UCLA Center for Community Schooling Research Practice Partnership Brief 1-RPP-21
Collaborative Leadership as the Cornerstone of Community Schools
Policy, Structures, and Practice
March 1, 2021
The authors thank the entire learning community at UCLA Community School for sharing their knowledge, practice and expertise with us and demonstrating the potential of shared leadership. In particular, we thank Principal Leyda Garcia, Assistant Principal Queena Kim, and the many teachers who discussed and reflected upon their leadership practices in interviews conducted by one of the authors.
We thank Karen Hunter Quartz, our colleague at the UCLA Center for Community Schooling who contributed to this research by reviewing drafts and providing thoughtful feedback.
This brief also benefited from the insights and expertise of external reviewers including Los Angeles Unified School District teachers Meghann Lee and Jonathan Tam; Amy Junge, Director of Teacher-Powered Schools at Education Evolving; and Julia Daniel, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of numerous research publications on community schools. We thank these external reviewers for their careful review, expertise, and attention.
We always go back to the values and principles every time we start a new initiative… Is this really democratic? Is this really the best way?”
Principal Leyda Garcia
This brief describes the policies, structures and practices that support UCLA Community School’s vision and commitment to collaborative decision-making as a core pillar of its approach to community schooling. As part of the national community schools movement, the UCLA Community School (UCLA-CS) collaborates with the University of California, Los Angeles and other local partners to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and family and community engagement. Integrating school and community resources creates opportunities to involve multiple stakeholders in addressing issues that may impede student learning. It also enables educators to incorporate the rich knowledge and resources of the community including its cultural wealth and diversity into students’ learning experiences. In this brief, we demonstrate how collaborative leadership serves to mediate the integration of these programs and services in support of its students, families and community.
While much has been written regarding the importance of raising the profile of teachers in school governance and decision-making, the interplay between the formal empowerment of teachers through policy and structural systems and educator decision-making roles in everyday practice is poorly understood. Community schools, wherein teachers take on a range of roles including as school leaders in collaboration with families and community members, provide an important forum for understanding how collaborative leadership is supported by policy and organizational structures, and brought to life through critical practices that uphold democratic problem-solving.
At UCLA-CS formal policies codify collaborative leadership—an essential first step in ensuring the voices of multiple stakeholders are heard. Policies guide decisions and serve to establish significant roles for stakeholders. Policies can also facilitate a shared commitment to implementing a vision that all stakeholders collectively construct based on the strengths and needs of the community. The school’s Elect-to-Work Agreement (EWA), for example—a feature of LA Unified’s Pilot Schools Initiative—outlines decision-making roles in site governance and concretizes the expectation that teachers will engage, alongside community members, in shared decision-making through expanded leadership roles. Policy review processes serve as an important mechanism for stakeholders to recommit to a shared vision and common goals.
Governance structures and systems—defined, supported and shaped by local policies—delineate power. In contrast to a top-down hierarchical model, UCLA-CS’s democratic governance structure is grounded in a flat ecosystem of governance teams that aims to engage all stakeholders in decision making. In this way, community school educators and partners, with different expertise, collaboratively engage in working toward a shared vision and outcome. Community school educators, who work to develop and draw upon a contextualized knowledge of community, culture and identity in their decision making have the ability and responsibility to determine and drive policies and practices consistent with shared goals.
Not covered within governing documents, policies or an ecosystem of structures are the everyday practices that define relationships and guide how people work together. In response, UCLA-CS has explicitly shaped the ways in which people work together by codifying collaborative practices that promote the distribution of power to all stakeholders. These practices depend on trusting relationships and teachers’ own clear sense of their identities in relation to their students and families.
The hard work and efforts that support collaborative leadership and the policies and structures that serve as its foundation are vital to building an inclusive and empowering school wherein all stakeholders feel that their expertise and commitment to the community are recognized and valued. These collaborative efforts are yielding positive outcomes. Educators’ understanding that they are valued and that their insights are important contribute to a stable workplace environment. Additionally, students at UCLA-CS recognize the strength and power of their own voice and perspectives. Collaborative leadership redefines the role of educators as one where establishing and maintaining democratic spaces is paramount. Collaborative leadership enables educators, students and families to work together to define and co-create learning environments that allow everyone to learn, grow, and thrive.
