Cross-Sector Collaboration to Support College and Career Readiness in an Urban School District
by Joel Malin, Donald G. Hackmann & Ian Scott - 2020
Background: School reforms requiring collaborations spanning multiple sectors are increasing in prevalence, but extant research has primarily focused only upon cross-sector partnerships involving education and social services. College and career readiness (CCR) reforms, such as the one highlighted in this study, are also often intrinsically cross-sectoral in nature. It is necessary to understand how such complex collaborations are developed and maintained. Purpose: This study examined how cross-sector collaboration has shaped the development and implementation of district-wide high school career academies in a large urban school district.
Research Design: We applied case-study methodology to examine a mature cross-sector collaboration that guides and supports the district’s career academy reforms. A meta-framework concerning cross-sector collaboration—developed by Bryson, Crosby, and Stone (2015)—supported our design, data collection, and analysis.
Conclusions: Findings disclose a complex system of structures and processes to support reform implementation and illuminate the role and nature of cross-sector collaborations. This study provides an initial step toward understanding the elements, processes, and leadership required to develop and sustain cross-sector CCR reforms. The findings hold relevance for practitioners (e.g., how to develop and strengthen such complex reforms), community partners, and researchers (e.g., theory-building regarding reform-supporting elements and their interactions).
In the United States, a policy push to strengthen K12 students college and career readiness (CCR) is underway (Darling-Hammond, Wilhoit, & Pittenger, 2014). This push is evident in multiple federal, state, and local reforms. Community partnerships spanning multiple sectorsincluding school districts, higher education, civic agencies, and businessesare often intrinsic to CCR reforms and policies, especially those intended to augment students transitions to postsecondary and workforce settings (Malin, Bragg, & Hackmann, 2017; Malin & Hackmann, 2017). The high school career-academy model, for instance, aims to promote a career-focused curriculum and relevant supplemental opportunities (e.g., job shadowing, internships, and college visits) for students through engagement with ongoing cross-sector relationships involving multiple stakeholders.
Cross-sector collaboration is the linking or sharing of information, resources, activities, and capabilities by organizations in two or more sectors to achieve jointly an outcome that could not be achieved by organizations in one sector separately (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2006, p. 44). Research highlights both benefits and challenges of cross-sector collaboration, noting how multiple stakeholders can work toward a common goal. When applied to education, such collaborations represent an extension of longstanding efforts to coordinate services among government agencies, social-service organizations, businesses, and schools, in order to address persistent community problems and improve graduation rates (Henig, Riehl, Rebell, & Wolff, 2015). Partnerships are essential to addressing many challenges currently faced by schools (Henig, Riehl, Houston, Rebell, & Wolff, 2016; Miller, Scanlan, & Phillippo, 2017), including efforts designed to improve high school graduates abilities to successfully transition to college or career.
Cross-sector collaboration represents a promising practice that canand arguably mustbe applied to the development of high-quality career academies. However, school-reform initiatives have been understudied within the broader cross-sector collaboration literature, with research primarily examining cross-sector partnerships to enhance social-services provisions (Henig et al., 2015). There is a need to investigate how community partners work across sectors through an education-focused initiative to promote students CCR.
This article reports on a case study of a CCR initiative involving a district-wide career-academy model operating in a large school district in the southern United States. In the decade since the academies were created in August 2007, various community sectors have been involved, and the high school graduation rate has increased from 58% to 81% (Malin & Hackmann, 2019). The study addressed the following research question: How has cross-sector collaboration shaped the development and evolution of career academies in an urban school district?
We begin by providing context regarding the U.S. policy drive to enhance students CCR, and we further establish that cross-sector collaboration is inherent to and underexplored in many education reforms. We then review the research regarding cross-sector collaboration, both generally and within the CCR context. Finally, we turn more specifically to career academies and describe how this particular cross-sector CCR reform fits within broader school-reform efforts.
COLLEGE AND CAREER READINESS REFORMS: BACKGROUND AND CROSS-SECTOR ASPECTS
High school students should have quality academic experiences to prepare them to transition into the next phase of their career development. In realizing this goal for the benefit of individuals and society, college and career readiness is essential (Malin & Hackmann, 2017; Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011). Yet a skills gap persists in the U.S. workforce, with many young adults lacking the necessary knowledge and skills to enter well-paying occupations (Symonds et al., 2011). Although completion of a rigorous high school curriculum is a reliable predictor of postsecondary success (Conley, 2010), there is a significant disconnect between students career aspirations, the applicability of educational training, and the quality of their educational preparation. Post-high school training is essential, as occupations that provide middle-class salaries and benefits are increasingly restricted to those with college degrees and/or professional credentials (Carnevale, Jayasundera, & Gulish, 2016).
The Great Recession of the late 2000s prompted a shift in which the proportion of jobs requiring a high school diploma or less declined significantly, replaced with occupations requiring at least some postsecondary education and technological knowledge (Carnevale et al., 2016). In response, numerous states have enacted policy goals designed to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers (Conley, 2014). The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were created in 2009 in part to increase curriculum rigor and amplify the focus on CCR (Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d.). Currently, 42 states and the District of Columbia are using the CCSS. More recently, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 included policy provisions intended to strengthen states focus on CCR (Malin et al., 2017).
Accordingly, economic data have frequently been used to encourage CCR reforms (Malin, Bragg, & Hackmann, 2017). However, there are concerns associated with a solely economic framingfor instance, the possibility that business needs could come to subordinate those of the schools and, relatedly, the possibility that equity goals may be sidelined in favor of pragmatic aims to simply fit students and schools to preexisting social structures (Labaree, 1997). In this vein, some scholars have asserted that equity must be addressed more prominently in CCR policy (Hackmann, Malin, & Ahn, 2019; Castro, 2013; Welton & Martinez, 2014). Without a clear equity focus, there is a danger that CCR reforms will reproduce longstanding inequities among student groups rather than opening up opportunities for historically marginalized students.
CCR rhetoric and policy also appear to have favored college over career, lengthening a longstanding debate over whether education should provide a liberal or a vocational education (Malin et al., 2017). Though these represent the extreme poles of the debate (Bragg, 2012), we reject an essentialist conceptualization of CCR (e.g., the design of education solely to meet labor needs; Rojewski, 2002). Another concern relates to perceptions that high school career and technical education (CTE) classes, which are typically integral to CCR reforms, are less rigorous than core academic courses, which may serve to restrict students future opportunities (see Dougherty & Lombardi, 2016); this concern may partially explain the prioritization of college over careers in CCR policy and practice to date (Malin et al., 2017). Notwithstanding, accumulating evidence now favors a third approach: integrated college and career preparation, as intended as part of robust career academies. Students can benefit from such reforms, which can simultaneously prepare them for both employment and a full range of post-secondary educational options (Stern, 2015, p. 4). Delivering on such reforms requires educators and cross-sector partners to collaborate extensively so students can authentically experience this integrated preparation. Accordingly, we argue, cross-sector collaboration components are inherent in high school CCR reforms.
CROSS-SECTOR COLLABORATION: THEORY AND RESEARCH
Public-school leaders have successfully collaborated with local businesses, civic organizations, and community agencies as a way to countervail the effects of poverty (Miller et al., 2017), but there is a dearth of research focusing on school-centered cross-sector partnerships to promote student learning (Henig et al., 2015). Schools provide an advantageous setting in which to advance research on the significant gaps in the cross-sector collaboration literature, such as how leadership roles are developed and how power is shared across partnering organizations (Crosby & Bryson, 2005). Our study adds to the literature by providing a comprehensive view of cross-sector collaboration involving multiple schools, community organizations, and businesses within a single urban school district.
One of the most well-known iterations of school-focused cross-sector collaborations is the full-service community schools movement (Miller et al., 2017). Community schools, like the Harlem Childrens Zone, are designed to provide students with access to a range of health, social-welfare, and family-support services at the school site through close collaboration with local community organizations (Dryfoos, 2005). Underlying this approach is the premise that providing access to comprehensive services for students and their families in one centralized location will result in the best outcomes for students in the most cost-effective manner (Henig et al., 2015). While studies have focused on the effects of community schools on academic outcomes (Child Trends, 2014), changed neighborhood conditions (LeGower & Walsh, 2014), and health outcomes (LaRocco, Taylor, & DAnnolfo, 2014), this research has not explored the dynamics of cross-sector partnerships in the design and implementation of community schools.
Schoolbusiness partnerships have also been subject to study. Henig et al. (2016) noted that 91% of formal programs established through collaborations with schools have at least one business member serving on the leadership committee. Historically, the business sector has tended to occupy two roles in cross-sector partnerships: it is a source of financial resources, and it provides sites for students to engage in work-based learning experiences. Business officials possess insights into local labor-market needs, and, ideally, CTE programs are aligned with high-demand career fields and allow students to earn industry credentials that command high wages. Partnerships can benefit the business community by addressing labor-market needs by providing credentialed high-school graduates and through philanthropic involvement in the community, which provides a marketplace for businesses to sell goods and services (Melendez, Hawley, & McCormick, 2012). However, some have voiced concerns that businesses could wield substantial influence over schools, which might lead to the adoption of school policies thatwhile favorable to local businessesare not necessarily in the best interests of students or the districts (Abowitz & Boyles, 2000). Indeed, such efforts appear largely driven by social-efficiency goals for education, introducing tensions between the school and business sectors and heightening the risk that they subordinate schools to the needs of the market (Labaree, 1997, p. 65), at the cost of other important educational aspects and partners. Others have noted that local educators may experience difficulties keeping up with the pace of innovation and changing work practices that occur in some business sectors as they strive to keep their curriculum and instructional practices relevant (Flynn, Pillay, & Watters, 2016). Therefore, cross-sector partners must develop collaborative processes, as well as clearly articulated leadership roles, to eliminate potential sources of conflict and develop trusting relationships (Bryson et al., 2015).
