer says, “This is the most effective professional development that our faculty get. It’s the kind of work that keeps remarkable people at a school out in the boonies. The faculty members develop and plan how a career might play out in the school, and we find ways to reflect their increased work in their internal salary level. Everybody wins when you’re asked to think about and put words to what you, in your gut, know is effective practice. It raises your consciousness about your own teaching.”

Recognizing the advantages for Parker??”especially the rich potential for professional development and faculty retention??”and the advantage for all schools in the region that seek to find paths to personalization and authentic assessment in the face of state and national testing pressures, Schrader and others at Parker are committed to finding the resources and continuing the sustained partnerships with Leominster. “The luxury of overstaffing is the necessity of adequate mentoring. We’re in it with them for them for the long haul, for three, four years, for however long it takes to evolve a program. Now we’re sisters,” says Schrader.

Cultures of Collaboration:
The New Social Realities of Teaching

Educators in CES schools use collaborative enterprises such as teacher inquiry, critical friends groups, and peer coaching to learn from each other. These practices, write Ann Lieberman and Lynne Miller in “Teaching and Teacher Development: A New Synthesis for a New Century,” are hallmarks of “the new social realities of teaching” in schools that aim for personalized and powerful intellectual work across the entire school community.

Lieberman and Miller focus on how teachers seek ever-expanding avenues for renewal and connection as they move along “the continuum of professional development,” which is characterized by shifts:

→ from individualism to professional community

→ from teaching at the center to learning at the center

→ from technical work to inquiry

→ from control to accountability

→ from managed work to leadership

→ from classroom concerns to whole school concerns

→ from a weak knowledge base to a stronger, broader one.

The work that educators do as they build sustained relationships with staff members from other schools creates opportunities to move toward the more sophisticated and collaborative end of this continuum. These opportunities support veteran teachers’ growth and engagement as they — and their schools — take on roles as mentors.


North Star and Quest: Challenges of Distance
While Parker and Leominster have the natural affinity of geography, the example of the collaboration between Ishpeming, Michigan’s North Star Academy and Humble, Texas’s Quest High School demonstrates that schools can find ways to support each other even with the challenges of distance. North Star’s principal Mary St. Clair acknowledges the costs of the partnership with Quest. “It costs money,” she admits. “But you have to put your finances where they’re going to lead you in student achievement, so we built the travel into the CSRD grant that we had at the time.”

St. Clair and North Star’s staff turned to Quest to learn more about developing an interdisciplinary curriculum, a persistent challenge, says St. Clair, in the predominant culture of high school in which teachers are trained in single disciplines. Work with Quest High School also established the foundation for North Star’s senior exhibitions??”or senior exploratories, the term both schools use. “The connection with Quest was crucial for us,” recalls St. Clair. “Not only are we physically isolated, but we are educationally isolated. People in this rural community don’t know what’s happening at other schools. Sustainability is a huge issue if you don’t have anything else to look at. One of the things that we felt when we walked into Quest was that it was great to be there because we were all speaking the same language. If you don’t have resources nearby, you have to seek them out.”

And North Star functioned as a critical friend for Quest, sharing observations and asking questions. St. Clair describes the schools’ intentional efforts to learn from each other by observing authentic student and staff work in progress. “Before we go to another school, we try to frame what are we looking for and what we want to isolate. Then we ask the other school’s staff to build in time for roundtable discussions around those questions. We ask the other staff to examine some of their dilemmas in front of us.” Provided that the questions that occupy the two schools’ attention are complementary, this sort of effort allows a mentor school to do the work of running its school while inviting partners to participate. And North Star teachers were mindful of the need to give back to their mentor partner. “We narrated everything while we were at Quest,” says St. Clair, “And then we cleaned up those records and sent them on, so Quest’s staff had a reflection process.”

While there is still communication among staff members at the schools, distance, and the end of North Star’s CSRD funding got the best of the North Star-Quest relationship. While it’s not necessarily fair to draw the conclusion that long-distance mentor school partnerships aren’t possible, it is useful to note that once the CSRD funding ran out, North Star and Quest have had to draw on their own already-tapped resources to support the work of continuing their relationship. Lacking proximity, funding, and the motivation to be mutually accountable for success, the return of attention to their own business at both schools makes sense.


Goldman Sachs New York Project: Establishing a Regional Network
At the same time, in New York City, the Goldman Sachs Foundation Institutes for School Redesign, Teaching, & Leadership drew together a larger network of schools committed to mutual improvement. A joint project of Columbia University Teachers College’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF), and the New York City Board of Education, the Goldman Sachs project created clusters of three mentor schools and seventeen newer schools, providing the funding and outside support for inter-school professional development activities.