In 2007, a group of educators and community partners came together to design a community-based, student-centered, university-assisted public school where teacher leadership, collective autonomy and professionalism were foundational. In partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and community members, educators envisioned a democratic and sustainable workplace culture where they could apply their expertise, knowledge, background and experiences to advance practices and instructional strategies that leverage the strengths of its students, families and the community. They pictured a workplace where their voices would be heard, where opportunities existed to exercise professional judgments and where they could participate in collaborative decision-making processes, alongside community partners, to shape the learning environment to best meet and honor local needs and assets. In 2009, after a two-year school design process, the UCLA Community School (UCLA-CS) opened its doors as an educator-run community school.
This brief describes the policies, structures and practices that support UCLA Community School’s vision and commitment to collaborative decision-making as a key pillar of its approach to community schooling. Over the course of the last few decades much has been written regarding the importance of instructional and teacher leadership in educational improvement efforts. How schools are organized and managed has been widely recognized as key in student and school success. While research has identified the benefits of raising the profile of teachers in school governance and decision-making, the interplay between the formal empowerment of teachers through policy and structural systems and educator decision-making roles in everyday practice is under-researched. Community schools, wherein teachers take on a range of roles including as school leaders in collaboration with families and community members, provide an important forum for understanding how collaborative leadership is supported by policy and organizational structures, and brought to life through critical practices that uphold democratic problem-solving. This brief highlights the structures, policies and practices that support collaborative leadership at one educator-run, community school—UCLA Community School. We go “behind the scenes” to demonstrate how collaborative leadership has been instrumental in developing and shaping community-based learning practices and services that integrate other community school pillars–family and community engagement, student supports and services, and expanded learning time–and sustain its commitment to democratic schooling and the community.
School Context and Background
The UCLA Community School opened as one of six new schools located on the campus of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown—a largely immigrant community where, at the time, most students were bused to schools throughout the city due to a lack of local options. The school was approved by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LA Unified) as one of ten new Pilot Schools—an innovative reform model aimed to advance democracy by lifting student, community and teacher voice. The UCLA Community School, along with other LA Unified Pilot Schools, formed part of a movement for greater public school and community control by granting local autonomy over curriculum, instruction and assessment, staffing, budget and schedule.
As part of the national community schools movement, the UCLA Community School collaborates with the University of California, Los Angeles and other local partners to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and family and community engagement. Integrating school and community resources creates opportunities to involve multiple stakeholders in working collaboratively to address issues that may impede student learning. It also enables educators to incorporate the rich knowledge and resources of the community including its cultural wealth and diversity into students’ learning experiences. UCLA-CS is committed to social justice, bilingualism and biliteracy and culturally-relevant pedagogy aimed at developing self-directed, passionate learners who are prepared to enter the adult world as “confident and capable human beings, prepared to succeed in college, pursue meaningful careers, and participate in our democracy.” In 2019, the K-12 school served approximately 1,000 students with over 90% of students classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. Over 80% of students indicated that they spoke a language other than English at home. Thirty percent were identified as English learners.
There is evidence that the school’s commitment to develop students’ full potential is yielding positive outcomes. Its dual language program, for example, has increased bilingual and biliteracy rates with 83% of 3rd graders reading at grade level in 2018–61% in both Spanish and English. In the same year, 92% of its graduates enrolled in college. Here, we describe how the school’s many achievements–including bilingual and biliteracy rates, and college preparation and enrollment–are rooted in the collective efforts of the individuals who continue to shape the school through their shared leadership, vision and commitment to the community they serve. By working together, stakeholders can more effectively assess issues, develop plans, and improve practices that support the implementation of community school supports and instructional practices. Responsiveness to students, families, educators and the local community work to uphold democratic values and a common belief in a community-based model of school transformation.
What do we know about teacher leadership in educator-run community schools?
Various models of teacher leadership highlight the benefits of shared decision-making. Distributed leadership models recognize that “tapping into the ideas, creativity, skills and initiative of all or the majority of those in a group or organization unleashes a greater capacity for organizational change, responsiveness and improvement.” Distributed leadership models can leverage teachers’ knowledge, experiences and commitment to influence and shape practices in direct interactions with students. Within distributed leadership models, power is shared through the allocation of leadership roles with varying levels of autonomy and responsibility. When the process of distributing leadership is democratic and horizontal—where stakeholders have equal voice, access to information, and equal participation in the decision-making process—positive results are maximized. In particular, when distributed leadership is democratic, increased levels of commitment, trust, innovation and empowerment among stakeholders are experienced.
