‘Critical Conversations Group’ Opens New Doors for a School District and Community Agencies

Cathy Martin
Cathy Martin

In 2011, a seed of an idea was planted in the Harlem Consolidated School District 122 (HSD 122) long-range plan: “The District will engage with parents and community at large in meaningful ways that will positively affect student achievement.” How our students and our community would benefit from that goal in just three years was something no one could have predicted!

One of the long-range plan activities to address that goal was an annual collaboration of community agencies to develop a comprehensive list of resources and service providers. A small group of community leaders and district staff began meeting to discuss this collaboration and the idea of a yearly event was quickly abandoned for an ongoing, more sustainable relationship model. Consequently, the “Critical Conversations” group was born.

Relationships that Make ‘Meaningful Contributions’

With about 7,600 students and nine elementary buildings, a middle school, a ninth-grade building and one high school, HSD 122 draws from three municipalities in suburban Rockford. Every month, representatives from 25 different community groups — municipalities, businesses, and local faith-based and service-based organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and United Way, meet with district staff for lunch and conversation. The group was small when started, but now has 44 permanent members, though all don’t attend every session. Typically, the meeting agendas include a district news update and a guest speaker from the community. Most importantly, the group has worked together to make HSD 122’s plan a reality, by establishing relationships among participants to make meaningful, timely contributions to the district and the Harlem community.

Partnerships for Individual Schools

Critical Conversations meetings are an opportunity for members to hear and discuss district initiatives and needs. Individual schools work collaboratively with a variety of business, faith-based and service organizations, and government agencies. Each community partner is asked to “adopt” one school and help meet the needs of the students, families and neighborhoods in that particular school attendance area. The partner agency contributes to or assists with activities such as tutoring, clothing drives, back-to-school family barbeques, school grounds clean up and beautification efforts, school supply donations, and sponsorship of family fun nights both at school and in the community.

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This is a win-win situation for everyone involved. Not only do schools reap material benefits, but staff and students develop deeper, caring relationships with partners because the focus is on one school and its “local community.” In addition, community partners gain visibility through advertising and recognition opportunities. And of course, everyone benefits from stronger families.

Opportunities for Community Collaborations

Through this type of monthly, face-to-face meeting, opportunities for larger community collaboration have flourished. “Critical Conversations isn’t just an opportunity for me to learn more about school and community programs. I’ve tapped into this group many times in my role in village government to leverage resources that are helping people in our community,” says Lori Mitchell, Machesney Village Government clerk.

One collaboration that has had a big payoff for community agencies, as well as HSD 122, is a school partnership with Habitat for Humanity. For over 40 years, HSD 122 had offered a high school construction class where students built and sold a neighborhood home. The program had been losing money in recent years due to the state of the housing market, and when the construction program was evaluated in 2011, a recommendation was presented to the school board to discontinue the class. The district could no longer sustain the annual monetary losses.

That’s when Habitat for Humanity, a Critical Conversations member, stepped in. No one involved — board members, staff, community leaders — wanted to discontinue this popular tradition. So, despite a number of logistic and calendar issues, a plan was hatched to build a home with Habitat. Construction of a house began this past fall on a donated lot. Students not only are continuing to learn and practice construction skills alongside seasoned professionals among our staff and volunteers, they also are experiencing the gift of giving back to their community.

District-wide Partnerships

Although HSD 122’s nine elementary schools work with various partners, some district-based initiatives support all elementary students and families. In 2011, the district partnered with Critical Conversations members United Way and Head Start to donate classroom space and materials to a preschool program. Another partnership involves the neighboring Rockford (Ill.) Public School District and United Way for an Early Reading Initiative, “I READ.” Trained reading mentors make weekly visits and work with at-risk kindergarten students. Mentors stay with their students through the end of third grade, helping them become proficient readers and creating a consistent support system.

‘A Common Ground’ to Discuss, Support and Cultivate Initiatives

“Our partnerships, whether they are district-wide or they involve only individual schools, are crucial to the success of our students, families and our community-at-large,” said HSD 122 Superintendent Dr. Julie Morris. “We are only as strong as our collaborative efforts to support today’s learner and tomorrow’s leader.”

In Harlem School District 122, the Critical Conversations group enables those collaborative efforts to flourish. Every monthly community conversation provides a common ground to begin the discussion, support the idea and cultivate the partnership initiatives that are the fruit of that seed in our strategic plan.

Cathy Martin is director of stakeholder engagement for Harlem Consolidated School District 122 in Machesney Park, Ill. She can be contacted at cathy.martin@harlem122.org.