How Schools Can Engage Community Partners
Local businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies can play a valuable role in your school culture and student success. Here's how to attract and engage community partners.
Dissecting frogs has long been a staple of high school biology classrooms. What’s not so typical? Dissecting frogs alongside practicing scientists! However, that’s just what students at Latitude High School, an XQ school in Oakland, CA, got to do. Through a partnership with community nonprofit Atlas Center for Excellence, biology students at Latitude got to perform frog dissections led by professionals from Science from Scientists.
This kind of community engagement in high school has multiple benefits. Not only did students get to learn about science from experts, but they also gained exposure to what it’s like to be a practicing scientist, expanding how they understand their own future career opportunities. This is all in line with Latitude’s guiding philosophy when it comes to community partnerships: as founding principal Lillian Hsu explained, “We want students to take what they’re learning in the classroom and see the real-world possibilities. We want them to expand their sense of what they’re capable of accomplishing.”
Why Do Schools Need to Engage in Community Partnerships?
As the above example from Latitude shows, engaging with community partners is a powerful way to promote meaningful, engaged learning for high school students, empowering them to solve real-world challenges and exposing them to professional opportunities. In fact, community partnerships are one of XQ’s core design principles: elements of high school that are crucial to preparing students for successful futures. Engaging community partners holds huge benefits for students, including:
- Improved academic outcomes
- Strong school culture
- Positive relationships between schools and communities
The benefits of community partnerships aren’t just for students. These partnerships also lead to positive impacts for the community itself, including:
- Energy and resources behind community initiatives
- Fresh student perspectives on community challenges
- High school graduates with expertise in the community and workforce
Of course, to access these benefits, educators need to engage community partners with care and intention. In the best partnerships, educators and students work alongside committed partners to pursue common goals. The result? Meaningful, sustainable work that benefits students and community members alike.
What Makes a Good Community Partner?
Choosing the right organizations to work with is key to setting up partnerships for success from the very beginning. Community partnerships should be just that: partnerships, collaborations that generate new ideas and benefit everyone involved. Good partners bring creativity, resources, and a fresh perspective to designing opportunities for students to contribute to and learn from the community.
A good community partner:
- Connects students to real-life partnerships that align with student interests
- Shares a commitment to empowering students, and sees genuine benefits from student involvement
- Provides opportunities for “like-to-have” projects—projects that will benefit the partner, but aren’t so critical that students don’t have room to fail
Finding partners that meet these requirements is well worth the effort. Deborah Park, the curator of projects and partnerships at Círculos—an XQ school in Santa Ana, CA—described the benefits students get from working with good community partners: “They’re getting authentic learning experiences. In school, it’s all hypothetical. But we’re getting students into the community spaces where the work is actually happening. It’s not abstract, it’s actual, real-world experience.”
Of course, finding good partners is only the beginning. Once you’ve identified organizations that you’d like to work with, we’ve put together several guiding principles for how get the most out of your partnerships, along with step-by-step tips from XQ educators themselves. These guiding principles are rooted in examples from XQ schools, which use community partnerships as a cornerstone of how to provide the best learning experiences for students. Explore these examples and tips to discover how to engage community partners effectively, for the benefit of students and the community as a whole.
Four Steps For Schools to Create Community Partnerships
1. Build Relationships with Partners
Engaging community partners starts and ends with relationships. Partnerships can begin based on the relationship between an educator and a nonprofit leader. Relationships between school leaders and community members can uncover shared goals, leading to partnering on community projects. And some of the most significant learning students do rest in the relationships they form with community members.
For instance, relationships are central to the community partnerships at Iowa BIG, an XQ school in Cedar Rapids, IA. Community partnerships are built into Iowa BIG’s DNA: school builders founded the school by engaging with a group of 60 community members to redesign the high school experience for local students. From this deeply relational beginning, Iowa BIG has flourished as a school where community organizations propose projects for students to take on, tackling community challenges. Through these projects, not only do students get to do meaningful work on community challenges—they also benefit from the relationships they form with community members and professionals.