Educator-run schools provide an example of democratically distributed leadership in action. Educator-run schools share common practices including the establishment of distributed leadership structures, and collaborative leadership between administrators, teachers, and support staff. In educator-run schools, teachers have a prominent role in school governance, have access to information to make informed school-level decisions, their expertise and knowledge of student communities is prioritized, professional development is targeted to individual areas for growth with the goal of preparing and maintaining empowered decision-makers in school governance, and educators have an equal voice in all stages of the decision-making process. Educator-run schools secure collective autonomy for teachers over a broad range of critical school operations including budget, curriculum, hiring, etcetera.
Like educator-run schools, community schools identify collaborative leadership as a core pillar of the approach. Collaborative leadership, according to the Learning Policy Institute’s Community School Playbook is “a culture of professional learning, collective trust, and shared responsibility using strategies such as site-based leadership teams and teacher learning communities.” The culture of collaborative leadership relies on the establishment of structures and policies that formally identify educators’ role in school-level decisions. Similarly, the National Education Association (NEA) identifies “inclusive leadership” as one of six key pillars in the community school model. Inclusive leadership ensures school staff, alongside students, families and community members, maintain a focus on the assets and needs of the community in the decision-making process. 
This brief explores the intersection of educator-run schools and community schools at UCLA-CS. We describe how that intersection impacts the way in which the school partners with students, families, and community members to build a school that belongs to the community. We also describe how that intersection supports teachers in developing the contextualized knowledge of culture and community as the core of their practice. We begin with a description of local policies that codify collaborative leadership and establish roles for all stakeholders in decision-making—an essential first step in ensuring the voices of multiple stakeholders are heard. While necessary, we demonstrate how policies, in and of themselves, are insufficient in operationalizing collaborative leadership within community schools. Beyond policies, we explore the larger context of the school’s structures, systems, and practices that support and leverage collaborative leadership. In particular, we identify how the school’s commitment to the local community undergirds shared leadership and assists in developing and sustaining a cadre of teachers who are dedicated to working collaboratively and in partnership with other key stakeholders. We describe who, when, and what supports collaborative leadership to successfully determine how teachers work together to best meet the needs of the local community. We then discuss why collaborative leadership matters and how it influences teacher and student growth and development. We use the schools’ focus on strengthening students’ language assets and readying all students for postsecondary education to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how collaborative leadership both influences and supports the practices that honor the community.
Establishing and revisiting local policies
When attempting to fully realize the collaborative leadership pillar at a community school site, formal policies assist in securing autonomies that enable school-level decision-making that can best meet local needs. Formal policies also assist in establishing significant roles for all stakeholders in school-level decisions, especially those staff members who work most closely with students and families.
At UCLA Community School, a number of policies facilitate a shared commitment to implementing a vision that all stakeholders collectively construct based on the strengths and needs of the community. For example, accreditation processes conducted by organizations like the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) provide an opportunity for school staff, parents and students to jointly reflect on strengths, gaps and protocols in the service of revising and recommitting to local policies that address focus areas. For example, during the 2019 WASC accreditation process, students led many of the self-study discussions which led to meaningful school recommendations within the Schoolwide Action Plan that addressed the concerns of students and families. Mandated accountability mechanisms like California’s School Plan for Student Achievement are also utilized by UCLA Community School to democratically determine and revisit common goals that guide continuous improvement cycles undertaken by site decision-making bodies such as instructional leadership teams made up of teacher leaders and administrators or the English Learner Advisory Committee’s parent leaders and principal. While union contracts structure educators’ role when participating in school governance, community schools can further redistribute decision-making power to individual sites through codified protocols that secure the ability to shape the dynamics of collaborative leadership within the areas of autonomy.
In addition to the aforementioned policies, at UCLA Community School, collaborative leadership has also been secured through LA Unified’s Pilot School initiative. Its Elect-to-Work Agreement (EWA)—a feature of LA Unified’s Pilot Schools—empowers educators to collectively modify sections of the union contract and delineate decision-making roles in site governance. The EWA describes the work conditions (e.g., length of the instructional day, year, school calendar) and teachers’ roles and responsibilities. At UCLA Community School, the EWA concretizes the expectation that teachers will engage in shared decision-making through expanded leadership roles.
The EWA is refined and ratified annually, at the school-level, through a democratic, teacher-driven process overseen by a subcommittee delegated by the site’s School Governing Council. Indeed, establishing formal policies is only the first step in realizing collaborative leadership; it is the revisiting and recommitting to what is written in the policies that is essential in developing and sustaining a culture and practice of collective leadership.