A consistent finding is that open communication among school, community, and business leaders is key to successful cross-sector collaboration. Partnerships can facilitate community-wide consensus on values and norms, which positions relationships as authentic, collaborative, and interdependent (Aidman & Nelson Baray, 2016). Another factor influencing partnership quality is establishing clear leadership structures, management roles, and lines of communication (Bryson et al., 2015); intergroup leadership is essential to balancing relationships across sectors and developing shared commitments (Pittinsky, 2009). Such structures can offset the dependence of the partnerships on particular individuals (Aidman & Nelson Baray, 2016, p. 271), although rapid turnover within the collaborative infrastructure can be problematic (Miller et al., 2017). Because K12 educators are considered to be the curricular and pedagogical experts regarding CCR programming, they might be expected to assume the lead role in the initial design and implementation of the initiative. Aidman and Nelson Baray (2016) reported a growing recognition that cross-sector collaboration can be an essential ingredient in improving educational achievement (p. 264). However, there is little research examining processes for and challenges to establishing the relationships necessary to promote this improved achievement.
In light of current research on cross-sector collaborations with schools, Henig et al. (2015, p. 29) pointed to several critical issues that future research must explore, three of which the present study directly seeks to address. First, they underscored the need to examine how cross-sector collaborations become legitimated and entrenched over time (versus the predominate focus thus far on their initiation) as the normal way to do business (Henig et al., 2015, p. 30). Given the rarity with which collaborative efforts are successfully sustained (Swanstrom, Winter, Sherraden, & Lake, 2013), it is imperative for researchers to study long-lasting collaborations. Second, Henig et al. (2015) cited research showing that working with schools presents unique challenges; for example, schools must address state accreditation mandates and teacher-licensure requirements, and they are bound by legalities regarding the sharing of sensitive information. These and additional education reform-related challenges can make it difficult for collaborators to develop trusting relationships with educators; accordingly, we need to focus on how they are identified and resolved. Relatedly, discussion in the literature on cross-sector collaborations acknowledges the need for measures of accountability and success (Bryson et al., 2006), whichin the education-accountability regime ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and continuing with the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015often means maintaining records of longitudinal performance data. As a result, reviewing organizational structures and rationales for data use and sharing among partners is critical.
Effective partnerships have also been considered with respect to the individual goals of schools and business partners, with mutual benefit an important outcome (Aidman & Nelson Baray, 2016). Larson (2001) noted two primary types of school-business partnerships: school-to-career partnerships and adopt-a-school partnerships. These categories are dynamic and often have overlapping goals. The former approach views students as future workers, while the latter views districts as recipients of charitable donations, providing access to financial resources that cannot be attained by the district on its own (Flynn et al., 2016). Such partnerships also may involve local business members as mentors and guest speakers. As Bennett and Thompson (2011) noted, however, the presence of adopt-a-school partnerships may provide needed human and physical resources but may not provide a lasting impact on student achievement outcomes (p. 832). Bryson et al. (2006) described these arrangements as service-delivery partnerships, in contrast to system-level planning partnerships (such as the cross-sector career academy initiative, which is our focus in the present study) focusing on resolving systemic, persistent community issues.
Another line of inquiry has examined work-based learning (WBL) experiences provided to students through cross-sector partnerships. These field-based activities may include career fairs, field trips, job shadowing, internships, or other activities in which students explore career fields and interact with industry professionals (Conley, 2010). Conducting an international comparison of WBL participation rates and student outcomes, Bishop and Mane (2004) found that students living in countries promoting extensive WBL participation performed better in reading and math and earned higher wages, regardless of family background or postsecondary participation. Examining African American males involvement in WBL in an urban high school district, Linnehan (2001) found that greater participation in WBL programs increased mean grade-point averages and attendance rates when compared to those students who did not participate.
The career-academy model is a high school reform that can be located within the press to improve students CCR (Malin & Hackmann, 2017) via multiple pathways approaches to promoting college and career preparation (Oakes & Saunders, 2008). In this approach, high schools are divided into smaller learning communities (academies) that provide career-focused curricula, and schools partner with local businesses to offer work-based learning experiences (Brand, 2009). Academies allow students to engage in career exploration, select a career field, and complete career-aligned coursework, including rigorous academic and CTE courses. Since initially appearing in Philadelphia in 1969, career academies have become a popular reform, with approximately one million U.S. high school students learning within career academies in 2009 (Brand, 2009).
In theory, students within career academies may simultaneously derive benefits related both to community (they can be part of a smaller, more cohesive school within a larger one) and personalization (their instructional program is individualized and flexible, aligned with student interests). This reform is backed by a small body of research suggesting academy structures can, at least under certain conditions, positively affect student learning outcomes and increase participating students (particularly males) longer-term success in the labor market (Kemple & Willner, 2008). Career academies can also enhance students non-cognitive skills, including workplace skills, which can be accessed through cross-sector partnerships (Kautz, Heckman, Diris, ter Weel, & Borghans, 2014).
Noguera (2002) has noted, however, that the creation of personalized learning communities is, by itself, insufficient to produce improved student outcomes. Attention to local factors and directed leadership are crucial to the success or failure of a small-schools initiative. Considerations such as cross-sector leadership, open communication between school leadership and teachers, the presence of a shared school culture, and ongoing progress-monitoring are all crucial to the successful implementation of small-school reform (Noguera, 2004). Leaders working across organizations and schools must guard against applying small learning communities as a one-size-fits-all approach to education reform and instead be sensitive to local economic and social conditions through ongoing collaboration among administration, staff, and community partners (Noguera & Wells, 2011). Through attention to context, purposeful collaboration across sectors, engaging the local community, and rigorous progress-monitoring, schools can become centers of community development that support the academic and personal growth of students (Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014; Martin, Fergus, & Noguera, 2010; Noguera & Wells, 2011).
Conchas and Rodriguez (2008) utilized a case-study approach to examine two small career academies operating within a diverse comprehensive high school in Oakland, CA. Through interviews with students, teachers, and administrators, they identified several components key to the academies success in creating a supportive and high-achieving learning environment. First, the academy staff worked with parents, counselors, and teachers to target recruitment efforts to specific students. Additionally, teachers were key players in the creation of the academic environment that the students embraced (Conchas & Rodriguez, p. 19); each academy developed its own unique identity while sharing a common mission of student success. Finally, the smaller academy size allowed for personalized attention and hands-on career exploration, which students cited as important to their investment in the schools culture. These strategies worked in combination to create an environment that mitigated racial and ethnic conflict among students through the creation of a community of learners who supported instead of competed against one another (Conchas & Rodriguez, p. 28).
Despite the popularity of the career-academy approach, its effectiveness has not been extensively researched. The most rigorous study to date, a randomized trial conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation(Kemple, 2001; Kemple & Snipes, 2000; Kemple & Willner, 2008), found a high degree of heterogeneity in impact, depending on the particular school and program (Conn, Park, Nagakura, Khalil, & Corcoran, 2017, p. 46). In addition, most research concerns individual or small-scale (versus school-wideor, in the case of the present study, school-wide and essentially district-wide) academies; therefore, it is unclear whether the results are transferable (see Stern, Dayton, & Raby, 2010). This research suggests that specific features of career academiesand, particularly, features of the cross-sector collaborations that support and maintain themmediate their strength and quality. Career academies require ambitious, sustained cross-sector collaborations that extend beyond the confines of the school, connecting the school district with numerous community entities; therefore, they involve many moving parts and require adaptations on the part of the high school and efforts beyond those normally made (Stern et al., 2000, p. 2). We designed the present study, accordingly, to add to the literature by examining how cross-sector collaboration shapes the development and evolution of career academies.
Our data collection and data analysis activities were supported by a meta-framework set forth by Bryson et al. (2015), based on a comprehensive review of theory and empirical research regarding the design and implementation of cross-sector collaborations. They reviewed seven theoretical frameworks for understanding cross-sector collaboration and 199 empirical pieces, synthesizing their findings into five categories that transcend the different frameworks: general antecedent conditions; initial conditions, drivers, and linking mechanisms; processes, structures, and links between them; endemic tensions or points of conflict; and outcomes and accountabilities (Bryson et al., pp. 650651). These categories, key definitions, and findings are summarized in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Summary of major cross-sector collaborative theoretical frameworks
General antecedent conditions refers to factors that prompt the formation of the cross-sector partnership involving a sector failure, which is a persistent public-policy issue arising within the political environment that demands resources exceeding those available from a single agency. Bryson et al. (2015, p. 652) explained that cross-sector collaborations form due to public managers and policy makers realization that government cannot remedy a public problem on its own, or at least that involving business, nonprofit, and community partners can spread risk and provide more effective remedies. In the present study, we could not observe antecedent conditions and initial conditions, drivers, and linking mechanisms because we were studying a mature cross-sector collaboration in operation for a decade. However, we aimed to develop reasonably solid understandings in these areas, primarily via interviewing key informants and reviewing archival documents, so we could better contextualize present activities, behaviors, and designs as partners addressed college and career preparation. We describe these conditions as part of our case description. We directly studied all other portions of Bryson et al.s synthesis framework, utilizing their categories as a priori codes; we focused primarily upon what was observable but also attempted to contextualize these findings by seeking information about relevant histories through interviews of key actors.
