Amanda Koonlaba | July 2019

Coming Together for
School-Community Partnerships

To discuss school and community partnerships, we must first identify what community means in that context. A school’s most immediate community includes the staff and students, as well as their families.

There is also the community surrounding the school. The families that live in the school’s zone that do not have children attending that school are still members of that school’s community. School communities can also extend beyond the borders of a school’s zoning to include the entire town, county, region, and even state. Thus, within every school community, an expert on almost anything you can imagine probably resides.

Unique Partnerships

For the past several years, I’ve been involved in some unique community partnerships. I’ve seen the community come together in a variety of ways, just to ensure the schools in my district have what they need to provide a high-quality arts-based education. Local, regional, and state organizations and agencies have a stake in the success of our schools. Often they’ll rise up to meet needs that are not addressed through the state legislative bodies responsible for funding.

I really wanted to present the idea that schools have large communities that exist beyond their district. Or state-identified zones. I also wanted to explore ways those communities have partnered with schools as a means of helping others develop new ideas. So, think of this round-up as a brainstorm of sorts! A place to get us thinking of new ways to meet the needs of our learners.

Here are a few school-community partnerships from my neck of the woods:

University Programs

Universities are a wealth of resources. From museums to research to professional development programs, the support arts programs can access through universities is quite diverse. I’ve seen some universities get really creative in how they are able to support schools.

The University of Mississippi Art Museum has a program called Traveling Trunks. Presenters from the museum will travel for free to schools within an hour-radius of Oxford, MS to present the trunks. However, educators can also check out the trunks and present those themselves. I live a couple of hours from Oxford in a town called Tupelo. However, we have a satellite campus for the University. So, I was able to coordinate with instructors who traveled back and forth to have the trunks brought to our school. I was able to keep those for two weeks at a time and use them to teach my art classes.

The trunks covered topics from Chinese Art to Mississippi Artists. My favorite was the Walter Anderson trunk. Anderson lived and worked on the coast in Ocean Springs, MS. He painted murals and regularly took a tiny little boat out to Horn Island off the coast to have solitude and be one with nature. Inside the trunk, you could find prints of Anderson’s works, a book about his trips to Horn Island, and a costume for students to use to dress up like the artist. There was also a lesson plan on using the elements of art and the four natural elements (water, earth, wind, fire) for students to create their own works.

Whole Schools Initiative

In 2011, the Mississippi Arts Commission commissioned Mississippi State University to conduct a research study on the impact of the Whole Schools Initiative. The study focused on the academic impact the arts had on over 5,000 students attending schools that partnered with the Whole Schools Initiative to ensure arts-integrated instruction. The study heavily utilized the impact on standardized testing data. The resulting report called Whole Schools Initiative: A Stennis Institute Study for Decision-Makers, is another example of the importance of partnerships with universities.

Technically, the partnership described above was between the university and the state arts agency. However, the resulting research was one of the major factors in influencing decision-makers in my district to adopt the Whole Schools-approach at all K-8 schools in our district. Additionally, I think the study is worth mentioning in relation to school-community partnerships. Why? Because it describes exactly the kinds of research universities can provide. Research that helps us ensure we have the data we need to garner legislative support for our arts programs.

Museum Programs

Museums also provide a diverse menu of supportive services to schools. One of the most prominent could possibly be in the form of field trips for students. Sadly, though, it has been noted that in the past decade, we are seeing a decline in museum field trips. A study from 2014 sought to determine if anything was being lost because of that decline while also establishing the benefits, if any, of museum visits on students.

At the time, the research was the first large-scale randomized control trial designed to measure the impact of school tours of an art museum. The study found that museum visits had numerous positive impacts on students. Impacts on critical thinking. Display of historical empathy. Tolerance for differences. Even interest in engaging with cultural institutions in the future! And guess where this research was conducted? That’s right, at a university. The University of Arkansas partnered with Crystal Bridges Museum of Art for this valuable research.

The Gumtree Museum of Art in Tupelo, MS is small, but it is also a literal bank of resources that our schools can tap. It is staffed by well-traveled, art-lovers. These people are a wealth of knowledge themselves for working with students on art history and art analysis. The museum frequently exhibits the work of local and regional artists. This then gives the schools access to these artists through gallery talks and interviews.

The museum is networked with the Tupelo Arts Council and is able to set up workshops for students through that network with local, professional artists. Finally, the museum also hosts several student art shows each year. The Shared Treasures Exhibit is one that my elementary art students participated in. It always garnered lots of positive press for our art program. And, we saw tremendous parental involvement through that art show.

Schools from our district have visited the museum to learn about everything! From art-specific content to science as integrated through art, they cover it all! Our pre-k school has even visited to work on visual discrimination, speaking and listening, and social skills.

Beyond art museums

Beyond art museums, our community has a local history museum, as well as a children’s health museum, and a natural science-focused museum through the Natchez Trace Parkway. Each of these organizations is committed to working with our schools. And they are always open to incorporating the arts in their programs as well.  

Visits to cultural institutions have tremendous worth. Their funding usually ties to some form of outreach to the schools and students in the community, which almost ensures if you reach out you’ll find what you need. So, no matter how small (just consider the museums in my community in rural Mississippi), research proves to us that the partnerships between museums and schools is important.

Non-Profits

While museums and universities can hold non-profit status, there are other non-profit organizations that can create equally important partnerships for schools.

The Link Centre in Tupelo is one such organization espousing a mission to identify and attract partners to offer transformative arts, education, and social service experiences that inspire and improve the health and well being of the community. The Link Centre is able to provide artist residencies for schools once a year with artists from out-of-state.

Additionally, the Link Centre has recently led an initiative to pilot an arts integration program for the daycares in our county. This committee is working to develop a Link Centre teaching artist roster of local artists that can work within daycares in our area. The program will be piloted in the coming year to five daycares with the vision to expand to all 55 daycares in our county in the future. The artist roster will also be a resource to our local schools in the future.

Another non-profit organization that is unique to our community is The Association for Excellence in Education (AEE). AEE’s mission is to expand and enhance educational experiences for students in the local public school district. This organization provides grant funding to the tune of about $70,000 a year. This funding is distributed to teachers in the district for projects that foster creative learning experiences. AEE has funded projects from elementary students writing and illustrating their own children’s books to a Taiko Drumming Program for elementary music classrooms.

Sharing Our School-Community Partnerships

Does your community have other unique organizations that partner with the local schools? What other ways have you seen universities and museums partner with local schools?

My goal for writing this article was to help us start to think outside the box for school-community partnerships. Additionally, I wanted to open a conversation to share ideas of what is working in our unique communities. And lastly, I wanted to give praise to some models of school-community partnerships.

Above all, sharing in this way is how we can bring innovative partnerships to our own communities. Something that is working in Tupelo may spark an idea for you to start something similar in your own community. In turn, I hope you’ll share what’s working in your community! Because someone in my community might want to try that here!

About the Author

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator and educational consultant with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. Her career has been driven by the power of the arts to reach all learners. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016 and received the Arts Integration Service Award from the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative (Mississippi Arts Commission) in 2015. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. She blogs at SimpleArtClass.com