The annual review and ratification of governing documents like the EWA, that codify site policies, enables the revisiting of teacher roles and responsibilities and assists in strengthening collaborative leadership. The opportunity to propose amendments that must be approved by ⅔ of the faculty and consensus protocols that are used in committee meetings are mechanisms that promote the development of shared goals that guide school-level decision-making. The process also fosters the sustainability of the community school approach by pairing the decision for teachers to assume a range of responsibilities with the understanding that this work is driven by the school’s collectively developed core beliefs.
The process of review and ratification of local policies also enables stakeholders to revisit and recommit to the school’s vision and mission, demonstrating that they are more than static statements that the school posts on walls and documents. The vision and mission are living documents that are used to guide the school as it moves towards a common goal through the process of designing new programs or improving existing practices. A UCLA-CS teacher explains how the term “north star” embodies the aspirational vision and goals that the staff agrees on:
I think that vision piece is really important because if everyone is not looking at the same “north star,” then we can’t all push in the same direction. And it doesn’t mean that everyone needs to agree on the nitty-gritty of how we’re going to get there necessarily.”
Principal Leyda Garcia also points to the power of the policy review process as a mechanism for teachers to collectively recommit to the school’s vision and goals:
We really take [the review process] seriously. I think that’s helped a lot. We always go back to the values and principles every time we start a new initiative or think, ‘We’re in this system. Are we trying to make a change? Is this really democratic? Is this really the best way and how do we have some input from people?’”
Principal Leyda Garcia’s comment demonstrates that beyond the existence of policies that undergird collaborative leadership, practices must be in place to keep them alive. Values and principles are incorporated into decision-making through regular processes that provide the opportunity to align practices to the collective vision. While defining the school’s “north star” is essential to laying the foundation for collaborative leadership, the shared governance structures of the school and the systems and practices that support the structures are what drive the culture of collaboration and team-building on a day-to-day basis. With this culture in place, the democratic problem-solving process that is a defining feature of community schools can be implemented with fidelity, as diverse stakeholders collectively determine the resources and approaches that will be matched to identified areas of need.
Behind the Scenes: A Recommitment to Vision and Mission Through Revisiting Local Policies
The vision and mission are explicitly included in key local policies and school plans such as the Elect-to-Work Agreement (EWA), School Plan for Student Achievement, and WASC Schoolwide Action Plan. Through the process of regularly revising these documents and policies, the mission and vision are also revisited. The EWA, for example, is a policy that is revised on an annual basis and is used as a tool for the staff to recommit to the school’s vision and mission.
- Every year, the EWA is revised by the teachers and counselors which creates a space for the staff to review the school’s vision and mission and make necessary adjustments to the programs, structures, or practices. Teachers vote to make the changes and the School Governing Council votes to approve the revised EWA. This process acts as a collective re-commitment to the school’s vision and mission.
- Then, teachers decide if they want to sign the EWA and agree to the defined roles and responsibilities included in the document. This process is a re-commitment on an individual level to the school’s vision and mission and to the school community.
- The EWA is also used when hiring and onboarding new staff. The EWA is reviewed with new staff and teachers and is a formal opportunity to commit to working alongside the community to realize the school’s vision and mission.
Establishing an ecosystem of governance structures
Governance structures delineate power. When designing and developing the school’s pilot proposal, UCLA Community School founding teachers, staff members, UCLA and community partners envisioned a leadership structure different from traditional school governance, typically visualized as a triangle with the principal at the top, assistant principals right below, and other staff members at the bottom. As shown in Figure 1, conventional organizational structures feature a hierarchical power dynamic and emphasize an individualistic approach to leadership. At UCLA Community School, however, founding teachers and partners envisioned “democratic school governance structures that ensure all members of the school community have a voice.”
Figure 1: Conventional Hierarchical School Organization
UCLA-CS’s democratic governance structures are grounded in a flat ecosystem of governance teams (as opposed to a top-down hierarchical model) that are shaped, defined, and supported by local policies. The EWA, for example, defines the organization and interplay of the Leadership Team, Operations Team, and School Governing Council. These structures support decision-making within key areas of autonomy including the budget, professional learning, staffing, the instructional schedule, professional development calendar and methods of evaluation.
All three teams–Leadership, Operations and School Governing Council–have different purviews, yet all are reliant on each other to manage and advance different aspects of the school. As such, these interdependent relationships require trust and communication both within and between teams. The Leadership Team—a teacher-majority governance team—focuses on professional learning and learning programs. Community-based learning practices and curriculum, such as the school’s dual language program as well as its college-going culture, are impacted and informed by the work of all three governance teams (see text boxes below).