Initial conditions, drivers, and linking mechanisms rely on the commitment of boundary-spanning leaders who are willing to champion and sponsor the cross-sector initiative. Crosby and Bryson (2010, p. 219) described these roles: By champion we mean a person who is a tireless, process-savvy organizer and promoter of the change effort; in contrast, a sponsor is less involved in the process but deploys author, money, or connections to move the change effort forward. Boundary-spanning leaders are collaborative, can powerfully frame issues, and possess the conviction to address a problem. Other key drivers or conditions include initial agreement regarding problem definition and the general sense that addressing the problem will require interdependence; the structure of formal agreements; authoring an authoritative text about the collaboration (e.g., its story and its norms); prior relationships and existing networks; the nature of the task to be addressed; and requests for proposals and other facilitators (e.g., projects and technologies) of collaborative efforts (Bryson et al., 2015)., Cross-sector leadership is an essential connector within the context of career-academy reforms (Noguera, 2004), as key actors work across organizational boundaries to facilitate needed academy components and partner activities.
Collaborative processes and collaboration structures work together to foster effective cross-sector collaboration (Bryson et al., 2015). Collaborative processes are essential to developing a shared understanding of the problem and forming a shared vision. Partners build trusting relationships with individuals engaged in the initiative, and their shared commitment reinforces trust across the involved organizational actors (Bryson et al., 2015). Communication is essential, and face-to-face interactions are important connecting mechanisms. Both internal and external legitimacy are necessary; Bryson et al. (2015) asserted that stakeholders must feel that they have gotten a fair hearing in decision-making settings (p. 653). Collaboration structures include such components as developing norms, rules, and standard operating procedures (Bryson et al., 2015) as partners manage their joint work. Ambidexterity is important, as collaborating organizations manage tensions that may occur across formal and informal networks.
In Bryson et al.s (2015) estimation, leadership, governance, technology, and capacity and competencies are areas in which processes and structures intersect. As collaborations continue through the years, it is likely that their original champions and sponsors will transition out of these roles; thus, strategies to manage these changes should be developed. Numerous individuals will exercise leadership within their respective organizations and across the collaboration; their skills and roles are necessary to ensure there is collaborative capacity to guide the collaborative activities. Governance, noted Vangen, Hayes, and Conforth (2014), entails the design and use of a structure and processes that enable actors to direct, coordinate, and allocate resources for the collaboration as a whole and to account for its activities (p. 8). Technology, including work procedures and tools, facilitates the work of the collaboration itself (Bryson et al., p. 655). Bryson et al. reported that key individual and organizational competencies include the ability to work across boundaries, analyze and involve stakeholders, engage in strategic planning, and participate in teamwork (p. 655).
Endemic conflicts and tensions include power imbalances, multiple institutional logics, and tensions that may influence the overall functioning of the collaboration. Bryson et al. (2015) noted that collaborating organizations differ in status (either because of size, funding, constituency, or reputation (p. 655). Different organizational logics can create tensions when actions, processes, norms, and structures that are seen as legitimate given one institutional logic may be seen as less legitimate or even illegitimate when one uses other logics (p. 656). With career-academy reforms, although an implicit goal may be to prepare students for both college and workforce options (Stern, 2015), partnering organizations may have different aims (i.e., business partners may favor workforce preparation over college readiness), which may create tensions across sectors.
Accountabilities and outcomes include tangible and intangible outcomes, as well as complex accountabilities. The collaboration must have a public value that cannot be accomplished by single sectors acting alone (Bryson et al., 2015), and the outcomes must include immediate, intermediate, and long-term effects. Accountabilities across the sectors can be particularly complex, reflecting distinct priorities and concerns (Bryson et al., p. 657) within each collaborating organization.
We applied case-study research methods (Creswell & Poth, 2018) to examine how cross-sector collaboration has shaped the development and implementation of career academies in an urban school district. Winterdale School District (WSD, a pseudonym) was selected due to its longstanding communitywide partnership, which has been in existence since the academies were created in 2007; the districts 12 neighborhood high schools operate under the academy structure. WSD has numerous partners who support the academy project through in-kind contributions, field-based experiences for students, and volunteering in the 12 high schools. In the initial phase of our research, we examined integrative leadership practices, focusing on actions of key community partners and school-district educators as they worked across organizational boundaries to share leadership activities to support academy design and implementation (Malin & Hackmann, 2019). We found that this reform required restructuring leadership roles within the school system, as well as forming a cross-sector leadership team to provide oversight and guidance, with community leaders contributing to partnership activities in accordance with their expertise and available resources. In the second phase, we conducted an in-depth review of the cross-sector collaboration, bringing the five interactive categories developed by Bryson et al. (2015) to our data to examine how Winterdale community partners have worked collaboratively to develop, implement, and sustain the academy model throughout the past 10 years.
Data collection occurred from May 2016 through July 2017 during five site visits in which we interviewed individuals involved in the collaboration and in the schools and observed partner retreats, professional development activities, and school activities. We also reviewed documents and annual reports created by the school district and community agencies reporting on academy progress, student performance, and community collaboration. To assist with our understanding of the organizational structure and academy functions, we conducted site visits to two schools that were recommended by school-district leaders as being led by experienced executive principals who were deeply committed to the academy approach and collaborative partnership. During the high school visits, we met with school leaders to discern how they organized their schools to promote the academy structure, toured the facilities to observe classroom spaces dedicated to various career pathways, observed classroom activities and an academy board meeting, conducted interviews, and informally visited with educators, students, and partners. Through observations of cross-sector meetings and retreats, we focused on how collaborative processes and structures had formalized over time to promote the academy initiative. School visits provided opportunities to experience several academies in operation, as we observed school leaders, teachers, students, and cross-sector partners engaged in academy-specific learning activities.
We conducted semistructured individual and focus-group interviews of 53 individuals. Interview participants external to the school district included four leaders of civic organizations, eight business/industry partners, and two higher-education professionals. (See Appendix 1 for sample interview questions.) Those interviewed in school positions included two school-district administrators, two executive principals, two academy coaches, six academy principals, nine academy lead teachers, eight counselors, and 10 students.
Our analysis of data proceeded as follows. First, we transcribed the audiotaped interviews, and we returned those transcriptions to participants for member checks. We maintained field notes during and immediately following site visits and reviewed documentation related to the academies and the partnerships that supported them. To these data, we applied a qualitative analysis sequence recommended by Bazeley and Jackson (2013). As a first step, we familiarized ourselves with the raw data, looking for initial patterns and noting interesting, unusual, or significant points. For example, certain conflicts and tensionsconcerning, e.g., the pace of change and the curricular content within certain programsbecame apparent to us at this stage. We also engaged in a period of unstructured exploration of the data in an effort to see themes, subthemes, and connections (Bazeley & Jackson). As a third step, we brought a priori codes (e.g., the interactive components and subcomponents) from Bryson et al.s (2015) cross-sector collaboration framework to our analysis. Our decision to proceed in this manner reflected our shared view that the Bryson et al. framework was well-suited to assist us as we worked to reduce and draw meaning from our extensive data, while also according with Creswell and Poths (2018) recommendation that researchers who are making some use of pre-figured codes remain open to additional, emergent codes. In this study, this openness primarily enabled us to attain greater depth from within certain of Bryson et al.s categoriesfor example, driving us to identify and analyze the specific conflicts and tensions that were apparent and to analyze the qualities of the accountabilities and outcomes that were developed, tracked, and discussed. Fourth, we turned our attention especially to connections among the codesfor instance, seeking to understand when and how they were organized hierarchically and/or were interactive in nature (Gray, 2018). At this step as well, the Bryson et al. framework and extensive review were helpful, for example, in providing concepts and explanations that we could compare with what we were identifying. Finally, we reviewed and refined our codes. We met as a research team on numerous occasions to review our data, discuss our thematic analysis and tentative themes, and reach agreement regarding both our findings and how to report them. (See Appendix 2 for examples of raw data being linked to specific codes, by data source.)
It is important to describe our positions relative to this study in recognition that these positions might influence aspects of study access, design, and analysis. Malin, a White male, is formerly a school psychologist and district-level administrator, primarily in suburban and rural settings. He has also served as a curriculum specialist at a federally-funded research and resource center designed to strengthen college and career pathways programming in a large Midwestern state. Hackmann, a White male, was the director of that center. Prior to his time in academia, he served as a high school and middle school principal within urban and rural communities. Scott, a White male, is currently a graduate student at a large midwestern university, where he also coordinates a trauma-informed psychoeducational program for incarcerated adult students. Prior to entering graduate school, he was a high school special-education teacher in a large urban school district. Collectively, our research is focused upon enhancing equity and access, as well as smoothing students transitions from high school to college/career.
