Community Partnerships

Tips for Partnering With a University

Working with a nearby university is a good way for a school to bring in peer mentors and to introduce students to different careers.

October 3, 2018
A university staff member presenting alongside a teacher in a high school class
©Shutterstock/SolStock

I often hear from K–12 leaders that they’d like to partner with a nearby university but don’t know how to begin. In other cases, a school may be reluctant to pair with a university because, given their accountability measures and high-stakes tests, bringing in interns or student teachers may interfere with the school’s goals. But such partnerships can strengthen a school by engaging community members and providing resources beyond what many schools’ strapped budgets would allow.

Every university is a diverse ecosystem, and there are partners available that you can work with on your own terms in mutually beneficial ways.

Create a Win-Win Situation

Start by thinking about what you would like from a university or how members of the university community could enhance your school’s community:

  • Would you like volunteers for an after-school or STEM program?
  • Would you like to invite guest speakers to discuss careers?
  • Could you use help evaluating a program or an intervention?
  • Would you like to participate in a grant that could bring professional development for your teachers?

These are all valid ways that working with a university could help serve your students and your teachers. But a partnership should be a win-win situation, so you should also think about how the university can benefit.

Having university students volunteer at your school could be a great opportunity for both them and you. Research has shown, for example, that students benefit from positive role models in STEM careers who are close to them in age. Most universities have student chapters of relevant professional organizations, like the Association for Computing Machinery, and also specialty organizations for groups that are underrepresented in a given field (e.g., Society of Women in Engineering, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers). Engaging student groups like these is a great way to provide role models for your students and allow college students to inspire and support K–12 students with similar aspirations, which gives the college students a sense of what teaching is like.

Many graduate students are looking for opportunities to put their evaluation skills to practice and gain experience for their résumés. Their services may not be free, but they are likely to work for well below the rates set by evaluation firms. These emerging professionals may need a little guidance, so you’re also helping them better understand the needs of a school district.

Professors are also often looking for data and participants for their studies. If you can allow them to collect data and report results, no matter the outcome, in research studies, many would be happy to share their findings with you and your leadership team as well.

For many grants, researchers are required to work with local schools or provide outreach. The term broader impacts is used by organizations like the National Science Foundation to discuss how the research they fund could improve society, build talent in their particular field, create a culture of innovation, or engage a wider audience. You can help them meet their broader impact goals by providing them an opportunity to interact with new community members and to help encourage interest in college careers.

Grants are competitive and may require several attempts before receiving funding, and a letter of support from a school district can make all the difference and can bring some great university connections and programs to your students and teachers. Public universities have as part of their mission to serve their state, and by reaching out to collaborate you could help them fulfill part of that commitment.

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Reaching Out to Start a Partnership

A university is much like a K–12 district, but even more siloed by colleges and departments. You can try contacting the central office or the department or college that most interests you. Depending on the size of the university, the central contact might be the public relations office or the office of the provost (the chief academic officer). One of the two likely keeps a speaker’s bureau list of professors who are interested in talking about their research and expertise.

If you’re looking to engage a specific content area of the university, look up that college or department on the university website. I would suggest you reach out to an administrative assistant in the department and ask them to help connect with you a professor who’d be interested in outreach activities. As in a K–12 school, administrative assistants will be key to helping you connect with the right people. Just be aware that it might take one or two connections to find the right person who is ready to partner with you.

Colleges of education can also be great places to start because they understand your environment and can help make connections for you within the university. Finally, never discount a personal connection. Parents and organizations like Rotary or Kiwanis can help you meet people who work at the university and assist in making connections.

As with all relationships, it’s best to start small and build trust to make sure that collaborating is mutually beneficial. Start by inviting a faculty member or students to talk to a class or club on a career day. Or invite them to participate in a peer mentoring program that is already established.

Manage the relationship. Set up regular meetings to discuss opportunities and needs that both you and the university have, and plan for how you could collaborate to meet them. Partnerships take time to cultivate, but by taking an active role you can ensure that a university partnership will enhance your learning environment and help you meet your goals.