Leveraging Purposeful Partnerships
Three critical considerations when looking outside the district to increase leverage and capacity for improvement
BY CHRISTINA M. KISHIMOTO/School Administrator, December 2022

Christina Kishimoto (right), CEO of Voice4Equity and a former superintendent, sees partnerships with outside organizations as a means to improve equity in school districts. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
The demands on school leaders never have been more complex or demanding. They escalate, taking us further from the core mission of teaching and learning, while the needs of the communities that our schools serve never have been greater.

The definition of access to learning has expanded to include all community and family conditions that affect educational outcomes, including health care, mental health, food security, safe housing, family stability, technology access and transportation. While the school is an important hub for community engagement in matters related to the wellness and education of children, the pressure to address noninstructional matters has become overwhelming.

What is clear is that education leaders need better ways to address these needs that do not require building everything in-house. One of the best opportunities is to use external partners, through public-private partnerships, that can better leverage school districts’ capacity and policy positioning for more transformational changes.

Politicized Climate

Educational leadership is fast becoming unmanageable. Listening to state legislative sessions these past two years, one hears the shift in expectations as elected officials ask school leaders how they will solve community challenges, particularly those resulting from economic stressors and longer-term generational poverty. Moving into this next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, health crisis management has been added to the evolving job description of education leaders.

In addition to the sheer scope of the workload, there is the highly politicized climate in this nation, adding new roadblocks for education leaders to get the job done. With 36 gubernatorial races this fall, of which 29 had incumbent governors, the political climate may become even more intense, especially for state superintendents of education.

Smart school leaders can leverage public-private partnerships to rapidly scale responses to needs in the classroom and the community.

So what is a public-private partnership? It’s a formal relationship that leverages the assets and capabilities of each organization to produce a benefit to each of its constituents that could not occur absent of the collaboration. An example would be leveraging the land assets in public education to build affordable teacher housing managed by an external partner that does not distract the school system from its core mission of teaching and learning and benefits the community by retaining teachers in local communities in appealing housing.

This type of partnership is happening in the Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, Calif. Because of the high cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay area, the district was able to pass a voter-approved bond providing $33 million of funding for teacher/staff housing, the first of its kind in the state. A 122-unit facility with housing for up to 25 percent of the district’s staff opened this past spring. Rental rates at time of occupancy were about 56 percent of market rate.

This effort was possible through a partnership uniting the school district, which manages the housing through a new nonprofit organization; the community, which supported the project; and a private development company that handled site preparation and construction on the 3.3-acre property, which is located adjacent to school district headquarters.

Such public-private partnerships move beyond the transactional, bringing added value to organizations and to the community.

A Sensible Approach

There are three compelling reasons why superintendents need to focus more of their time on developing purposeful public-private partnerships for their school districts.

»Industry expertise supports innovation.

Public-private partnerships provide a means to bring outside innovation into the district. According to the Education Commission of the States, state legislatures across the country in 2022 placed emphasis on policy areas as diverse as student mental health, early childhood, career and technical education, COVID-19 recovery, acceleration of student learning, K-12 finance, teacher workforce shortages and postsecondary affordability.

These priorities lend themselves to collaborative learning designs that bring education and industry sectors together as innovative thought leaders to learn from each other and create solutions that would have been impossible in a traditional vendor relationship. These same industry thought leaders are the future employers of our students whose skills they will need to remain competitive. In turn, these partnerships can give teachers hands-on exposure to private-sector organizations.

Education leaders in some places are pushing into significant policy innovations with deeper cross-sector relationships. North Dakota’s state superintendent of public instruction, Kirsten Baesler, is leaning into a learning collaboration with her state’s career and technical education board to expand upon an already impressive list of global partners in technology and energy, now including cybersecurity. 

Public leaders across North Dakota and workforce partners collaborated on ushering through an $88 million matching fund bill to support innovations. One of the beneficiaries is the Fargo Career Technical Center with a suite of businesses committing matching funds to develop a breadth of learning opportunities for students from middle school upward.

»Partnerships expand capacity.