Our positionalities may have influenced the study in a few key ways. First, our prior research and professional experiences in similar areas helped us secure access to this research site. Our previous research into college- and career-readiness practices also shaped our interview protocol development and informed the conceptual framework guiding this study. Third, our backgrounds as educators and school and district administrators and our abilities to communicate respectfully with community partners were helpful in demonstrating credibility and facilitating rapport with educators and research participants. The development of rapport and comfort is an important aspect of qualitative interviewing (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). We also acknowledge that our gender and racial/ethnic backgrounds could influence our perceptions and interpretations as well as our relationships with participants (Milner, 2007), sometimes in ways we might not fully grasp, and accordingly we do not wish to minimize how these aspects of our identities could affect a qualitative study of this nature.
Located in the southern United States, Winterdale and the surrounding metropolitan area contain approximately 2 million residents, including major corporations, healthcare services, publishing and entertainment industries, and several colleges/universities. Winterdale is racially and ethnically diverse, with a population that is 60% White, 27% Black/African American, 10% Latinx, and 3% Asian American. Winterdale School District (WSD) enrolls over 80,000 students; nearly 70% are non-White, and three-fourths qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. City leaders have a long history of collaboration, sharing a commitment to promote the regions economic prosperity. In 2004 Winterdale Connected, a community-empowerment organization, was formed. Its primary aim is to improve the health and education of the communitys youth through the shared involvement of government agencies, school districts, civic organizations, businesses and industries, and faith-based groups. A task force was created and charged with reviewing the high schools; its members identified numerous issues troubling the local public schools, including a 58% graduation rate, student-discipline issues, chronic school absences, and the threat of state takeover of several high schools due to low academic performance. The groups consensus was that students were disengaged because they viewed the curriculum as irrelevant to their current and future lives. Consequently, some students dropped out of school, and many who did graduate did not possess sufficient skills to meet community workforce needs or transition to college/university. These public problems (i.e., sector failure) affected the entire community, because the ability to attract new businesses and families to Winterdale was dependent, in part, on perceptions of school-district quality.
Acknowledging that ineffective Band-Aid solutions had previously been attempted, school leaders agreed that systemic reforms were needed. A few high school principals located a federal grant opportunity for smaller learning communities, and an ambitious plan was proposed to implement high school career academies that would collaboratively engage the school district and the civic and business sectors. By partitioning schools into academies, the partners intended to create more personalized learning environments while realigning the curriculum to address career interests. The grant proposal was submitted and the grant subsequently awarded.
In 200708, eight neighborhood high schools began implementing career academies schoolwide, with the remaining four beginning in 200809. Each of Winterdales 12 high schools is structured on a schoolwide model, with each school containing a freshman academy and two to five college/career academies for grade 1012 students. More than 40 academies are offered across the district, with academy pathway offerings based upon local workforce projections. Examples include the Academy of Hospitality and Marketing and the Academy of Business and Innovation. Entering freshmen are automatically accepted into their neighborhood school; they may also apply for admission to another school if it offers an academy that better fits their career interests, although acceptance at the school of choice is not guaranteed. Freshmen engage in some career exploration as part of a required seminar; later in the year, they apply for admittance into an academy of their choosing. Each academy contains specialized career pathways; for instance, the Academy of Digital Design and Communication includes audio-production, broadcasting, and design-communications pathways. Students must complete a minimum of three courses within a pathway, and many earn industry-recognized credentials and/or college credit. Academies and career pathways are offered and reviewed annually, with revisions made based on local labor-market needs.
The organizational structure is generally uniform across the 12 schools. Each high school is led by an Executive Principal, who provides full oversight, and each academy is led by an Academy Principal, who is responsible for all activities therein (e.g., hiring, supervision and evaluation, student discipline, and curriculum). Academy Team Leads work with each Academys teachers. Each school has a full-time Academy Coach (a non-administrative appointment) who acts as liaison between the school and cross-sector partners, coordinates advisory-board meetings, monitors academic data, coordinates activities, represents the school on district committees, and designs and leads professional development for educators.
The academies strive to change teaching and learning, particularly to include problem-based learning (PBL) and instruction focused on students CCR. As a communitywide initiative, academies rely heavily on the active engagement of a broad network of leaders across sectors. Five organizations are considered the core partners: Winterdale School District; Winterdale Connected; Winterdale Civic Network, a community civic organization; Support Our Schools, an education foundation serving the community; and Epsilon Foundation, a national corporate philanthropic foundation based in the community. Business and civic leaders participate on a Business Leaders Council, Commercial Partner Committees, and local school Academy Advisory Boards. More than 300 community partners are involved, providing $3 million in in-kind contributions and volunteering more than 25,000 hours annually.
Business-partner involvement facilitates students career exploration (through, e.g., business-partner classroom presentations, career fairs, industry field trips, and job shadowing) and work-based learning experiences. Since the implementation of the academy initiative, the districts graduation rate has greatly improved. During a district-wide summer workshop, district administrators cited their estimates that an additional 13,000 students have graduated from high school since academy implementation, due to these increased graduation rates. Based upon their calculations of earnings differentials between graduates and non-graduates in their region, they reported an annual positive impact on the community exceeding $100 million. (Workshop presentation, July 13, 2017). Student discipline and attendance have markedly improved, student proficiency scores on state-required tests have increased in English I and Algebra 1, and the number of students accessing advanced courseworke.g., Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and dual credithas substantially increased.
This case study revealed an interrelated system of structures and relationships necessary for the implementation, sustainability, and continuing evolution of the academy model. Using Bryson et al.s (2015) framework to guide and shape our data-collection and analysis, we sought to understand how cross-sector collaboration supported the career-academy initiative. Therefore, we have divided our findings into sections corresponding with this framework, focusing on components that emerged through our analyses. Drawing on our interviews from several stakeholders, we document the landscape of cross-sector collaboration and its influence on the academy initiative.
INITIAL CONDITIONS, DRIVERS, AND LINKING MECHANISMS
In the initial stages of the collaboration, the task force expanded to involve additional community stakeholders. There was consensus on the need to reorganize to engage kids as to why they are in school, (Interview, July 12, 2017) which they believed could be achieved via personalized learning environments. One principal located the federal grant for smaller learning communities and shared it with Carol, who was assistant principal at the time. She recalled, I started reading the grant and looking up, and Im like, This is it! This is it! because they had already done the research on the dropout data and how the small learning community affects and gives personalization to the kids. (Interview, June 1, 2016) Although dividing the school into smaller teams of students and teachers could resolve the relationships concern, it would not address the issue of relevance. Adam, a Civic Network official, described business leaders desire for well-prepared graduates
who are smart and can really communicate and adapt and change and be trainable. Ideally, they have access to credentials, but in this new world that gets disrupted with every new technology change; even credentials will soon, in some ways, lose their value if the person holding them cant adapt and change to new skills. (Interview, July 12, 2017)
Thus, the career-academy concept held an additional and slightly different appeal to business and civic members, because this realignment could address the need for a more capable workforce. Partners agreed that the academy model would serve as an effective mechanism for linking to relationships (through smaller learning communities) and relevance (through a focus on rigorous career preparation). It would also provide a mechanism to connect educators with cross-sector collaborators (i.e., business leaders, civic officials, and higher education), as each group could visualize fulfilling an important role. A key driver of cross-sector collaborations is an ability to frame an issue in a way that can enable diverse partners to understand its significance (Bryson et al., 2015). In this case, we discerned that the concept of relevance has had significant organizing and long-term motivating power.
Although the group coalesced around the career-academy reform idea and began to pursue grant funding, the Winterdale district administration objected, preferring an approach that would strengthen core academic courses. Karen from Winterdale Connected said that the Chief Academic Officer perceived the proposal as vocational education. She really misunderstood it. She actually did a lot to try to block it. (Interview, May 15, 2017). Several high school principals lobbied the administration for permission to apply for the grant and ultimately obtained approval, but then the school districts grant-writer declined to write the proposal, citing insufficient time. At that point, Winterdale Connected assumed a lead grant-writing role. Citing a sense of urgency and emphasizing the collective power of the coalition to overcome these setbacks, Carol explained the task forces resolve: We did not have any district support, but . . . lets go for it because what elsewe dont have anything else to lose at this point because the state is coming in to take us over. (Interview, June 1, 2016) Ultimately, the district received the $6.6 million federal grant.
While the external funding was essential, several interviewees also highlighted the burgeoning relationships that were necessary to conceptualize, initiate, and sustain the reform. Adam, the Civic Network official, explained, The model doesnt work without business engagement, (Interview, July 12, 2017), and key actors agreed that an extensive network of partners was needed to support the career-focused activities inherent in the model. These observations align with Bryson et al.s (2015) suggestion that the nature of the task (in this case, to develop robust career academies) can significantly influence the shape and direction of the collaboration as it develops and evolves. As tasks were clearly defined and each organizations contributions became clearer, leaders saw their status and demand elevate.
Collaborative processes are necessary to help partners establish inclusive structures, create a unifying vision, and manage power imbalances (Bryson et al., 2015, p. 652). As Winterdale partners worked to design and implement the academies, as well as to assess needed modifications through the years, trust and commitment, communication, legitimacy, and collaborative planning were found to be essential.