Case in point: this group of Iowa BIG students brainstormed, designed, and presented plans for updates and improvements to the urban farm at Matthew 25, a local nonprofit focused on strengthening neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids. This project is an exciting example of students doing work that has real value to community organizations, and whose real-world impact is clear. Crucially, these students completed this meaningful project thanks to the supportive relationships they formed with community members. Through a partnership with ACE Mentor Program—a nonprofit supporting students in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering—students worked alongside design professionals in their community. These mentor relationships provided the extra expertise and support students needed to make their project a success.
Inspired by Iowa BIG’s example, here are some tips for how to engage community partners through strong, sustained relationships:
- Include partners in the design-level of projects and initiatives
- Invite partners to pitch projects on which they’d benefit from student involvement
- Invest in mentorships for students with professionals in the community
- Build opportunities for students to present their work to community partners at the end of the project or design cycle
2. Connect Students with Real World Experiences
Community partnerships are a crucial opportunity for students to gain experience in the real world supporting their future work and career aspirations. Engage community partners by seeking out these kinds of professional opportunities.
At Latitude High School, these real world opportunities often take the form of internships in the community. Through internships, students gain work experience, learn about potential career paths, and get to contribute to community initiatives. Check out recent internships Latitude students completed, like: the Global Surgery summer program with UCSF’s Department of Surgery, a creative marketing internship with the San Francisco Symphony, and an internship at Alameda Point Collaborative Farm. These internships help students gain confidence, professional experience, and—sometimes—earn money!
Tiger Ventures, an XQ school in Endicott, NY, also engages the community through an emphasis on professional opportunities for students. Tiger Ventures’ mission is to empower students struggling in traditional high schools to succeed as entrepreneurs, pursuing their dreams and contributing to their community. Engaging the community is a constant at Tiger Ventures, as educators work to give students real-world experience in business. As part of this engagement, Tiger Ventures hosts an annual craft fair called “The Market” to raise money for student entrepreneurs. Students use resourced materials to create holiday items and crafts which they then sell to the community, in part to fund their own business ventures, and in part to donate to a charity of their choice. This event supports student efficacy, connecting the products students create with a real-world consumer base in their community.
Educators can engage community partners to create these kinds of hands-on experiences for students through:
- Offering academic credit for hands-on professional experiences
- Compiling internship opportunities for students, and reaching out to local businesses to initiate new internship opportunities
- Preparing students on best-practices for how to obtain and succeed in internships
Extra: Check out our resource on student internships for how to make the most out of internship opportunities.
3. Align Community Interests with Learning Goals
The sweet spot of community partnerships occurs when authentic community needs and rigorous student learning intersect. Engage community partners deeply by identifying how students can apply knowledge and skills to solve community challenges.
At Latitude High School, an XQ school in Oakland, California, this intersection crystallizes in the tiny house project. This project started when students identified a need in their community to address housing instability and homelessness. Partnering with community volunteers, physics teacher Regina Kruglyak worked to design a project through which students could learn important scientific concepts while building tiny houses for homeless youth in the Bay Area.
Latitude founding principal Lillian Hsu explained how this project connects learning to community initiatives, saying, “It’s not just an abstract exercise. It’s ultimately going to be lived in in an actual community and be utilized by someone, and so that’s sort of the big picture.” Hsu also explained how this partnership came about thanks to Regina’s careful planning: “She really forged that relationship early on with this community partner, identified an authentic need, and then really connected back to her project and figured out ways of integrating the physics concepts into that sort of larger arc of the project.”
The tiny house project has been so successful, it’s become a fixture of the school, something students look forward to doing. As one student explained, “It felt like I was actually able to do something. It felt like we were doing something different, something that I cared about, instead of something that would never be helpful to me at all.” And as the project continues, so do opportunities for community partnerships. For the latest tiny house project, ninth grade physics students will work with architecture students at the University of San Francisco.
This example from Latitude emphasizes several key steps of engaging community partnerships that also meet students’ learning goals:
- Begin by identifying an authentic community need, and then consider what academic skills are necessary to address the need—not the other way around
- Reach out to partners with expertise in the knowledge or skills that students are meant to learn through the project
- Create low-stakes, regular opportunities to evaluate student learning to ensure that the project is engaging student learning competencies
4. Connect Projects to Student Interests and Passions
High school students bring fresh perspective, creativity, and excitement to their work with community partners. Capitalize on this energy by engaging community partners around initiatives that spark student passion.
