April 3 — 10:44 am, 2014

Cash-strapped District nurtures outside partnerships

The leader of a new office is building relationships and seeking to remove any red tape that interferes.

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Beset by massive budget cuts and with more deficits looming in future years, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite has been reaching out to area businesses, nonprofits, and foundations to make up the losses in money and programs.

Last year, he created the Office of Strategic Partnerships to find new allies that would augment the District’s programs and finances, while cementing and enhancing relations with old ones.

Maximizing outside partnerships is a good strategy in any case, but is crucial when a cash-starved district is trying to provide enough quality learning time for students. 

“Philadelphia schools are surrounded by a rich array of resources that support the development and learning of students,” the superintendent’s latest action plan says. “These resources are currently underutilized.” 

Those resources include the city’s recreation department, which operates a wide range of afterschool and weekend programs for school-age children.

In the new, stripped-down central office, the formidable task of facilitating these partnerships largely falls to one person: Stacy Holland, former head of the Philadelphia Youth Network. 

Holland is uniquely qualified for the job, which she officially began last fall after being on loan to the District for the previous six months. PYN links schools, employers and nonprofits to provide internships, training programs, and career pathways for the city’s youth, so she has extensive contacts in the business, academic, and charitable worlds. 

At the District, “we’re trying to build an infrastructure that says `partnerships matter,’” Holland said in a recent interview. The District has to “be able to honor [partner] organizations, make sure young people are matched properly with them and remove any bureaucratic red tape so they can connect seamlessly.” 

That hasn’t always been the case. “I spent a lot of the first few months rebuilding relationships” with outside partners, she said.

Nancy Streim, associate vice president for school and community partnerships at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied school-community partnership efforts, cheered the attempt at “opening up what sometimes seems like the closed doors of the District” by involving community-based organizations. “I applaud the effort,” Streim said.

No one can say exactly what dollar amount the current partnerships bring to the District; part of Holland’s job is to inventory the scope of outside involvement. But the scale is massive – tens of millions of dollars of services each year. For example, the city’s out-of-school-time system, which is mainly funded by the Department of Human Services, provides $21 million in afterschool activities for close to 7,900 children.

Holland said that the people and organizations running afterschool programs and related services “have been tremendously helpful and collaborative with the District.”

The District has kept its buildings open after hours to approved outside programs at no charge, despite the deep cutbacks – till as late as the maintenance staff is there. That means all buildings are open for activities until at least 6:30 p.m., with some accessible until 8 p.m.

Holland’s office is seeking to expand afterschool and out-of-school opportunities by better coordinating activities with the city’s recreation department. “The possibilities are endless,” she said. “We both have lots of kids in lots of facilities; right now, we are learning about their priorities and finding out intersections between us; our hope is to develop more joint programming. … So much of this is about asking what is possible and working through the details.”

As for restoring more District summer programs, which have been severely cut back, or easing the imposition of fees on outside organizations using school facilities on evenings and weekends, finding funding to address those situations will be difficult, she said. 

But more money isn’t always what is needed to expand District offerings, she added. “Sometimes the barrier might be a policy or procedure.”

Holland has already launched or coordinated several initiatives. In March, for example, she worked with restaurateur Stephen Starr to kick off a month-long Support Our Schools campaign that solicited donations in his 21 restaurants to fund multimedia labs, elementary school playgrounds, and six-week summer internships. His goal was to raise $100,000, plus a $25,000 donation from him.

The District is also planning to help teachers solicit funds for a variety of needs by promoting awareness of DonorsChoose.org, an online charity through which they can appeal for money to fund a variety of classroom projects. A publicity push is slated for April and May.

Holland helped usher in a new mentoring initiative, College Possible, that guides high school juniors and seniors toward college, then helps them transition to the postsecondary world and work toward a degree. This fall, College Possible, headquartered in Minnesota and now in four cities, will begin working intensively with a total of about 150 students in four Philadelphia-area high schools. They include George Washington and Parkway Center City, said Michelle Torgerson, director of new site development for College Possible.

Torgerson said that Philadelphia had been under consideration for a while, but Holland played a key role in quickly sealing the deal. “She had a very clear vision for the District’s youth and the way nonprofits could fit in with that,” Torgerson said.

Still, no one should expect to see Holland’s office come close to filling in the huge gaps left by years of erosion of District classroom offerings.

While the office aims to bring in at least $39 million in new money over the next year, Holland said she is putting the bulk of her energy into creating a long-term structure for building durable partnerships.

That involves unglamorous but important steps like shoring up the Philadelphia’s Children First Fund (PCFF), the District’s official nonprofit arm, set up to receive tax-exempt donations.

The potential for PCFF to boost aid to schools was vividly demonstrated when there was a surge of interest last year in Strawberry Mansion High School after an ABC TV special highlighted the school. As a result, PCFF has received over $275,000 in donations, Holland said.

Holland said she also wants to set up a menu of customizable partnership options for potential donors so that businesses, nonprofits, or foundations can easily do anything from funding a classroom technology package or a playground at a school to entering into a full-fledged whole-building alliance. “My job is to tap that energy and then facilitate the process, make sure it happens and then report back … so they feel really good about it.”

In the works too are plans to present area colleges and universities with a variety of school partnership options.

Beyond bringing in new resources, Holland said she wants to make sure they are spread out more equitably.

“Some schools have a tremendous amount [of outside resources] because they have connections” to nonprofits, businesses, and foundations, she said. “But what happens to those schools that never had those connections to begin with? … As new resources come in, we can get them there.”

Streim, of Teachers College, thinks the new office can make a difference. “If they can leverage those partnerships, they can give their kids a much better chance.”

Still, she cautioned that “piecemeal” aid has less chance of making a big difference at a school than a comprehensive, building-wide approach. Also, Streim warned, outside aid tends to ebb and flow. 

“If something is dependent on external dollars,” she said, “it’s always at the mercy of the economy and changing times.”

 

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