Trust and Commitment
Through our observations of cross-sector retreats and interviews, we noted that trust has deepened among the partners, although they acknowledge the ongoing importance of nurturing relationships. Support Our Schools is tasked with expanding business involvement, and Harrison, a partnership coordinator from Save Our Schools, described how his role has become easier as the partnership has matured:
We are salesmen in the sense that we are selling that experience of being involved with the public school here in Winterdale, but the sell is not difficult because there is such an army of business support. You know, if you think about who all is at the table as a business, you want to be at that table as well, because your peers are there. (Interview, May 2, 2017)
Inherent in the concept of trust is a concomitant expectation of accountability, with partners required to demonstrate continuing investment in the initiative. For example, Adam explained that the business community stressed the necessity to create processes
to make sure that the district isnt reducing its commitment, its not off-loading its responsibilities to the private sector. So, as the private sector steps up and donates . . . several million dollars a year, time and money, we want to make sure that school systems are honoring their commitments. (Interview, July 12, 2017)
From the business community in particular, several participants revealed a common stance of trust, but verify in regard to activities and decisions of the educator partners, with the verify portion requiring a variety of methods and processes, including the development of complex accountability structures and reporting procedures, which we describe later.
As a complex cross-sector initiative, the academy model requires multiple communications processes. In schools, site-leadership teams have been created to facilitate schoolwide communications, and districtwide monthly meetings ensure consistency across schools. The academy coach position serves a key boundary-spanning role, as described by Harrison: We look at the academy coaches as the communicator for their school to the business community. (Interview, May 2, 2017) Academy coaches connect business partners with teachers and help negotiate between educators requests and the demands and available resources of businesses. Harrison, likewise, was recognized as pivotal in communicating and brokering across sector boundaries, particularly between schools and businesses; academy coach Patrick explained, I go shop for business partners [with Harrison] first. (Interview, November 22, 2016) Cross-sector councils meet regularly to maintain communications channels among all participating partners.
External and internal legitimacy were found to be necessary, not only to maintain collaborative processes but also to demonstrate the effectiveness of the academy model. The importance of external legitimacy came to the forefront due to misperceptions within the community. Adam from Civic Network reported: We had uninformed elected officials popping off about the academies and didnt really understand what they were (Interview, July 12, 2017). Consequently, an outside marketing firm was hired by Winterdale Civic Network to create an academy brand and marketing materials, and Civic Network and the school district publish annual reports to document the academic performance of each school. In addition, cross-sector partners opened the schools for visits, as Adam explained:
We hosted six VIP tours one year, the other six schools the second year, and we got state legislators, metro-council members, neighborhood-association leaders, faith-based leaders, school-board members, and that was a concerted effort to make sure our elected leadership . . . understood what the academies were and saw them first-hand. (Interview, July 12, 2017)
Early in the collaboration, internal legitimacy became an issue when principals made changes to their academies without consulting cross-sector partners, which created conflict because these modifications were not based upon local workforce needs. Thus, principals needed to redefine their understandings of internal: Within the context of the academy initiative, collaborative partners are also involved in internal decision-making processes. As a result, principals now must present proposed academy changes to the Commercial Partner Committees, obtaining their input before the district administration acts on them. Monica, a school-district administrator, clarified the power dynamics, noting: The business partner has a louder voice than we do here. (Interview, November 22, 2016)
Thus, the perceived internal legitimacy (involving business partners in particular) of core reform aspects relates closely to involvement in the process of developing changes to pathways. This stands to reason, because business partners representing these fields possess strong insights about local trends, and this finding provides additional support for the idea that the nature of the task affects the shape and direction of partners activities and their perceptions of the effectiveness of activities.
Systemwide planning is grounded in the projected employment needs of the local community. Carol explained: First and foremost, we look at the workforce data. (June 1, 2016) Harrison reported that partners need an understanding of current industry trends and job forecasts as they consider potential changes to pathway offerings. We observed cross-sector partners involved in a two-day summer retreat intended to review their progress over the past 10 years and begin formal planning for Academies 2.0. (Interview, May 2, 2017). Through this retreat, partners identified future goals and proposed new academy directions.
Within cross-sector partnerships, networks and collaborations do not replace each organizations structures but instead function in complementary roles (Bryson et al., 2015). This section reports on contextual influences on structure that we found, as well as the role of structural and related processual ambidexterity.
Contextual Influences on Structure
A multitiered structure to support partner activities has been created, offering opportunities for cross-sector leaders to contribute their expertise and provide input into decision-making processes. Monica explained how Civic Network helped design a system with this tiered approach: We have Advisory Board advocacy at the school level, we have Partnership Councils at the city level . . . and then [Business Leaders Council] at the very high level of advocacy where all the big CEOs in the city sit. (Interview, November 22, 2016). The Business Leaders Council, an elite group including CEOs of major corporations, the mayor, and a school-district official, serves an important accountability function by providing cross-sector leadership, monitoring academy progress, and ensuring that public and private partners contribute adequate resources to support the academies. This council can flex considerable political muscle to advocate for the academy initiative when needed. Commercial Partner Committees monitor academy needs within their occupational areas and provide insights on local workforce trends. Academy Advisory Boards meet quarterly in each school, chaired by a business partner and with members including the academy coach, the academy principal, teachers, parents, and students; they provide guidance to the academy team. Academy coaches from the 12 high schools meet regularly with district leaders, ensuring that academy structures and activities are coordinated across the schools. Thus, each of these structures operates at the appropriate level (i.e., school, district, or cross-sector) of oversight.
Structural and Related Processual Ambidexterity
The Winterdale collaboration showed ambidexterity, using its authority to respond to emergent needs on behalf of the school district. Business leaders, who are unaccustomed to dealing with state regulations, sometimes express impatience with educators passive acceptance of restrictive state policies. Lynn, an academy coach, empathized: It gets very frustrating to see the bureaucracy of a school. (Interview, November 8, 2016) Consequently, Adam described how cross-sector partners used their agency and political influence to resolve a persistent problem that the school administration was unable to address:
We initiate legislation and back in 2008 initiated a bill to change CTE class size. . . . CTE teachers had this arbitrarily outdated 1:15 ratio. . . . There are a lot of CTE courses that theres no reason why you cant have 30 kids in there or whatever if you need to. . . . It made it really hard to schedule and team those teachers together and give them some common planning time. . . . We were hearing the frustration of the school system . . . saying we cant change it. Well, I said, actually, Lets introduce a law. So, we drafted a bill, got a sponsor, lobbied it, passed it. (Interview, July 12, 2017)
LEADERSHIP, GOVERNANCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND CAPACITY AND COMPETENCIES
Processes and structures are interrelated components that ensure the development of effective cross-sector partnerships. In this section, we address leadership roles, practices, and skills; governance; and collaborative capacity and competencies identified within this case.
Leadership Roles, Practices, and Skills
Key sponsors and champions are essential to the success of the cross-sector collaboration (Bryson et al., 2015). Sustaining the Winterdale partnership involves numerous individuals in leadership roles, with leaders prized for the talents they contribute to cross-sector activities as well as within their own organizations. Civic Network is both a sponsor and an advocate for the academy structure. By establishing tiered committees, Civic Network has brought together key community and school-district leaders to work collaboratively. Support Our Schools vets potential business partners, conducts background checks, and assists with matches between businesses and schools. A business leader described how cross-sector committees provide forums for input and involvement:
We have the business voice talking to Winterdale public schools, Civic Network, and Save Our Schoolsall the community entities. And thats where we raise that voice, putting it there saying, This curriculum isnt right, or this needs to change, or this is part of the pathway, so we unite that voice there and become an advocate. (Interview, November 22, 2016)
Within the school system, academies create new leadership roles and opportunities for educators. Academy principals have expansive duties that would be assigned to the typical assistant principal position operating in traditional high schools. An academy principal explained: We . . . treat our academies like its our own schools, and the way I look at our academyfor better or worseIm in charge. (Interview, November 22, 2016) Academy team leads, self-described guides and organizers, (Interview, November 8, 2016), and boots on the ground, (Interview, November 8, 2016), assume a leadership role in facilitating the work of each team, encouraging teachers to create interdisciplinary, career-focused curricula that engage business partners and to collect, analyze, and track data related to their academy students performance. The full-time academy coach is an essential leadership role, with this individual connecting the school with business partners and monitoring student-progress data.
Because the academy initiative is centered within the district, most activities occur in the 12 high schools, and district leaders are accountable for its implementation, daily functioning, and student-learning activities. A complex communications network and governance system has been created to provide oversight and mobilize leaders to work together to hold one another mutually accountable, as well as to coordinate the work of the over 350 business partners. For example, Karen described Winterdale Connecteds advocacy role and involvement on administrator search committees in order to ensure that newly hired principals and school-district administrators are committed to the cross-sector initiative. She noted, Weve got representatives on the selection panels for the finalists of this past superintendent search, so were able to ask questions and make sure that they understand that this is an important priority of the community. She reported that her organization developed the academies guiding principles . . . that all principals know about before they sign on to be a principal of an academy school. (Interview, May 15, 2017) Governance structures operate both inside the school system and across the cross-sector partnership, and partners actively work to ensure that, as key sponsors and champions move on to other roles or positions, their replacements are fully committed to this collaboration.