Each governance team is composed of smaller teams that are facilitated by teachers and staff. For example, the lead teachers—who make up the Leadership Team—facilitate and lead elementary grade level teams or middle and high school department teams. Members on the governance teams represent the voices and opinions of staff on the smaller teams and are accountable to those whom they represent, which promotes democratic decision-making, transparency, and trust amongst all members of the school.
Figure 2: Collaborative Leadership Structures
Approval of the UCLA Community School’s yearly budget is an example of the ecosystem of governance structures at play. The final budget is approved by the School Governing Council after proposals are refined by different stakeholders and various decision-making bodies at the site such as grade-level teams, departments, the Operations Team and the Leadership Team. The significant role of educators, students and families in the budget decision-making process yields revisions to programs and site governance that reflect shared priorities and commitments—such as the choice to invest in and strengthen the school’s collaborative leadership. Every year since the school opened, the school community has voted to prioritize release time in the budget so teams can collaborate during work hours and as well as provide stipends for formal teacher leadership roles. Sixth grade English and history teacher Io McNaughton described educators’ ability to shape the budget to advance goals aligned with common values:
Collaborative time is a priority. And how much or how little we get every year depends on the budget. But we all do our budget survey and everybody is part of the whole process of looking at the whole budget knowing that our collaboration is one of our priorities. Then we budget towards that. We’ve never had any administrative interference in that process, because that’s obviously a huge part of who we are.”
Educators at UCLA Community School value time allocated through the budget process for collaboration with peers, as these professional learning communities can be efficiently utilized to strengthen the school’s instructional programs and promote school-level decision-making that more accurately reflects the voices of all teachers. Families have also seen the positive impact of teacher collaboration and professional learning on their childrens’ learning, which has increased support for these budget items throughout the years. Ensuring that the budget process is bottom-up leads to student-centered priorities, as those with proximal experience and expertise have the greatest influence in decisions.
When the collaborative leadership pillar is realized through an ecosystem of governance structures that engage all stakeholders, the conventional school leadership hierarchy is inverted and community school stakeholders have the ability to determine local policies that drive practices consistent with shared goals. Additionally, teachers and staff have the responsibility to embody the role of a community school educator partnering with other key stakeholders to design integrative services and community-based learning programs that support student learning and growth. Consequently, decision-making power over the budget, for example, provides flexibility to target funds that support collective priorities within the other community school pillars of integrated student supports, expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities, and active family and community engagement.
Behind the Scenes: UCLA Community School’s College-going Culture
How UCLA Community School accomplishes its goal to prepare all young people to succeed in college and pursue meaningful careers is a dynamic and messy process—definitely not linear. Practices are designed, implemented and formalized and a college-going culture is nurtured, through the collaborative efforts of teachers, staff, and the community.
UCLA Community School graduated its first cohort of students in 2014 with approximately 75% of students attending college (two- and four-year) in the fall immediately after graduation.* Professors and researchers from UCLA partnered with teachers, counselors, and administrators to study college attendance rates, the school’s college-going culture and practices, and to establish next steps. Rooted in a shared commitment to see all students graduate and enter college to pursue meaningful careers, the school’s governance teams (Leadership Team, Operations Team, and School Governing Council) used their distinct purposes and roles to advance the school’s vision to prepare students to succeed in college. Working interdependently, the governance teams established schoolwide programs, structures, and systems that led to an increase of graduation and college-going rates.
During the 2012-2013 school year, the Leadership Team led the school in developing high school graduation requirements that aligned with the state’s public four-year university eligibility requirements (A-G requirements). This ensured that all students had access to a college pathway and were being prepared to succeed in college.
Even with new graduation requirements and concerted changes, the school struggled to develop college-going supports and significantly increase college-going rates. With these goals in mind, the School Governing Council along with the English Learner Advisory Council (composed of parent leaders and principal) approved and funded a college counselor for the 2014-2015 school year. This was a significant staffing and programmatic change that led to increased college acceptance rates the following year. The College Counselor uses a community school approach to college-counseling by partnering with community organizations as well as alumni, current students and families to provide integrated supports and services to families and students as they go through the college application and enrollment process.
The Operations Team focused on the development of college-going events and strengthening the school’s college-going culture. One event that has become a tradition at UCLA Community School is the “College Kick Off” which was first launched in the fall of 2013. This event now happens at the beginning of October and is a celebratory event when seniors come together to start their college applications while eating pizza and participating in fun raffles.