At Purdue Polytechnic High School in South Bend, IN, student interest is front and center in Passion Projects, which students pursue alongside community partners. In these projects, teachers, or “coaches,” as they’re known at PPHS, suggest subjects they know align with student interests. Students then choose the project that most excites them and get to work, often partnering with community members and organizations.
Students’ passion shines through in the work that comes out of these partnerships. Take PPHS students’ creation of a school wellness center. For this project, 15 PPHS students interviewed coaches and peers at their school to understand the wellness challenges facing their community. The students then worked with Purdue University professors Jasmine Gonzalvo and Sonak Pastakia and Purdue students from the College of Pharmacy’s Center for Health Equity and Innovation (CHEqI) to explore ways to increase wellness at their school. Ultimately, students came up with suggestions like daily wellness breaks, brain breaks, vending machines with healthy snacks, and a healthier school lunch option.
In an article with Purdue University, Professor Pastakia described the success of the students’ initiatives: “I simply couldn’t imagine having this depth of thought and insight during my high school years. I’m confident that continued iterations of this project will continue to unlock the potential that the creation of the PPHS was designed to tap into.” Other recent passion projects have included an Adopt, Don’t Shop initiative, where students advocate against animal cruelty, and the construction of a student coffee cart aimed to increase sustainability.
Educators can ask these questions to engage community partners around student passion:
- What issues do my students care about deeply?
- What community organizations or individuals possess resources and expertise around these issues?
- How can I facilitate opportunities for student work to have concrete community impacts?
Actionable “Get Started” Tips From Educators
Inspired by these examples of community partnerships? Ready to get started engaging partners in your own community? XQ educators provided this list of tips on how to get started. These tips take best practices from real-world partnerships, like the ones above, to provide a nitty-gritty, step-by-step checklist for how to engage community partners effectively.
XQ educator tips:
- Compile a list of community partners from your own network. Expand your pool of partners each year by including parents’ and partners’ networks. Don’t forget, your local chamber of commerce can be a great partner.
- Align curriculum and projects with community partners. What are the projects? Who would be a good fit for each project? Check-in with teachers and sit in during class to make those connections. Think of other ways to bring in the community, such as speakers, mentors, and internships.
- Make the ask. Send a clear and simple email with a summary of the program, why you are reaching out to them, and why they should consider partnering with you. If you don’t know the person you want to reach out to, have a mutual acquaintance introduce you.
- Set the meeting. Once someone is interested, schedule a call or in-person meeting to share your program and how you will benefit from partnering.
- Follow up with materials. Send forms you need them to complete and relay any information you agreed to send. Schedule next steps for moving the partnership forward.
- Support, support, support. Once partners are on board, check in with them regularly throughout the year. Workshops on relevant topics can be valuable for a partner’s success in working with students and staff.
- Send feedback to help improve and expand your partnerships. At the end of each year, or when a partner finishes working with you, gather feedback to improve your project.
- Identify and research organizations and individuals with an interest in engaging your students and working with your school. This can be done through a public portal on the school website, mutual partners, parents’ personal networks, etc.
- Schedule a meeting or call with an organization’s representative to gain a deeper understanding of what they do and how it aligns with your school’s mission and your students’ interests.
- Invite the representative to your school for a tour as well as an opportunity to engage your students in small group discussions or as a school-wide guest speaker.
- Debrief after their school visit and come up with ideas to collaborate, which might include hosting an internship, coordinating a field trip, or facilitating an educational workshop.
- Plan an opportunity for students to engage with the organization at the work site or co-design a field trip that relates to the organization’s work.
- Nurture the relationship. Provide value to the organization. Invite the organization to school-sponsored events, and facilitate internships and field trip opportunities.
As these tips show, effective community engagement comes down to communication, shared goals, consistent reflection, and relationships. While engaging community partners takes effort, these partnerships are crucial in fostering meaningful, real-world learning. We hope you’ll join us in our continued work to engage communities to transform high school.