Collaborative Capacity and Competencies
Key leaders work in boundary-spanning roles to facilitate the academy initiative. Cross-sector partners agree that the initiative represents a communitywide commitment to increasing the number of high school graduates from their school system who are adequately prepared for college and careers. They acknowledge that enthusiasm could wane over time if the partners did not examine their past successes; review their collective capacity and cross-sector leadership competencies, commitments, and skills; and look to the future. Noting that the partnership has been in existence for a decade, Adam explained the importance of cross-sector engagement in envisioning the future: Inevitably, youve got to anticipate that at some point youve got to recharge, renew, refresh, and you cant . . . coast on what youve done in the past. And so, thats the notion behind the Academies 2.0 also, is that can we reinvent ourselves, can we innovate further. (Interview, July 12, 2017) Through ongoing summer planning retreats, as well as in-district professional development for educators, partners work to ensure that competent and committed partners are involved.
ENDEMIC CONFLICTS AND TENSIONS
Conflicts can result from tensions that arise from the differing aims and expectations that partners bring to a collaboration, tensions in loyalties to home organizations versus the collaboration, differing views about strategies and tactics, [and] . . . attempts to protect or magnify partner control over the collaborations work or outcomes (Bryson et al., 2015, p. 655). We observed few conflicts, possibly because partners resolved them during the early years of the initiative, but found evidence of power imbalances, competing institutional logics, and tensions.
Business partners generally acknowledged that the ultimate decision-making authority remains with the district, due to the instructional standards and content requirements that public schools are required to implement. School leaders sometimes must make decisions based on state policies instead of industry best practices; this occasionally frustrates business leaders, who sometimes feel powerless to influence curriculum. Academy coach Patrick recognized this tension in negotiating curriculum revisions:
[A business partner] is stuck on the idea that his organization should be the contracted curriculum for the collision-repair pathway because it is industry-specific. . . . If that is the industry standard then we probably should consider doing that, but we are confined because the state has standards for the actual courses. . . . We can probably institute one or two modules of your instruction into our course . . . , but we cant usurp and overthrow the state standards in a class . . . even though it may be . . . more relevant to what the industry requires. (Interview, November 22, 2016)
Although there is recognition of the obvious benefit and applicability of utilizing a curriculum recognized throughout the region as representing the skills and knowledge future employees would be expected to need, the reality of changing a curriculum is not so simple. As a result, students considered qualified by the school may be deemed untrained by industry standards.
Business leaders noted how state regulations supersede their practical experience in their industries in the matter of instructor expertise. Specifically, they reported that the opinion about whether an individual as qualified to teach an industry-aligned course often differs between the business community and schools, and individuals with essential industry expertise often lack required teaching credentials. Creative solutions are often required to address this reality. For example, academy coach Lynn recalled a conversation where the teachers and principals talked about finding a math teacher, going out to [university] or wherever, and you're saying, Hey, you think you want to teach math, but did you know with those three classes in computer science you can teach web design or programming? (Interview, November 8, 2016)
Multiple Institutional Logics
A conflict between partners that remains unaddressed involves the speed at which work takes place and change occurs. Business leaders, used to private industrys top-down decision-making, which results in immediate implementation, described the difficulty of making changes and the slow pace of reforms within the district. Academy coach Lynn acknowledged this frustration: Businesses and schools arent always on the same page, and they dont understand us, and we dont always understand them, and things in the world of business go really quickly, and they get done and they dont understand it. The fear among some business leaders is that the slow pace of change puts students in a constant state of disadvantage when entering into the job market because things change so quickly, so if you take four to five years to implement something, it might be outdated. (Interview, November 8, 2016)
In addition, there is some conflict arising from a perceived inability to engage in long-range planning within the schools. Harrison highlighted these issues:
The business community likes immediate response to a phone call, to an email. They want things to work . . . on schedule and rhythmic, whereas many times in the public-school setting, fires arise, emergencies happen, change occurs quickly, transitions occur. . . . The business community does not necessarily always like the, We need help next week or in two weeks from now. They like to know whats happening over the course of the next few months. (Harrison, May 2, 2017)
While business leaders prefer planning far in advance and making needed changes immediately and with little deliberation as a project goes along, schools do not operate at the same pace or with the same logics of change.
As can be expected over a 10-year collaboration, there has been turnover among school-district leaders, cross-sector leaders, and partners. In these situations, questions arise regarding levels of flexibility versus stability in the design and implementation of the model. Some of this tension results from the predisposition of school leaders toward the traditional accountability metrics used to judge schools success, such as student test scores. Also, the model was originally focused on careers that do not necessarily require four-year college degrees, but partners are increasingly focusing on students attainment of industry credentials that may require postsecondary training. As accountability demands and district goals have evolved, other factors are considered important in the district, including college preparation. Karen observed, You can look at the overall data on paper, but then the things that are . . . intangible. . . . And I think the danger from that, too, is so we get a new Director of Schools, he doesnt have that perspective. (Interview, May 15, 2017)
Further, there is concern that the new district administrator is not as devoted to the partnership as previous administrators. Monica noted:
Thats really the biggest threat right now is, does he think this is worthwhile? Is he as enamored . . . as the other people used to be? . . . Is it relevant enough and vigorous enough that people are willing to continue to support it with their dollars and their time? (Interview, November 22, 2016)
If cross-sector partners perceive that newly hired district leaders are not fully committed to the initiative, they could withdraw their support, which is vital to the success of the academy model.
Another potential source of tension involves differing levels of career integration within classrooms. An academy principal reported that the career focus varies among our academies as well, as far as how well were integrating thematic pathways into the general education curriculum. (Interview, November 22, 2016) Managing this tension was key to establishing effective working relationships among general education teachers, CTE teachers, and business partners. Monica observed:
If its a math teacher who says, For whatever reason, when Im teaching statistics the kids just arent getting it, if I can bring in a business partner that has an artifact of Heres what I use every day around statistics, and heres how I use it right then, maybe that math teacher can connect, tell that story in class and that would be the way they make the connection. (Interview, November 22, 2016)
On a related note, some educators reported that academies were not universally embraced, particularly by college-bound students and their parents, for whom the career emphasis may seem less relevant. A team lead explained:
But I think we do have one issue that is kind of beyond us, is that we have some kids who dont want to be a part of the academies, at least the ones we have here. They are very college-focused, and their college focus may not be the academy offerings that we have. (Interview, November 8, 2016)
An effective cross-sector partnership requires positive working relationships between educators and community partners. Leaders need to support mechanisms that connect teachers and business partners, respecting their individual expertise while also highlighting their interdependent roles in supporting student learning; they also must consider how academies can better address the learning needs of college-bound students, who may not perceive career pathways as applicable to their future plans.
ACCOUNTABILITIES AND OUTCOMES
Cross-sector collaborations are intended to generate public benefits and services that cannot be adequately addressed by any one sector (Bryson et al., 2015). As a result, it is important to assess whether intended outcomes are being achieved and to identify how sectors learn from one another, improve service delivery, and hold one another accountable.
Immediate, Intermediate, and Long-Term Effects
Developing and tracking metrics that go beyond traditional school performance measures to demonstrate the purportedly distinct effects of the academy concept has been challenging for Winterdale school and business leaders. Existing statewide school-data systems permit the collection and analysis of information useful for monitoring some of the immediate and intermediate academy goals. Yet leaders across sectors recognize that they are currently unable to gather information on long-term goals aligned with the mission of the career-academy model, such as post-graduation employment rates.
To demonstrate the immediate and intermediate effects of academies on student outcomes, school and district leaders leverage current state reporting requirements. Karen, from Winterdale Connected, noted that this data shows the success of the academy model:
When you look at the overall district outcomes, weve been able to go from a 58% to almost 82% [graduation rate]. Now I know its almost impossible to prove direct correlation, but its the only major transformation thats happened in [Winterdale]. So, you look at . . . theres graduation rates, so many of our achievement score data is also improved. Other things like disciplinary rates, attendance rates, daily attendance rates, all of those things that really kind of show culture, engagement, things like that are drastically improved. (Interview, May 15, 2017)
Student data are used not only to demonstrate school improvement as a result of transitioning to the academy model, but also as a proxy for some academy goals that are difficult to measure, such as maintaining a positive and engaging school culture. Academy coach Patrick explained how course enrollment data are also used to track outcomes related to course and certificate completion rates: A lot of the data that I look at is relatively simple . . . how many students signed up to take an industry certification test this year over last year, how many students sign up to take a dual-credit class. (Interview, November 22, 2016)
Although these data can be used to describe certain student behaviors, there is no certainty that these outcomes have improved as a result of the academy model. Further, student data are not widely shared with partners. For example, Trent, a business leader, stated that he guessed the academies were effective, but said that the data were better suited for someone beyond my pay grade. (Interview, November 9, 2016) Throughout interviews, student outcomes generally were discussed in the aggregate (i.e., all students), and subgroup performance was rarely mentioned. Although some academies have created goals related to increasing female participation in their academies, in general those interviewed did not describe commitments to equitable practices or to improving the performance of historically underrepresented students.
