Building Strategic and Sustainable University Partnerships

Building a partnership takes work and collaboration. While many might equate this term with a friendship or marriage, partnerships between secondary schools and universities can be just as valuable. In fact, this kind of partnership actually shares many of the same facets as that of a personal relationship.

The Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) system in Maryland has had the opportunity to work in tandem with dozens of local and nonlocal universities over the past few decades. Through some of our more recent partnerships, more than half of the district’s executive personnel and multitudes of school principals have obtained doctorate degrees whose seminal work addressed problems of practice inherent in the district. Additionally, dozens of teachers have participated in leadership certification and National Board Certification-focused teacher leadership graduate coursework. What’s key to note is that each and every one of these partnerships provided programs of study that were tailored to the unique needs of the district, such as principal and teacher retention, parent engagement, and the academic plight of English-language learners.

The PGCPS journey from growing one fledgling partnership to more than 25 unique and multifaceted partnerships is a unique tale. What we have learned as part of our own examination and through our work as part of a collective is that there are essential elements to an effective partnership between a school district and university partner.

Principal Pipeline Initiative Grant

In 2011, PGCPS received a $12.5 million Principal Pipeline Initiative grant from The Wallace Foundation. Remarkably, when a request for proposal (RFP) went out to area universities to join PGCPS with the initiative, there was no interest. This was confounding, as the district assumed that a district offering money to work with university partners would be overwhelmed with interest! Because this was not the case, PGCPS hired a marketing firm to evaluate prospective university partners and to uncover the barriers to establishing effective university partnerships.

At the same time, PGCPS invited all of the area universities to a meeting to discuss the terms of the grant and to find out more about their apprehension or disinterest in working with the school district. The triangulation of the marketing research report, ongoing and candid university meetings, and the historical working knowledge of university partnerships yielded critical findings that forever changed our work with university partners.

Six Essential Elements to Effective Partnerships

What we learned through the process of establishing partnerships was that the connection had to be valuable to both parties. Here are the most critical steps that it takes to be successful:

1.Foster meaningful relationships. We recognized that it was incumbent upon the district and university program personnel to build partnerships that are mutually respectful of each partner’s internal needs while meeting the needs of program participants. Relationships are inherently part of every partnership and serve as the foundation to a successful one. Our ability to work collaboratively, with trust and transparency, helped to establish healthy relationships with our university partners. Dr. James P. Comer, founder of the Comer School Development Program at Yale University, illuminates this point by suggesting throughout the course of his work that no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship. In our experience, this holds true in every environment. When relationships are established, silos are broken and effective communication is derived.

2.Understand your partner. Our journey to effective partnerships started with introspection on our strengths and weaknesses as a district. As we gained clarity on our purpose and needs, we quickly understood the importance of understanding the work and needs of our university partners. Discussing expectations, outcomes, policies, norms, initiatives, signature programs, and past successes and failures level the playing field for all involved. Asking the right questions at the beginning of the partnership and getting curious about the goals and objectives of the partner were critical to our success.

3.Establish strong systems and structures. It became apparent once we took steps to objectively examine our systems and structures that we all have a shared history of developing teachers and leaders in their respective roles as conduits of education for our nation’s youth. However, each entity in a partnership will have a particular method of operating. Establishing clear systems and structures for meeting the goals of the partnership is one of the most important things to be done. A critical part of our district’s system for developing administrators—and aspiring administrators—was the intentional alignment of any university program or course to our district leader standards. The district leader standards are communicated to the university partner who, in turn, redesigns or revamps their course progression or program to align to our leader standards. This system and this approach are foundational to our work as a district. Moreover, having structures (e.g., regular meetings, conferences, convenings, calls, and the corresponding means to capture those experiences) is necessary. Creating PLCs or work teams to tackle the projects with established norms and operating procedures eliminates confusion and keeps every stakeholder on the same page.

4.Create clear points of contact. In the end, we found that having a singular point of contact for universities to route their concerns through was paramount, especially when that person has the ability to negotiate and leverage internal structures to best meet the external needs of university program partners. In many institutions, turnover and change in personnel are inevitable. However, when clear points of contact are not available, a partnership can be destroyed.

5.Solve problems in mutually beneficial ways. Historically, partnerships were initiated by universities based on their needs without consideration for the districts’ needs. We determined that, in essence, we were putting the cart before the horse by allowing university partners to exclusively identify syllabi content and program objectives.

Helping universities to develop programs aligned to district needs, as well as teacher and leader standards, enabled both partners to mutually benefit. For instance, we realized that an important impetus to a university’s work was the ability to conduct research in the district. Acknowledging that need was important, but it had to be balanced with the district’s need to have researchers work in schools or to conduct studies that answered a particular problem; in short, the agreement had to be mutually beneficial. For example, district personnel participated in a doctoral cohort to develop dissertation problems of practice that addressed a real-life, real-time problem in the district. The university faculty worked with district practitioners to grapple with problems while contributing research to the field in their respective domains. Thus, we realized how essential it was to enter into relationships that bring true value to a particular school, the central office, and universities.

6.Work through challenges together. It was painful to hear from our university partners that they found it difficult to work with our school district. We used this candor as a launching pad to invite our partners to continue an open and transparent dialogue. For us, this started with an examination of current practices and district policies to eliminate any hurdles that interfered with productive university partnerships. It is sometimes difficult in partnerships to be honest about challenges, but full disclosure helps with problem-solving and builds trust. Districts and universities alike have their own bureaucracies, policies, and politics. Open, honest, and transparent conversations around these challenges foster a positive working relationship and a stronger partnership.

Lessons Learned

As a district, we have made phenomenal strides in advancing opportunities for our employees and creating strategic partnerships with our university partners. We, as partners, first needed to define our relationship. In doing so, we needed to recognize and address barriers that may have inhibited the viability of the partnerships.

Through a collective effort with our university partners, we have a diverse portfolio of university partner offerings that include—but are not limited to—professional development opportunities, National Board Certified Teacher Leadership Certification, administrator certification, supporting services bachelor’s degree attainment, and EdD programs. We are pleased that the lessons we learned on our journey have resulted in university offerings that can be accessed from all sectors of our workforce, from supporting service to executive leadership. It was a journey well worth taking.


Pamela Shetley is director of talent development and Douglas Anthony is the associate superintendent of talent development for Prince George’s CountyPublic Schools in Maryland.