Collaborative leadership exists within an ecosystem of governance teams that have been instrumental in launching and developing a college-going culture and supports. This story emphasizes the role of multiple teams whose distinct puzzle pieces are able to interlock around a common vision and goal.
Read more about the school’s efforts to prepare all students to access and succeed in postsecondary education:
- UCLA Community School Longitudinal College-Going Data Report
- Supporting College-Going for Undocumented Students
- Creating Persistent Community: The Challenge of Aligning Supports for First-Generation College-Going Students
*Note: 2014 represents the first graduating class that attended the school for four years.
Establishing collaborative practices
Establishing governing documents and local policies are a necessary first step to putting collaborative leadership into practice. Similarly, collaborative leadership exists within a larger context of a school’s structures and systems that formally establish decision-making authority for multiple stakeholders. Not covered within governing documents or structures, however, are the everyday practices that define relationships and guide how people work together. Indeed, while UCLA-CS educators aimed to work toward a horizontal and collaborative leadership structure after opening, it became apparent that even with good intentions and formal structures and policy in place, a hierarchical power dynamic between team members could develop. In response, the school explicitly shaped the ways in which people worked together by codifying collaborative practices that promote the distribution of power to all members of a team. Here we look closely at the school’s Leadership Team to shed light on these collaborative practices in action. Similar collaborative practices guide decision-making across teams including spaces where governance occurs in partnership with families and students. Through this examination we gain a better understanding of how collaborative practices, supported by policy and structures, empower teachers and staff to own the design and improvement of core practices that reflect the strengths and target the needs of the local community.
Defining or Revisiting the Team’s Roles and Responsibilities
Just as the UCLA-CS governance teams are clearly defined and interconnected, teams within UCLA-CS (e.g., grade level teams, departments) establish a clearly defined scope of work in order to be able to effectively work together towards a common goal.
At the beginning of every year, the Leadership Team revisits the roles and responsibilities of the team. The team discusses possible changes to its structures; the strengths and challenges of the team; and how to better work together. Members are able to reflect on how their individual role fits into the team’s larger purpose and concrete objectives. (See UCLA-CS Lead Teacher Roles and Responsibilities.) For example, the significant role of the principal within the Leadership Team expands the principal’s responsibility beyond implementing district mandates to include “facilitating and supporting Professional Learning Plans to promote students’ engagement as active learners.”
Communicating Decision-Making Process
How decisions are made is integral to building teams that are collaborative and transparent, and ensure students and families are genuine partners in the co-creation of learning programs and services. While different teams may have distinct decision-making processes in place at UCLA-CS–adapted to the types of decisions made by the team–collectively developed processes ensure that multiple perspectives, including contrarian viewpoints, can be heard and influence decisions.
At UCLA Community School, major decisions such as approving the Elect-to-Work Agreement are done through a paper ballot requiring ⅔ approval to pass. The Leadership Team regularly uses the “fist-to-five method” to make decisions—a consensus building method where members vote by raising a number of fingers ranging from five for an emphatic “yes” to a fist wherein the decision is blocked, and must be revisited. When making schoolwide decisions such as the professional learning focus or calendar, the Leadership Team might ask for feedback from their team before making decisions at the Leadership Team meeting.
Co-creating the Agenda
In order to engage all stakeholders, developing the agenda as a team ensures that all members have the power and the opportunity to address concerns that are impacting students and families. At UCLA-CS, teams establish a process for setting agendas and often rely on a template that allows for consistency, transparency and flexibility for all stakeholders to engage.
The Leadership Team has a clear process for determining agenda times. The facilitator sends out the agenda three days before the meeting. Members have the opportunity to suggest new agenda items before the meeting occurs. This ensures that all members have the decision-making power needed to influence the work conducted by the team at the meeting. This practice avoids one person setting the agenda and determining what work gets accomplished.
Establishing Member Roles
Just as UCLA-CS governance teams are clearly defined and interconnected, within each team defined roles facilitate effective collaboration on achieving common goals. Establishing member roles democratizes decision-making by empowering team members to collectively drive the process. Without member roles, meetings can become disorganized and the voices of members who may not have institutional status and power may be silenced.
Teachers know that establishing team roles is a key practice when having students engage in group learning. The same is true for adult teams. Roles ensure that the team is able to collaborate effectively and efficiently, and avoid stalled discussions or one person dominating the conversation. Two roles that all teams have at UCLA Community School are facilitator and note-taker which ensures that all can participate in discussions and that decisions are documented. Depending on the team size, the personalities of the members, and the purpose of the work, teams determine if other roles are needed. The Leadership Team found themselves going past the designated meeting end times, and in response established a time-keeper to ensure that discussions stayed within allotted timeframes.
