Expanding the Conversation

Circle of childrenFor the past few months, I have been exploring how the school-community partnership framework of Graduation Matters Montana can be of service to a new effort in Montana – the Montana Preschool Development (MPD) project. This is a federal grant to help up to 16 Montana communities develop high quality, affordable preschools. Is the GMM framework specific to K-12 education, or can it find utility elsewhere?

First, about the word “framework”. As I’ve written previously, I believe that we all want to be seen and to be understood, to know that our work and our efforts make a difference. In the search for impact, we are often encouraged to try a new product or program, or to hire a consultant who is reputed to have the answers we’ve been looking for, answers that for one reason or another – we’re not smart enough, we’re too busy, we’ve asked the wrong questions and so our answers don’t fit – we haven’t come up with on our own in our search for the impact we hope for.

I believe that what we’re missing, is us. A slowed down us. An us that takes time to be curious, to be wrong, to build trust and to grow, experiment, fail, learn and try again. That takes time and focus, not newfangled products or programs.

That’s where frameworks come in. A skillfully articulated framework helps diverse viewpoints quickly organize their perspectives into a cogent set of observations, insights, lessons and – eventually – conclusions that inform next steps. Frameworks help to bring forth the wisdom in the room and array it for deeper thinking and doing.

The GMM framework has helped over 50 Montana communities explore the issues and opportunities that each locale has to increase the number of students who graduate from high school ready for their next steps in life. Our framework has led to our state graduating hundreds more students each year, and Montana now has its highest graduation rate ever recorded. There are four components to the GMM framework: team; data; good practices; and communicate/celebrate.

Team The GMM framework recognizes that complex problems – students dropping out of school, families going hungry – requires multiple perspectives to both understand the challenges and to co-create solutions that matter. In GMM, that means that students, non-profit organizations and Main Street businesses join educators in the work. To build the team, people ask, “Who’s currently at the table? Who agrees with our goals, but is not at the table? What steps can we take to invite them in?”

Data We live in a world of data, and education is no exception. Through GMM, we help local communities use basic data – grade-level dropout; graduation and college-going by socio-economy and ethnicity; student sense of belonging – to get a beat on where students struggle, and where they thrive in our schools. The team asks, “What is the scope of our challenge? What more do we need to/want to know to fully understand our challenges and what we’re doing really well?”

Good practices Once they’ve looked at local data, GMM teams reflect on effective research based strategies they can either expand or initiate in their school and community. The tagline of GMM is “Locally designed, locally implemented based on what works in Montana.” We connect GMM teams with other GMM communities to share good practices. GMM teams ask, “What’s working in our community or elsewhere in Montana to support all students graduating from high school?”

Communicate/celebrate GMM is built on the belief that everyone has a role to play in supporting student success.  Community, school staff, students and parents need frequent, inspirational communication about what’s working and how they can be involved. This is imperative to sustain momentum, expand partnerships, share ownership and keep the work fun. Teams ask, “How often do we share our stories with the media/community/decision makers?”

The question, then, is how can this framework be of service to a new initiative, one that seeks to expand access to quality early learning for children?

The idea to extend the GMM framework into early learning was not my idea. John Pepper, retired Chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble and a national leader for the need to invest in early education, was in the state last spring to speak at an early childhood summit, and stopped by our offices at the suggestion of Jeff Edmondson, of Strive Together. Mr. Pepper saw an opportunity for us to partner with the early learning community, and his vision inspired our curiosity.

I spent the summer exploring the GMM framework with early learning practitioners, state agency leaders, and others.  I’ve asked basic questions, like: “Tell me about your team – who do you regularly talk deeply with about your efforts to expand early learning opportunities and school readiness in your community.” “What are two or three measurable ways we can tell how well children in our community are doing?” “What’s working in your community or elsewhere in Montana to build great community/early learning/school collaborations?” “How often do you celebrate the great work you are doing?”

Thus far, what I’m finding is that the time folks spend time together, discussing these basic questions, is time well spent. As I’d hoped, practitioners are learning from one another, and co-discovering the incredible capacities we have in our communities to do transformative work.

One community, separated by a lack of trust in one another’s early education approaches, became fascinated by one another’s strategies for community collaboration when we asked them to describe who they regularly work with to meet children’s basic needs.  In another community, the K-12 system was critical of the early learning community, yet were shocked to hear about the impact of budget cuts on the preschool, and grew to admire greatly the commitment of the preschool staff to keep their doors open despite not being paid for months at a time.

GMM staff will continue to support this work over the next year, with frequent visits to local communities, supporting good and expansive conversation about this work. Our series of gatherings will culminate in a GMM-Early Learning Roadmap, a publication that will chronicle the experience of rural communities who strive to expand early learning. (The roadmap is being funded through a generous grant from the National Governor’s Association.)

So stay tuned – I hope to have good things to share through this inquiry.

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