Partnerships also allow school districts to deconstruct what has been an insular model where only educators can do the work of education to one that brings the public and private sectors together. This enables educators to lead the teaching and learning decisions, while leveraging the learnings, resources and innovations of other industries to strengthen educators’ work. This means moving beyond relying solely on school district staff.

During the outset of the pandemic, the Hawaii Department of Education moved learning to online systems. This new learning model required support for parents, grandparents and caregivers who did not have the technology expertise to help their children or grandchildren at home. Hawaii’s state education team partnered with Hawaiian Telcom CEO Su Shin to quickly establish a dedicated statewide help desk for parents and grandparents in multiple languages. The resulting $1.7 million contract enabled the district to expand at-home online support to all 174,000 students and their families.

This took place in conjunction with the rollout of more than 49,000 student laptops and nearly as many Wi-Fi hotspots, significantly reducing the number of students without access to devices and internet access at home.

»Partners can pivot efficiently to new opportunities.

Finally, along with greater capacity comes additional support for district and state superintendents to leverage the political power and influence of industry partners who often wield significant influence in the public policy space. This influence can help a district accelerate the movement toward transformation and pivot to capture new opportunities.

Jhone Ebert, Nevada’s state superintendent of public instruction, is one savvy superintendent who leverages alliances that drive change. In her state, leaders from the public and private sector, including a diverse set of partners such as WestEd, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates and Applied Analysis, came together to replace the nation’s oldest student funding allocation system. The partnership brought with it a different way to address school funding using modern financial equity and transparency strategies.
The Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, Calif., built a 122-unit apartment facility for teachers and staff to occupy at below-market rates in the pricey San Francisco Bay Area. PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFERSON UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, DALY CITY, CALIF.

With a modernized approach, Ebert believes it will be easier for her team to make public education funding transparent, with a budgeting process that shows the connections between public policy, strategic equity priorities and decisions around funding allocations. All communities need access to information and transparency to understand their school system’s spending of public funds.

Why Now

With the infusion of massive federal funding for education through the COVID-19 relief bills, including the American Rescue Plan that brought $122 billion to state and local education agencies, we still have the opportunity to think differently about leading through powerful partnerships. These partnerships can create greater efficiencies, provide timely exposure to innovations to improve teaching and learning and shift mindsets around speedier adoption of new practices that replace status-quo programs that have not yielded expected results.

“School leaders need access to more innovation, more capacity to implement promising new initiatives, and a sustainable way to ensure that the solutions implemented today have funds to support them tomorrow,” says Doug Mesecar, an executive at Strategos, a national consulting firm focused on strategy and policy trends. 

The challenge for school district leaders is finding the time to focus on developing deep relationships with trusted, equity-focused partners that can bring innovation and add needed capacity to move the needle on outcomes. We will only close the existing, disempowering achievement gaps with significant resource deployment. There are no magic bullets.

District and state superintendents who have prioritized a partner-supported approach are finding themselves in a better position to efficiently and strategically use federal funds on high-quality, high-return programs, while leveraging industry expertise for greater impact and scale.

Lever of Change

Collaborative thought leadership conversations are occurring across the country. Public and private leaders are coming together to push their thinking on how to best leverage the significant resources in public education within systems that support flexibility and responsiveness on innovations to meet students’ needs now. If we spend all the money to fund the same practices, we will miss the opportunity for disruption and transformation that is in front of us.

Superintendents have a great opportunity to leverage the $122 billion of federal relief funds by deepening partnerships that extend their capacity to deliver quality learning designs for all students. Local and state education systems impact every industry in our nation. Therefore, private-sector leadership across sectors should be at the table as thought leaders and policy partners with school leaders.

Education leaders have a real opportunity to leverage the recent crisis to make the changes they long desired to ensure equity of access to quality education. Let’s leverage the power of purposeful partnerships to move expeditiously on innovations that will create the school systems that all students deserve.

CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO, a former district and state superintendent, is CEO of Voice4Equity in Vancouver, Wash. Twitter: @DrKishimoto