Determining Next Steps
The “next steps” agenda item is a difficult step for many teams at UCLA-CS because the inspiring collaborative conversations that take place during team meetings must now be concretized as tasks that require members to commit to completing some work outside of the meeting. Agreeing upon “next steps” as a team also ensures that work of the team remains focused on issues that have been collectively prioritized.
The Leadership Team, for example, sets aside time (the last 10 minutes) to clarify the work that members are responsible for completing and confirming that the work is not concentrated on one of a few individuals. This assists in sustaining the work of the team. Another important component in establishing next steps is to agree on and clarify how the work of the Leadership Team guides and impacts the work of grade level and department teams. It is important to note that the Lead Teachers are not expected to present plans or programs proposed by the Leadership Team to their grade level or department teams, but are expected to solicit feedback, build consensus, and to co-determine the impact on students and families. Lead teachers use collaborative practices to increase communication, transparency, and trust between governance teams and working teams to cultivate collective ownership around professional learning and program improvement initiatives.
These collaborative practices ensure that teachers’ participation in shared decision-making is meaningful, sustainable and facilitates collective and constructive problem-solving.
Click here for collaborative leadership tools and activities.
Behind the Scenes: UCLA Community School’s Dual Language Program
Building on the language assets of families and assisting students in meeting the expectation that all students will graduate biliterate, bilingual and multicultural, UCLA-CS offers two language pathways at the elementary school (grades TK – 5) level: the Korean world language pathway or the Spanish dual language immersion (DLI) pathway.
Through its partnership with UCLA professors and researchers, the school has developed a dual language program. Since 2009, elementary school teachers have measured students’ progress toward dual proficiency in English and Spanish by assessing students’ Independent Reading Level (IRL). While the school has seen an increase in dual language proficiency at the elementary school level, teachers and researchers noticed that dual language maintenance began to diminish as students enter the secondary school (grades 6-12). To address this issue, in 2018-19, the Leadership Team decided to make schoolwide concerted efforts to expand the program to middle and high school students.
During the summer of 2018, the Leadership Team had a three-day retreat to analyze schoolwide data and to develop a professional learning focus and strategic plan for the upcoming school year. Using the “fist-to-five” decision making process, the team developed a schoolwide strategic plan that centered around three aims including graduating 100% of students bilingual and biliterate.
From here, the Lead Teachers for middle and high school identified that their “next steps” would be to take the schoolwide plan to their teams for feedback. Every department developed their own strategic plan to achieve these goals. The History Team and the Science Team decided to start interdisciplinary projects using the “Multicultural and Multilingual Framework” that the History Team and UCLA researchers had developed the previous year. Through these community-based projects, students explored issues in their community, received input from community members to understand the problem more deeply, and developed solutions that met the needs of their community. Students presented their projects to staff, parents, and community members in multiple languages which leveraged their rich language assets and demonstrated growth in this area.
As the school year continued, it became apparent that working towards the aim of graduating all students bilingual and biliterate required the coordination of many teams and staff. Collaborative practices such as defining decision-making, setting clear agendas, and establishing next steps ensured that teachers and staff had voice in and power over how the goals were being achieved. These processes increased ownership, transparency, trust, and the ability to quickly implement change. This led to the “Grades 6-12 Dual Language Program Strategic Plan” which detailed and provided a visual for the many changes that were being implemented by teachers, staff, students, and families to achieve a common goal.
Read more about the school’s efforts to graduate all students bilingual, biliterate and multicultural:
Why does collaborative leadership matter?
The policies, structures and practices that support collaborative leadership—a core pillar of community schools—demonstrate how UCLA Community School strives to construct, design and maintain a learning environment that prioritizes and adjusts to the needs of students and families by partnering with the community. This is exemplified through the staffing, curricular and programmatic shifts that are the result of shared decision-making and that continually reflect the evolving needs and priorities of the community. Importantly, the hard work and practices that support collaborative leadership and the policies and structures that serve as a foundation, detailed above, contribute to and strengthen an environment where educators and students feel supported in their growth and development. Collaborative leadership is vital to building an inclusive and empowering school wherein all stakeholders feel that their expertise and commitment to the community is recognized and valued. Importantly, collaborative leadership in community schools extends beyond inclusive decision-making to redefine the role of educators as one where establishing and maintaining democratic spaces is paramount. Collaborative leadership enables educators, students and families to work together to define and co-create learning environments that allow everyone to learn, grow, and thrive.