NCREST co-director Jacqueline Ancess describes the project as an “apprenticeship model for newer schools to learn from and with more experienced schools and with other like-minded schools.” One of the clusters brought together Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Landmark High School in Manhattan, Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, East Brooklyn Congregations High School for Public Safety & Law in Brooklyn, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, and Robert F. Wagner Jr. High School for the Integration of Arts and Technology in Long Island City. Reflecting on the start of the project, Nancy Mann, principal of Fannie Lou Hamer, says, “You can’t go in with a big plan. You have to get to know each other and each other’s contexts.” Once the schools assessed their common goals, strengths, and areas for improvement, they chose to focus their collaboration on literacy.

In city-wide professional development days and in more informal afternoon and evening gatherings, they analyzed student work. Faculty members visited each other’s schools. And Cece Cunningham, then the principal of Middle College High School, the cluster’s mentor school, built partnerships among the schools’ leaders. As the project’s capstone, representatives from each school conducted a five-day critical friends review of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, immersing themselves in the life of the school and generating observations and feedback on Fannie Lou Hamer’s progress toward high standards of literacy and other goals.

Cece Cunningham emphasizes that this final critical friends review was an important element that added urgency and collective accountability to the schools’ collaboration. “The Fannie Lou experience made it more than just about sitting around and talking,” says Cunningham. “There was something in sight that results in a performance, in this case the review. Everyone was gearing up and preparing for that.” Jacqueline Ancess also emphasized that the project demonstrated that productive partnerships were based on the exchange of assistance and insight, noting, “One of the major findings is that schools need to feel they have something to contribute. They don’t want to just be listeners. What people were able to do was share their expertise.” The final critical friends review made all participants accountable for their contributions; Fannie Lou Hamer’s staff benefited tremendously from the intense look at their school by their peers, gaining a much clearer focus about their own work along with an assortment of strategies and ideas. Mann says of the experience, “If your expertise is insufficient to do what you need to do, it’s a way of exploring other people’s experience to broaden your own fund of expertise.”

Though teachers, principals, and others from the schools participated in the Goldman Sachs Institutes, Cunningham placed particular emphasis on working with the schools’ leaders, observing, “This kind of collaborative professional relationship among and between schools depends on the relationship that the principals establish.” Though the Goldman-Sachs project has ended, most of the school leaders in the group have continued to meet together and with Cunningham. Vivian Orlen, principal of Landmark High School, comments that she doesn’t want to lose the relationships that developed. “We had to work together in a sustained way to learn from each other,” Orlen says of the network of support among the schools and in particular of the meetings of the school leaders, facilitated by Cunningham. “I loved those meetings. They were a place to scream for help and deal with the real issues that we faced as school leaders.”


Building on Collaborative Cultures
Experience from Coalition schools shows that getting to the heart of what helps students learn best produces a truly well-functioning team; as educator George Wood, principal of Stewart, Ohio’s Federal Hocking High School, observes, “The best way to build a meaningful partnership is by doing protocols around sharing student work.” Usually, collegiality is forged by time and shared experience. It is based, if not on friendships, then on the ease of proximity and personal connections. And usually, sustained collegial support happens under the aegis of a permanent structure that brings participants together regularly, such as a school’s team meetings.

The Goldman Sachs project demonstrated that it is possible to bring people from different schools together to look at student work while preserving each school’s particular identity and direction. Jacqueline Ancess says that this construction of inter-school support depends on honoring the diversity of the schools rather than expecting them all to follow a certain path. “I find the idea of telling schools, ‘You’re going to learn our way’ doesn’t really work.” To emphasize this point, Cece Cunningham used the metaphor of a journey as a getting-started activity for school teams. “We often do this with a huge map of the world, but in this case, we used New York City and asked people to decide how they planned to get to a common destination,” Cunningham describes. “Each school had to go from their campus to a party on a boat in Sheepshead Bay. All of the schools came up with completely different and creative routes??”some took the subway, then a Big Apple bus, others took a boat around city. What this showed was that they’re all going to a destination together, the destination of academic achievement for their kids, from different places and in different ways. We used this image over and over, through the whole project. It helped people understand how and why they could be different.”

In addition to thoughtfully structured activities, Cunningham relied on informal experiences to forge the group of school leaders. “We met in the evenings, at my house, and we always included food and beverage. Then some of the other principals would invite the group into their houses. This sense of hospitality and relationship building, when you’re in someone else’s house and eating their food, goes a long way to strengthening ties. In other settings, you don’t take potshots at each other.”

Other educators attest to the power of the informal network of personal relationships that builds up among similarly oriented schools in a region. Rosemary Sedgwick, in charge of School Development and Partnerships at Boston’s Fenway High School, says that personal connections undergird the strength of the school’s networks, such as the Boston Pilot Schools Network and NESSN. “A lot of our relationships go through people who used to work together; the infiltration of employees moving though the networks keeps our schools glued together.”

