Branching Out with Student and Community Partnerships

Meghan Raftery

Meghan Raftery is a freelance instructional designer for K-12 public schools, nonprofit organizations and the private sector in addition to managing, an Educator Design Collaborative. She leads professional development throughout the country and in her hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia with a special interest in authentic learning, community partnerships and school redesign. She is also a wife, mother and bookseller in an airstream trailer bookshop called Read Books VB and serves as Program Director for The CROP Foundation.

“What problems are you trying to solve?”

As School/Community Partnerships Coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, I often use this question with community partners who are interested in a deeper level of engagement with students. We think about something the organization is grappling with and find ways to invite students to solve the problem.

What often results is a mutually beneficial relationship; partners get an infusion of innovative solutions to sticky problems and students have the opportunity to feel of genuine service to the community. Learning doesn’t get any more authentic than that!

This past winter the VBCPS Office of Community Engagement turned this question on ourselves when faced with a problem. We were gearing up to plan our annual Community Celebration to honor our Volunteers and Partners in Education, but wanted to do something different. We wanted to show our schools and community how transformative mutually beneficial partnerships can be for students.

The solution was clear: enlist the help of students, just as we encourage our partners to do!

The Community Celebration was already scheduled to be held at Kellam High School so we approached the administrative team and asked them if they would be willing to allow students in the school to act as event coordinators for the event. Rather than hiring professionals to design a program, serve food, supply decor, and provide entertainment, we decided to match community partners with students to mentor and guide them through the event planning process, from beginning to end. The administrative team eagerly agreed and invited a group of teachers from a variety of subject areas to begin plans.

The teachers quickly agreed to involve their students, who were pulled from a variety of courses and student groups including Hospitality and Catering, Introduction to Design, Advanced Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Fine Arts.

Group consensus determined a logical first step: enlist student help to decide on a theme for the event.

Choosing a Theme

Each teacher selected two students to participate in a creative problem solving process to determine a theme. Students first engaged in a generating activity called Force Fitting. Each student drew a picture on a post-it note of what they thought of when they heard the word “partnership.” They then worked as a group to create a list of words and phrases they would use to describe the Virginia Beach and Kellam High School communities.

Each student was asked to pair his or her picture with a word from the list to “force fit” a relationship. At that point, for the first time, we introduced the students to the problem: they would be working with their classes to plan the 2017 Community Celebration for over 700 invited guests to include school administrators, teachers, volunteers and community partners.

We showed the students pictures of previous events and explained why we wanted them to be involved, then asked them to use their Force Fits to generate a list of potential themes. From campground to starry night, the list was varied and the students had strong opinions about which theme they thought was best.

From there, it was time to refine their ideas using a focusing tool called Paired Comparison Analysis. Students ranked each theme idea by comparing each pair of ideas and rating the strength of preference. While there was almost exactly even distribution of preference for the ideas when we voted traditionally, the Paired Comparison Analysis yielded a clear winner: plants and growing.

For a theme, it was not the most exciting. The group sat in silence for a moment until one of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation students said the magic words: Branching Out. The room practically erupted in applause. The phrase “Branching Out” perfectly captured what we wanted the event to be: a call to action to our schools and partners to take a risk and try something new. At the end of this 45-minute meeting, we knew we were on to something magical!

Choosing Community Partners

We chose community partners best suited to the Branching Out theme. Catering students partnered with Kellam alumni-owned Commune, a local farm-to-table restaurant, and New Earth, a working farm focused on sustainable agricultural practices. Design students adopted a “rustic elegance” decor theme using rented materials from Palette of Petals, a local florist owned by a Kellam alum and mother of a student at the school, and with help from staff at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Entrepreneurship and Innovation students designed a map of the event space with advice from yet another Kellam alum who owns a local digital agency aptly named Grow.

As the partnerships developed, a group of student volunteers worked with Jpixx, a local video-led digital agency to create a documentary to air at the Celebration, telling the story of the partnerships that made the event a success. With the help of Jpixx, the students perfectly captured the power of community partnerships and inspired guests at the event to think about how they too could “branch out.”

Julia Huston, a Kellam junior involved in the project, said it best in her remarks the evening of the Celebration:

“Partnering with fabulous partners and volunteers, having them review our work and providing advice to us is honestly life changing. It is career-path changing. It provides a glimpse into the real world and current workforce expectations. It allows us to see what people really go on to do after high school and lets us see for ourselves what our futures might hold for us. Students learn from partners and volunteers, but partners and volunteers learn from us, too. It is a symbiotic relationship that has opened a lot of doors for many students and shows us what we can achieve one day.”

Please enjoy this student-made documentary:

Branching Out Tips:

  1. Cast a wide net. When initiating a school-wide project, you may be surprised which teachers/courses want to be involved.
  2. Share responsibility. When many classes are involved, classes can focus on specific aspects of the task, making the inevitable deadline less intimidating.
  3. Consider assigning a project manager or leadership team. With many groups involved, someone needs to have their eyes on the big picture.
  4. When identifying community partners, ask more people than you need. It’s tempting to have a particular person or group in mind, but have a backup plan so you are not dependent on any one group. As much as businesses and organizations want to be involved in schools, their actual work must take precedence so having someone else ready to step in is not only worthwhile logistically, it also gives students a broader perspective.
  5. When in doubt, ask the kids. In order for students to get a true sense of what it takes to pull off a large scale project, let them in on the mistakes and tense moments. Ask for their advice and problem-solving skills. The moments that make the entire project seem doomed are often the best learning experiences!
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