If you’ve worked in and around schools in DC, you have heard a common refrain, “Principals aren’t invested in community programs. It is hard to get their attention.” Not true! At each school Techbridge school partner site, we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Principals.
Principals like Natalie Gordon of Jefferson Academy made sure we have free office space and Principal Smith at Kramer Middle School rescheduled a long-standing dance program to a different day of the week from Techbridge. We are often asked how we “got” the Principals’ to support us. “What’s the trick?” The truth is that we didn’t “get” them to do anything, and there are no tricks. We came to a common understanding that Techbridge brings quality programming for girls, and that girls in underserved communities deserve the best.
Talking with a trusted source at a recent DC STEM Network Summit event, Principal Aqueelha James, formerly of Burroughs Elementary, described what she thought made our partnership work. We’d like to share her insights and provide some Techbridge examples below:
· Mutual Vision – School Principals, like business leaders, have a bottom line. Schools are judged on their academic outcomes, and increasingly, they are invested in school climate and on differentiating their schools’ focus from others. If partnering nonprofits can show a Principal that its program can affect a school’s “bottom line,” then they are more likely to be embraced. At the same time, nonprofits have to stay true to their missions. It’s tempting to change the program to suit the school’s needs, but this only leads to an unfocused program, hard to replicate or evaluate. The “bend, don’t break” approach works best. For example, at Burroughs Elementary, Techbridge enrolled 4th graders, even though the youngest students in the previous program were 5th graders. This adaptation worked for both Techbridge and the school, because Burroughs was able to provide the program to more grade levels, while Techbridge met its enrollment goals.
· Make Support Easy - Of course schools should partner with nonprofits providing services to their students. But how they do this varies. Be cognizant of what power school leaders do and don’t have over their budgets and other resources when requesting support. Also, make sure you understand a school or district’s budget cycle. In DC, many Principals have to submit their budget projections by early March. This means, they have to make staffing, supply, and other decisions by then. (Though charter schools may have other cycles). While Principals may have a large budget to oversee, most of the line items are somewhat fixed. However, sometimes they can support programs by providing supplies, already allocated to the school, or by adding a partner teachers’ stipend into their Administrative Premium line for after-school programs. Some schools can also pay for field trip buses or Family Night expenses.
· Commit to Quality – You wouldn’t buy a product again if it didn’t deliver and Principals are just as savvy as any other consumer in this way. Techbridge holds at least three formal check-in meetings a year with school leadership, each starting with the question, “How are we doing?” Sincerely requesting feedback signals investment in the program’s success and supports accountability. In recent check-ins, one Principal told Techbridge she loved us! “Great!…and what else?” When pressed, she explained that she wanted to create a larger buzz among lower grades to make sure enrollment stayed high year after year, which required more information and photos on a regular basis about the program’s progress. She also shared an idea to use the tool such as the Remind Me app, which instantly sends texts to a group, such as the Techbridge participants’ parents. As it turns out, sending regular updates with photos during the session is priceless for parents, and gives the Principal instant, valuable information too.
Partnerships take time and fine tuning, but starting with mutual investment from both parties and alignment of foundational goals makes all the difference. This has been most recently evidenced by Techbridge programs launched in DC this past October, with a focus on strong school relationships that have been at least a year in the making. The hard work of relationship building pays off, as Techbridge continues to build on many more successful years with our school partners.