Often, new small schools are founded by people who move on after tenure at a more established Essential school. Vincent Brevetti, principal of Manhattan’s Humanities Preparatory Academy, a CES school that is also part of the New York-based New Visions for Public Schools network, thinks that the move of school personnel from established schools to newer or recreating schools merits special attention. “School cultures are so idiosyncratic, despite whatever comes down the pike. The power of a school’s personality is quite astounding,” he comments. “So if you can create a school culture based on democratic principles and collaborative leadership, you have a much better chance of success.” Faculty members and school leaders that move among school environments are able to transmit an understanding of the importance of such qualities to new, coalescing school cultures.

Cece Cunningham thinks that establishing interdependencies and collaboration among schools within a region also serves to diminish the threat of competition that can arise. Cunningham says, “There has to be so much trust so that people won’t be judged by their colleagues. This is the hardest thing if you’re all in a single school district like New York where all the schools are being ranked and compared. You need to go against that culture.” Establishing a stake in the success of each other’s schools is the best way to resist the divide-and-conquer mentality. And to do that, says Cunningham: “You have to push yourself to be your best adult self in professional relationships. That’s when you learn.”

Long-Term Networks for Stability and Support
In addition to working with like-minded Essential schools, Quest High School participated in the Houston-area Beacon Schools project, sponsored by the Houston A+ Challenge (formerly the Houston Annenberg Challenge). Quest’s principal Lawrence Kohn traces the development of a local policy environment supportive of student-centered learning to the Beacon School program, which ran from 1997 through 2001. Kohn acknowledges that the Beacon School funding and infrastructure guided Quest to focus its collaborations locally. “We think our help is much more focused and consistent in our own school district than anywhere else,” he says, citing the creation of a new high school in Humble structured around small learning communities. Kohn attributes the success of the idea of human-scale schooling to Quest’s faculty’s persistence with their area colleagues. “You have to follow up and stay in there with them. If you don’t, people regress back to their old ways. You have to focus on how to get to learning goals and relentless follow up and support until it’s part of the culture and reflected in what they do.”

Janice Adams, principal of Merlo Station High School in Beaverton, Oregon, sees a similar pattern of influence in her region. “I believe that the CES model has become as extensive in schools in our vicinity because we started doing it,” Adams says, describing increased affiliation with CES in her region through the CSRD process. Holli Hansen, Associate Director of CES’s Northwest regional center, is working to build regional capacity, offering ongoing support to the Portland area schools, keeping their connections strong through monthly networking seminars, and supporting them while they help schools new to restructuring. Hansen describes the Portland region’s schools as “a very resilient group.” Referring to the battering economic circumstances in Oregon’s schools in 2002-2003, she continues, “Given the political and economic climate down there, they want something that’s their own, that can’t be taken away. They’re developing relationships, being creative, and having ideas that they can implement that are important to that group. Now they can count on those relationships in an unstable climate.”

Schools that belong to the New York Performance Standards Consortium also can attest to the value of interdependence in an unstable climate. The Consortium is a network of twenty-eight schools brought by common purpose: to develop and refine systems of performance-based assessment as valid alternatives to New York State’s high-stakes Regents exams. Ann Cook, co-director of New York City’s Urban Academy and Consortium leader, says, “The key to collaboration is to share an agenda. You have to have some common issues that people want to solve and that they can only solve by coming together. None of us in the Consortium could possibly solve these issues without each other.” Vincent Brevetti, principal of Humanities Preparatory Academy, sees a more long-term benefit to the Consortium network. “It’s important for like-minded schools interested in CES principles??”schools that are finding ways to democratize education and thinking about social justice issues??”to work with other schools. If more similarly-minded schools open and work well, it strengthens all of us.”

Mentor school collaborations are a productive strategy to deal with the tremendous opportunities??”such as the national push from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the New York City-based work of New Visions for Public Schools??”to create a rising tide of high performing small schools. These new and restructuring schools need school-based wisdom and critical friendship, while schools with more depth and experience don’t want to become calcified demonstrations. When established Coalition schools??”and regional centers and other support organizations??”develop sustained relationships with each other, they move past “CES 101” and go deeply into understanding how people best teach and learn.

Through the years, networks of schools that learn from each other how to live the CES common principles have created webs of assistance and influence, contributing to the creation of regional and national policy conditions that bolster the development of yet more personalized, equitable, and intellectually vibrant schools.


Related Resources
Horace 19.1, “Elements of Smallness Create Conditions for Success” contains “Making Great Teachers into Great Advisors: Advisory Training at Parker Charter Essential School,” which spotlights Parker’s advisory program.

Horace 14.5, “How Friends Can be Critical as Schools Make Essential Changes” examines how schools build collaborative cultures, prividing ways that school people can help each other participate in a cycle of inquiry that examines data, teaching practices, and student work as a means of making change.

Horace 13.1, “Networks and Essential Schools: How Trust Advances Learning” examines how building relationships within and across schools can profoundly shift the culture of schooling to one in which teachers create new ways to share and examine their work and to hold themselves to higher standards.