Jaein Lee
Strong and effective district-community partnerships are crucial to ensure that all students graduate prepared for college.


In recent years, the education spotlight in the United States has shifted from high school graduation to postsecondary success along with the recognition that to thrive in today’s economy requires more than just a high school diploma. In response, local, state, and federal policy-makers

679 and practitioners, working with their community partners, have turned their attention to equipping students with the skills and knowledge required to obtain a postsecondary degree.

To achieve this new goal, school districts will require much closer relationships, not only with higher education institutions, but also with parent and student organizing groups as well as the multitude of organizations within communities that provide out-of-school learning experiences for students, college access and college knowledge services, and mentoring and tutoring programs. Indeed, this shift toward college readiness can provide a frame around which communities and school districts organize and collaborate.

As collaborations among K–12 systems and external providers are increasingly required to prepare students for college, they will need new ways to strengthen their relationships and create a streamlined process to work together. In particular, they will need to assess the quality and capacity of their partnerships and to ensure a shared vision and clear articulation of each partner’s role.

Our focus on better understanding the connection between districts and external partners has grown out of AISR’s work as part of the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. CRIS brings together research partner institutions – AISR, the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University, and the University of Chicago Consortium for Chicago School Research – and five urban sites – Dallas Independent School District, New Visions for Public Schools in New York City, the School District of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and San Jose Unified School District – to jointly develop, test, and disseminate effective tools and resources that provide early diagnostic indications of what students need to become college ready. In addition to developing indicator and support systems and analyzing data, the CRIS sites have a clear desire for tighter and sustainable collaborations between school districts and external organizations – and many have taken innovative steps toward reaching this goal.


As partners in college readiness develop their roles and responsibilities, it is important that they have an opportunity to assess the quality and capacity of their own and their partnering organizations. Several CRIS sites have put significant effort into monitoring and assessing their partnership programs to ensure that efforts are successful and sustainable. For instance, the Dallas Independent School District central office, through the College Access Program, has developed a formal, streamlined process for collecting and sharing data on students served by a group of external partners. In New York City, iMentor partnered with New Visions for Public Schools to launch a six-year independent evaluation of its mentoring program’s impact on outcomes at the student and school level. This evaluation will be one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever published on school-based mentoring (see our “Partnerships for College Readiness” paper to learn more about diverse partnership practices in the CRIS sites).

Reflections on current partnership conditions can strengthen the partnership program outcomes as well as the relationship of the partners. 681 For example, to facilitate this practice, the Rhode Island Partnerships For Success (PFS) convened some of its community-based and higher education institution partners and developed the “Partnership Rubric,” a tool to assist PK–16 partners to reflect on their current collaboration conditions and provide a guide on how to improve their partnership practice. Through this rubric, PFS hopes to ensure that “partnerships are built on collaborative relationships that involve the input and participation of all parties as a means of success” and ensure that all partners involved have shared goals and accountability on increasing student outcomes.

Shared Vision

As community-based organizations and universities increasingly collaborate with K–12 systems around college readiness, a practice critical in building quality and sustainable partnerships, yet not observed in many districts, is the need for shared visions and clearly defined roles and responsibilities among partners, as research asserts (Bosma et al. 2010; Goldring & Sims 2005; Núñez & Oliva 2009, Bruce et al. 2011). For instance, on the district side, some of the key roles and responsibilities include a formal commitment to college readiness, a “point person” or department to manage partnerships, and a streamlined process of collecting and sharing data. For partners, some examples of their responsibilities include identifying the type of student population(s) they want to support for college readiness and developing efficient processes for collecting and sharing data that can be useful for the district in identifying measurable and valid outcomes for students.

For example, the Pittsburgh Public Schools and their partners, including the Pittsburgh Promise and the United Way of Allegheny County, have developed a shared vision around the promise of student postsecondary readiness and success. When they realized the importance of good683  attendance as an indicator of future success, the district and partners rallied together to create the “Be There” campaign to eliminate chronic absenteeism and barriers to good attendance.

In this era of heightened expectations, increased student need, and shrinking education budgets, it is clear that districts cannot do the work of college readiness alone. As opportunities for collaboration between K–12 systems and external organizations continue to grow, districts can take an important role in ensuring that partnerships are managed efficiently and effectively.

CRIS Partnership Tools

The CRIS sites expressed a need for a streamlined process to initiate and evaluate college readiness collaboration. To support this effort, AISR has developed a set of tools for school districts and external providers – interventions inventory chart, roles and responsibilities, and rubrics for partnership readiness and quality – to help them develop stronger and more effective college readiness partnerships; these tools will become available for the public by Fall 2014.


  • Bosma, Linda M., Renee E. Sieving, Annie Ericson, Pamela Russ, Laura Cavender, and Mark Bonine. 2010. “Elements for Successful Collaboration Between K-8 School, Community Agency, and University Partners: The Lead Peace Partnership,” Journal of School Health 80, no. 10:501–507.

  • Bruce, Mary, John Bridgeland, Joanna Fox, and Robert Balfanz. 2011. On Track for Success: The Use of Early Warning Indicator and Intervention Systems to Build a Grad Nation. Baltimore, MD: Civic Enterprises and Everyone Graduates Center.

  • Goldring, Ellen, and Pearl Sims. 2005. “Modeling Creative and Courageous School Leadership Through District-Community-University Partnerships,” Educational Policy 19, no. 1:223–249.

  • Núñez, Anne-Marie, and Maricela Oliva. 2009. “Organizational Collaboration to Promote College Access: A P-20 Framework,” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 8, no.4:322-339.

Prepared by:

687 Jaein Lee, Former Research Analyst
Annenberg Institute for School Reform
at Brown University