Partners acknowledge the need to track and analyze long-term outcomes for students, including postsecondary enrollments. Valerie, an executive principal, noted that these data are unavailable:
We do not do a good job here in tracking where kids are going to college. . . . Although I would like to say I had really hard, specific data about how many of my kids went to college, how many persist. . . . I dont know that I have that data as clear as I would like. (Interview, November 7, 2016)
While acknowledging that tracking students beyond graduation is desirable, Carol explained, It is almost impossible. Our state does not help us. We can only track kids that go to public institutions, not private. (Interview, June 1, 2016) Thus, with only anecdotal evidence of student effects, as district administrator Monica observed (Interview, November 22, 2016), most interviewees agreed that access to more comprehensive data is sorely needed. This means developing ways of evaluating the success of the cross-sector partnership because, as Adam noted, What gets measured, gets done, right? (Interview, July 12, 2017) As an initial step toward this goal, Harrison reported:
Were looking at how the business community can help us create assessment tools and resources to understand, was that field-trip opportunity a success, and how do we know that? What were the preliminary or pre-experience goals, and how do we make sure that those were met. (Interview, May 2, 2017)
When discussing accountability, it is helpful to clarify who is accountable to whom and for what (Bryson et al., 2015). Accountability within the academy partnerships emerged in two primary ways: accountability for student outcomes and accountability to the business community.
As noted previously, tracking student outcomes is challenging, which creates confusion over who ultimately is accountable for certain outcomes. This lack of clarity demands that leaders constantly refocus on goals, with Valerie observing, Why does this still matter? Its got to be attainment. Our ACT scores have to go up. I need to have strong growth and strong achievement and test scores at the end of the day. (Interview, November 7, 2016) In discussing the demands of the district and business partners on schools, Adam observed that district leaders must address multiple expectations: I think theyre focused on both [sets of demands]. Theyve been held accountable for the academic performance, theyve been held accountable by the district for the academy implementation. (Interview, July 12, 2017)
As accountability systems and measures aligned to the demands of the business community become more formalized, the current push-and-pull dynamic may become less complex.
One of the strongest areas of accountability comes from the collaborative practices supported by Civic Network. One activity advanced at partnership council meetings is collaborative reviews of student performance and attendance data, as well as business data, such as the number of hours logged working with students. For Adam, this activity serves a purpose in advancing accountability: Its that peer pressure sort of transparency tool. No one wants to show up at that meeting with their school having a zero on partner involvement or something like that. (Interview, July 12, 2017) As noted previously, this accountability emphasis does not include commitments to equity and access. Ultimately, Adam observed that Civic Network sees itself as an independent arbiter capable of facilitating difficult conversations between partners, viewing its role as a key thought-partner, strategy-builder, an initiator, a catalyst, a critical friend. (Interview, July 12, 2017) Yet he acknowledged that most of the accountability is focused on protecting the investments of the business community.
In this study, we examined how cross-sector collaboration has shaped the development, implementation, and sustainability of career academies in one large urban school district. We acknowledge some limitations of our study. First, the ability to generalize findings from case-study research can be limited (Yin, 2014), and this case may be unique in ways that complicate its extension. For example, forming productive cross-sector partnerships may be more feasible in metropolitan regions than in rural communities, which may lack an industry presence to support extensive collaboration. Nonetheless, case studies can promote generalization by providing concepts and recommendations for further research in related contexts (Punch, 2005). A second limitation arises from the fact that we studied a mature initiative. As a result, addressing initial conditions and drivers required us to rely primarily on informants to draw upon their long-term memories. The final limitation is that we conducted our interviews and observations in two high schools recommended by school officials, which may not be fully representative of career-academy implementation across the districts 12 neighborhood high schools.
Examinations of cross-sector collaboration have left the education sector understudied (Henig et al., 2015), and this is especially true of this case, in which the education sector has been the primary focus of the intervention. To guide data collection and analysis, we applied Bryson et al.s (2015) framework for cross-sector collaborations. We sought to understand this districts complex initiative and also to test and extend the framework within a school districtcentered reform context. We aimed to address three critical issues identified by Henig et al. regarding the study of cross-sector collaborations involving schools. In so doing, we also provided a detailed accounting of the development, evolution, and sustainability of career academies (the specific cross-sector reform being implemented), which is important in itself, given their proliferation and inherent implementation complexities. The remainder of this discussion is structured to foreground study contributions and recommendations.
First, Henig et al. (2015) suggested that researchers should examine how cross-sector collaborations become legitimated and entrenched over time. Here, and more generally, the framework we employed held considerable utility, focusing our attention and providing analytical tools to examine each of these aspects. We perceived both initial and ongoing needs to legitimateinternally and externallythis reform. The idea of relevancestudent programming needed to connect to students current and future career aspirations, as well as to local workforce needswas crucial to the adoption of career academies and appealed to various stakeholders, albeit in slightly different ways. This shared idea also elevated certain actors due to their needed talents and expertise: business partners who possessed expertise about valuable real-world skills and knowledge of emerging training needs within their occupational fields, CTE educators to staff the academies and develop the curriculum, teacher leaders to guide career-focused learning activities on academy teams, and civic leaders to advocate for the school district and promote state-level policy reforms. Tapping into expertise both within and external to the school district helped strengthen the partnerships civic capacity (Shipps, 2003) to implement and sustain this reform. To enhance external legitimacy, partners developed a consistent message, through the assistance of a marketing firm, to use to promote their brand and messaging to the community. At present, the focus has shifted somewhat toward reimagining and keeping the initiative on a progressive course. Mature cross-sector collaborations centering on education reforms are both relatively rare and understudied, as Henig et al. (2015) highlighted. Thus, we encourage future investigation into how mature collaborations can reinvent themselves, ensure their continued relevance, and otherwise maintain their potency as all partners recommit to future collaborative projects. Some recent research (e.g., Vangen et al., 2014) has reported that cross-sector collaborations can be adaptive and adjustable, which in turn suggests that it is more useful to ask, as we did, how these collaborations continually adapt and evolve than to ask how they become entrenched or institutionalized.
Henig et al. (2015) noted that public education presents unique challenges, and they recommended that researchers study how these challenges are resolved. Further, Agranoff (2012) claimed that collaborations relying upon a public bureaucracyas this reform doesare especially dependent on consistent sponsors and champions at or near the top of their organizations. Issues such as high-level turnover within the school system (e.g., superintendent, district, and principal leadership) made developing and sustaining requisite support additionally challenging. Similarly, Miller et al. (2017, p. 209S) reported that leadership voids occurring due to turnover of key actors could affect the stability of cross-sector relationships. One way in which external stakeholders coped was to advocate for and build in processes to influence the school system and hold it accountable, including negotiating a community presence on administrator hiring committees to ensure that candidates were knowledgeable about, and committed to, career academies. This advocacy represents an extension of what Bryson et al. (2015) observed; whereas these authors referred to sponsors and champions within their respective organizations playing key roles, in the case studied here it seemed that external leaders were, in a real sense, infiltrating the district (the key reform decision-making site) to ensure they were viewed as equaland internalmembers of this partnership. Collaborative partners serve as initiative sponsors and champions at pivotal moments, apparently feeling this to be necessary to the successful continuation of the initiative within a school district that faces high turnover, competing demands, and other challenges. On the basis of this finding, we suggest that mature, longstanding cross-sector collaborations featuring urban school districts as the main reform site may sometimes require extraordinary actions on the part of external partners, beyond what is typically required when reforms are centered within less complex or turbulent organizations. In education-focused initiatives, school-district leaders must ensure that principals design school structures and communications channels to ensure regular participation of cross-sector partners.
Civic leaders also leveraged political and social capital to promote policy changes and persuade those holding positions of influence within the community and state of the reforms merits. For example, business partners expressed frustration that school leaders sometimes needed to make curricular and programming decisions based on state policies instead of industry best practices. There were some questions regarding the extent to which certain programs were preparing students to meet industry standards. Questions such as these can impinge upon collaborators trust in each other and may ultimately erode trust in the overall enterprise in some partners eyes. Stepping back, our sense is that some tensions arising from unique aspects of public education have not yet beenand perhaps never will befully resolved, but rather are being actively and continually (re)negotiated. Our overall appraisal is that the collaboration is imperfect and in a constant state of flux, but is being perceived as effective enough or rewarding enough to justify stakeholders continued efforts. Again, we suggest this insight might adjust researchers focus going forward. In addition, school leaders engaged in career-pathways reforms should ensure that district processes include regular mechanisms for business partners to suggest curriculum revisions, based upon changing industry regulations and skills.
Relatedly, we were surprised to note considerable and ongoing challenges with respect to accountabilities and outcomes, coupled with what seemed to be a general sense of resignation (or at least a low level of urgency) regarding whether and how they could be resolved. Two major challenges related to tracking long-range outcomes (e.g., high school students success in landing jobs in their preferred pathways or enrolling in and completing college) and attributing positive short- and intermediate-range trends to the reform. Even more importantly, we saw very few systematic efforts to examine important reform-related indicators in a disaggregated manner. We view it as essential that a cross-sector initiative aimed at promoting students college and career readiness would attend closely to the distribution of student opportunities and outcomes by student subgroups, with a goal of increasing the access and participation of historically underrepresented students in career academies that can lead to high-wage occupational fields. College and career readiness proponents have previously highlighted the importance of data use for equity, in light of longstanding race-, class-, and gender-based inequities in students access and attainment (e.g., see Darling-Hammond et al., 2014). Students academy selections, for example, are not random and could reflect inequities related to students backgrounds and identities. Stern, Wu, Dayton, and Maul (2007), mindful of these issues, argued that disciplined data use can facilitate districts implementation and refinement of career academies; accordingly, they discussed the strengths and drawbacks of a large set of quality indicators. Thus, we recommend that principals and district administrators regularly analyze career-academy selections and outcomes by student subgroups, and we further suggest that academy teams should formulate annual goals for increasing historically underrepresented students participation in their academies and related coursework.
