We knew the hard work really begins once the grand opening ceremonies are over and the dignitaries leave town – just as newlyweds settle down after the wedding to meet the challenge of living “happily ever after.”
From the outset, we tried hard to operate by consensus instead of forcing a vote on choices. We did make motions, but I can’t recall one that sparked opposition. Despite the disparate interests involved – a school board, a college, the town of Olds and others – the partners shared a commitment to provide “seamless, quality, accessible and innovative education” for all learners. To that end, the planning team made a concerted effort to model behaviour that would demonstrate the culture of collaboration that was the essence of the CLC.
One secret to the success of multi-stakeholder partnerships is taking time to nurture relationships. It takes time and effort to get to know individuals from different organizations, and to understand them and their institution’s complexities. As noted by Hora and Miller[i] in their discussion of affinity groups, an organization is made up of numerous sub-cultures with the potential to derail a project. For example, it took time to understand the implications of a partnership between a school district with an elected board and a college with appointed board members. Chinook’s Edge relies on government grants and little fundraising, while Olds College has to raise funds privately to supplement grants from the province.
Trust is another key ingredient. Your reputation either works for you or against you. In moving a project forward, it is essential to attract trustworthy individuals with high levels of integrity and a commitment to making the process inclusive.
Sometimes we were asked “why are you always talking about Olds High School?” We knew we had a strong story to tell about innovative approaches to learning for students and adults, but that alone will not capture the imagination of political decision-makers and the public.
With so many different interests involved, we knew we had to put in place an effective communications plan with a strong message about the project’s potential to deliver more for Olds and the wider community than any one partner could do alone. Early on, to the dismay of some, we generated a lot of publicity to catch the attention of provincial ministers. By design, we constantly wrote articles and newsletters and made a point of talking to the media. Every time we had a little bit of success we published the heck out of it. Sometimes we were asked “why are you always talking about Olds High School?” We knew we had a strong story to tell about innovative approaches to learning for students and adults, but that alone will not capture the imagination of political decision-makers and the public. As a result, we were relentless about publicity and marketing, which became regular topics at meetings of the partnership. We weren’t just eating cookies there! What might have looked serendipitous to others was a ton of work for the partners.
Now the CLC has entered the toughest phase: implementation. Most of us who were there at the beginning have moved on to other positions or retired.
Caption: Dorothy Negropontes
Credit: Photo courtesy of Chinook’s Edge School Division
In November of 2011, Olds College and Chinook’s Edge School Division asked me to conduct a review of the Community Learning Campus to assess progress to date and identify needs for the future. I had been part of the original planning team and served as Executive Director for the project from 2005 to 2009, so I was a participant-observer. But by the time of the review, I also had some distance, too, as I had retired from Chinook’s Edge in 2010.
As one measure of their commitment, the partners sought candid comments as they looked for ways to reconnect with the initial vision for CLC. I interviewed 62 respondents, including representatives from the college, the school district, the community and students. Many of them lauded the shared facilities, the collaborative vision underpinning CLC, and the willingness of skilled people to work together across organizational boundaries. However, some could not see benefits for Olds students beyond the facilities.
Others new to the project did not have a clear understanding of the CLC concept while others who had been engaged for some time were frustrated by what they saw as loss of potential. Olds College and Chinook’s Edge School Division had their own new initiatives and heavy workloads, making it harder to maximize the collaborative opportunities embedded in CLC.
Meanwhile, most of the branding of shared programs occurred early on during the construction phase, without much follow-up after the project’s completion. With the exception of the Health and Wellness Facility, most new programs were rolled out under the banner of Chinook’s Edge or Olds College instead of a unified CLC. As a result, one or other of the partners took the lead with community groups or worked in isolation. Several of those interviewed saw a need for stakeholders to work more closely in setting out schedules and information on course offerings.
The shared facilities created an amazing environment for innovative learning and, between the college and school board, user agreements evolved to meet the needs of the community and beyond.
Despite the best hopes of the CLC visionaries, Community Engagement Sites to provide education and training opportunities for the central Alberta region failed to gain traction locally because no one seemed to have ownership of the programs. Those interviewed felt that a clearer understanding of the Campus Alberta framework and its implications for programming would help in fostering a closer relationship between the partners, particularly with the Community Engagement Sites. Exploring opportunities to connect with local communities in the region was seen as a top priority for the next phase of CLC.
Despite criticisms, some shining examples highlighted the potential of the CLC. One was the shared effort by the college and school district in developing so-called dual credits that allow high school students to register for college courses. The shared facilities created an amazing environment for innovative learning and, between the college and school board, user agreements evolved to meet the needs of the community and beyond.
In assessing the progress to date, I concluded that all stakeholders saw a need to clarify roles, interests, needs, standards and procedures to repair frayed relationships. Implementing the authentic vision of CLC as a shared initiative would be the greatest challenge going forward.
Guided by the work of Hora and Millar on collaborative partnership, I recommended the partners take corrective action to:
- Define their organizational aspirations and see how they aligned with the CLC vision, recognizing the need to recommit to the collaboration.
- Identify capacity and resources that would lead to a better understanding of each organization’s culture, with a focus on those able to cross institutional boundaries.
- Focus on leadership, with an eye to nurturing dedicated personnel to facilitate the work of the CLC under a shared-governance structure.
- Revisit accountability to gauge progress on outcomes in a meaningful manner.
Since my review, Chinook’s Edge and Olds College are taking action on the recommendations, recognizing they must work with stakeholders to fulfill the promise of the CLC. “Happily-ever-after” may be a myth, but the leaders of both organizations are making strong efforts to realize the vision of the CLC.
As I reflect on the experience of CLC, including successes and missteps, I have identified a ‘top 10” list for successful collaborations:
- Develop strong relationships by building trust and demonstrating courage.
- Establish a shared understanding of operating principles and practice mutually beneficial behaviour.
- Ensure leaders model collaborative practices as they lay out the mission and vision.
- Identify, support, and encourage those who cross organizational boundaries.
- Understand the structure, complexity, and needs of partner organizations.
- View challenges as opportunities and actively seek ways to anticipate potential problems.
- Recognize that it takes hard work to stay true to the mission and vision.
- Engage and inform internal and external audiences through meaningful communication.
- Understand that agreements and protocols are essential, but must not become barriers to innovation and action.
- Focus on the purpose, be it building a facility, creating a budget or drafting a budget. Create a compelling vision and resources will follow.
EN BREF – Dorothy Negropontes a joué un rôle clé dans la mise sur pied du Community Learning Campus (CLC), une collaboration innovatrice de dirigeants du milieu de l’éducation et de la collectivité à Olds, en Alberta. Ancienne directrice adjointe du Chinook’s Edge School District, elle a coprésidé le comité directeur qui a élaboré le projet, en a assuré la direction générale pendant la construction et, après sa retraite de Chinook’s Edge, a été pressentie pour rédiger un rapport d’étape en 2011. Elle explique ce qui a été nécessaire pour faire avancer le projet et, après l’inauguration, pour soutenir la vision initiale.
[i] A Guide to Building Education Partnerships: Navigating Diverse Cultural Contexts to Turn Challenge into Promise, Matthew T. Hora and Susan B. Millar, Stylus Publishing, 2011