Although Bryson et al. (2015) did not incorporate equity considerations into their meta-framework (illustrating a larger gap in the literature), we propose that any cross-sector initiative involving public educationand especially one concerning college and career readinessmust place such considerations at the forefront and should collect and analyze data with equity goals in mind. An initiative such as the one studied could, based on its design and implementation, serve either to reinforce or to disrupt historic patterns of inequity. Strategic data use for equity could play a key role in promoting positive outcomes (see Datnow & Park, 2018; Hackmann et al., 2019). In this instance, our equity concerns are elevated, in light of observations that this initiative was seen by some as serving to prepare students more for careers than for college; we suggest that educators and partners should redouble their efforts to promote rigorous academic and career-focused pathways for all students. This career-over-college emphasis also represents an inversion of what has been typically observed in the U.S. policy context, which gives us particular pause because this is an urban, majority-minority context in which the majority of students and families have been historically underrepresented in postsecondary institutions and in certain high-skill, high-wage fields. Therefore, we recommend that school and district leaders engage with cross-sector partners and teachers in conversations about the effectiveness of students college preparation within the existing career-academy model, identifying ways in which schools can more aggressively promote career pathways that assist high school students as they transition into postsecondary educational experiences.
Further complicating matters, school leaders and cross-sector partners may have differing perspectives on success. School leaders may define success through increased graduation rates, improved academic performance, reduced disciplinary incidents, and improved student attendance. In contrast, civic and business partners may be more focused on public perceptions of school-district quality and the ability to employ skilled high school graduates to fulfill local workforce needs. Taking all of this together, we therefore point to outcomes and accountabilities as an area for future research and practical consideration when studying and implementing similar school-centered, cross-sector collaborative reforms.
When more broadly considering conflicts and how they were navigated or resolved, overall in this case we detected a complex interplay across power, institutional logics, and accountabilities. Specifically, we discerned the following: (a) The business and community partners believed that the final word invariably resided within the school system because of state-imposed policies and procedures (power); (b) The method and pace of creating change was biased toward public-sector logics (institutional logics); and (c) Given their greater control over decision-making, the public sector (school system) was assigned most of the accountability responsibilities, protecting private-sector and community investments in a process over which they have little control. Regarding the second point, the pace of change was perceived by business leaders as frustratingly slow. Likewise, regarding the third point, we noted Civic Networks desire to protect the communitys investments and ensure that the district was not off-loading its responsibilities to the private sector. (Interview, July 12, 2017) We discerned, however, that certain leaders, structures, and designs were effective at ameliorating or easing conflicts and tensions. For instance, the districts solicitation and incorporation of business partners expertise regarding pathway selections was essential to building a true collaborative spirit and a sense that they were genuinely involved in key decision-making processes. Likewise, Harrison from Support Our Schools was cited by multiple individuals as a skillful boundary-spanner who communicated clearly with varied stakeholder groups, managed conflicts, and tempered unrealistic expectations. Related to this finding, we suggest that researchers who study cross-sector collaboration may do well to draw from theory and literature regarding brokerage (e.g., Burt, 2004) and boundary-crossing (e.g., Akkerman & Bakkar, 2011). Also, and as previously noted, we found little consensus regarding how to define, operationalize, and measure outcomes: Partners were unclear about which factors could show that the model was meeting the needs of students, the school district, and community. In particular, partners acknowledged some conflicting messages, as the academy model initially was designed to focus on career-readiness, with college preparation being a secondary consideration. As partners consider the continuing evolution of the academy initiative, they acknowledge the necessity of integrating rigorous, advanced coursework into academy programming so that students are more fully prepared for postsecondary education.
Regarding career-academy reforms more specifically, our conceptual framework was assistive in illuminating several key interactive elements that supported their functioning. Extant research both within and beyond education has not sufficiently clarified the salience of the task at hand to subsequent features of the cross-sector collaboration (e.g., membership, structure, and process; Bryson et al., 2015). In this study, we concluded that the central task faced by the initial partnersto develop robust career academiesconsiderably influenced the size, shape, scope, and nature of subsequent collaborations. Career academies are relatively well-developed reform packages that include several key components (e.g., career exploration, integrated and sequential curricula, work-based learning opportunities, and business partnerships), and when a large urban district such as this one adopts this model, a broad-spanning and efficiently functioning collaborative network is arguably imperative. The existing framework is lacking, however, in that it does not explicitly include equity considerations.
Therefore, although the Bryson et al. (2015) framework was quite helpful to our analysis, we suggest that aspects of this framework could be strengthened when applied to education-focused cross-sector collaborations, includingbut not limited tocareer-academy initiatives. In Figure 2 we propose an expansion of this framework, which highlights features within Bryson et al.s (2015) categories that are applicable to education initiatives. In particular, we stress the importance of boundary-spanners who can work across the education system and collaborative partners to facilitate the work of the initiative and communication between disparate organizational structures. In addition, we underscore unique accountabilities and outcomes present in education-focused initiatives that must be addressed, including the need to maintain a commitment to equity, while also using data not only for student accountability purposes but also to analyze the effectiveness of the cross-sector collaboration. Scholars investigating education-centered cross-sector initiatives may find this revised framework helpful to their research, and educators and partners may find that it supports their designing and decision-making.
Figure 2. Revision of Bryson et al.s framework to address education-focused cross-sector collaboration
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
To summarize, although more could be explored regarding this complex case, we have outlined the broad contours of the arrangement, including many of its salient features and their interactions. Accordingly, we generated several provisional insights that may be useful for policymakers, school practitioners, and community partners who are considering or entering into similarly ambitious reforms and cross-sector collaborations. We have also presented or refined several recommendations for researchers. To increase the size of this incipient knowledge base, we also propose that scholars should continue this line of research into effective community collaborations that involve education reforms, perhaps instituting multiple case design to accelerate theory-building and practice-relevant (i.e., socially robust, how- and why-to) information. Likewise, given the formidable complexities inherent in cross-sector collaborations, there is a need for research that can identify essential factorsincluding accountabilities, collaborative leadership, or institutional logicsrather than looking at the organized whole, as we did in this case. Current theory and literature, we appraise, are not yet adequate to explain or inform policy officials, educational leaders, and community partners, who are increasingly entering into cross-sector collaborations. The framework employed herein was facilitative as a starting point, but additional, careful education-specific work is paramount.
The insights gleaned from this case present some implications for educational policy, school leaders, and CCR reforms in secondary schools. As state education officials strive to address the CCR expectations included in the Every Student Succeeds Act in local school districts, they must be cognizant of the importance of emphasizing college and career preparation. Given that U.S. jobs increasingly require postsecondary education and/or industry credentials (Carnevale et al., 2016), the K12 curriculum must adequately prepare high school graduates to transition into postsecondary training. School leaders are essential connectors among K12 educators, business leaders, and higher-education partners, as cross-sector partners work collaboratively to ensure that the curriculum is sufficiently rigorous to ensure students preparation for college while also being relevant to their career interests.
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Interview Protocol: Civic Network Official (Semi-Structured)
We would like to gain an understanding of the role of the cross-sector partners in the academy initiative. What was the role of the [Civic Network] as the academy concept began to take shape and was proposed? What is the current role of the [Civic Network]? What is the role of other cross-sector partners? How have these roles changed over time?
Concerning the various cross-sector structures and committees, would you describe the decision-making processes within these structures?
In what ways, have career academies helped [Civic Network] meet its goals for the community? From a community perspective, is there evidence that businesses are more likely to locate in [Winterdale]? Are parents more interested in moving into the community due the successes of the academies?
Generally, how well do you perceive the academy model to be working in the district? Please explain. What are positive outcomes for students? For the district? For the community? For cross-sector partners?
Does it appear that the academy approach is helping high school graduates be more fully prepared for college and career success? Is the academy model integrating both rigorous academic and CTE coursework to promote both college and career preparation? Do cross-sector partners feel that graduates are more prepared for employment opportunities in the community, through attaining industry certifications? Are you also reviewing graduates enrollment in colleges and community colleges?
How well, and in what ways, do you feel the academies are (or could be) helping historically underrepresented or underserved students (e.g., African American, Latinx students; females) to achieve better long-term outcomes?
Through the 10 years of the academies, are there particular challenges you and/or other community agencies and businesses have faced with respect to this cross-sector collaboration? If so, could you describe tensions and challenges, including successful efforts to overcome these challenges? Are there persistent, stubborn challenges that you are still working to resolve?
What leadership roles do [Civic Network] officials take on, when working with the career academy initiative?
We are also interested in learning about how business/community members and other sector partners serve in leadership roles, through school-business connections and committee structures, in supporting the academy model. Could you share some ways that this has occurred through the years?
We are also interested in learning how the school district and other partners have collected and analyzed data (e.g., student learning gains, graduation, employment, etc.) through the years, and they have used this data to make changes with the academy structure. Could you share any information you have regarding the academies effectiveness and what changes have been made through the years, as a result of this data analysis? What data does [Civic Network] collect related to academy effectiveness? How are data used to hold partners accountable for their commitments?
Is there anything else you would like to share regarding the cross-sector progress with academies, particularly as it relates to [Civic Networks] involvement?
A Priori Codes, Definitions, and Examples