Educator Growth and Engagement
Over its ten-year history, UCLA-CS has maintained a teacher retention rate that has ranged from 80% to 96%–rates that exceed national and state comparisons. Maintaining high retention rates at the UCLA Community School has been critical in providing students with a stable learning environment and in establishing a culture wherein teachers can conduct the collaborative work of revisiting and improving practice that taps into students’ strengths and talents and meets comprehensive needs. The school’s deliberate focus on workplace conditions—including teachers’ sense of leadership and decision-making power—contributes to this steadiness.
Annual surveys administered to all staff provide an important window into teachers’ well-being and satisfaction with the school’s professional culture. Each year, based on survey results, a “professional learning” dashboard is compiled and shared with the school community to assess the strength and stability of its professional culture. In 2019, 88% of school staff indicated that they felt UCLA Community School promotes personnel participation in decision-making that affects the school (compared to 71% of teachers across the district). Similarly, in 2019, 94% of teachers indicated that UCLA Community School promotes trust and collegiality among staff (compared to 73% of teachers districtwide) and 98% indicated that the school is a supportive and inviting place to work (compared to 78% of teachers districtwide). School counselor Debbie Bailey shared her perspectives regarding how the school’s professional community is based on creating and maintaining an environment where educators feel that their ideas will be heard:
I think there’s a real feeling of trust here… I find as a staff we’re at our best when we [trust each other]. Like any long-term relationship, there’s moments where it’s less prevalent than it should be. I have to check myself sometimes… When we [check ourselves] is when we function the best. That’s when we can each put out our own ideas and get the best responses and develop [ideas] in a very organic way.”
At UCLA-CS, educators understand they are valued and that their insights are important to enabling both their colleagues and students to grow and develop as individuals. Importantly, this speaks to what it means to be a community school educator—to form part of an enduring community and workplace where stakeholders share a set of values and commitments. Educators not only serve the community, they form part of the community.
Student Growth and Engagement
The engagement of UCLA Community School students in their learning is the school’s ultimate indicator of success. Interviews conducted with UCLA Community School students provide a critical window into the learning environment—its culture and practices—that support students’ growth and engagement. As student interviews reveal, practices that value multiple voices and perspectives (e.g., collaborative leadership), assist students in recognizing the strengths and assets of each individual in the community including their own.
Through interviews, students shared how they felt the learning environment and practices recognized their assets and legitimized their knowledge, ways of knowing and contributed to a culture of mutual learning. For example, one student shared,
Teachers are very interested in learning from us… Many people see teachers as this position of authority, they know everything. But all teachers [here], they’re open about saying that they don’t know everything. ‘You guys are going to teach me and then I can teach you.’”
Students recognized the power of validation, and identified their teachers’ sincere interest in the many assets and knowledge they possessed. This was especially evident when students described their language assets. One student shared how, in other schools, “people get weirded out if, in the middle of an English conversation, you bring up some other language. But that is the culture in our school, we do not get weirded out at all.” This culture is supported by teachers where, according to students, “a lot of teachers speak more than two languages.” And, “those teachers who do not speak more than English, they still help us understand. They still value multiculturalism.”
Students also shared how they were encouraged to share their ideas and perspectives without fear of being “wrong.” As one student explained, teachers work to implement practices and create a culture where mistakes are viewed as an opportunity for shared learning:
When teachers value students’ ideas and then say, ‘Wow great idea,’ instead of saying something like, ‘No, that’s wrong.’… They’re just like, ‘Interesting. Wow. Who else can add onto that idea?’ That means they want to learn from … the different, diverse ideas. Even teachers want to grow in this place and want to … explore themselves.”
Students also suggested that these practices enabled them to become legitimate partners in the creation of a broader school culture that recognizes the strengths of all community members. Students discussed their desire to contribute to the learning environment, as exemplified by one student:
There’s a really friendly atmosphere that comes from the teachers and counselors that makes you…want to be a part of that culture…You don’t feel like pushing them away. …You feel accepted as a part of this culture.”
Ultimately, students felt strongly that the school provided a space where adults and students grow and learn together. As one student discussed, “A lot of teachers, I think, come to the school to change something in their learning.” Indeed, collaborative leadership, where teachers, alongside students, families and community members can shape the teaching and learning environment is paramount in meeting the school’s mission and vision—in creating a space where everyone is guided by the same “north star.”
As an educator-run community school, UCLA Community School establishes the policies, and maintains an ecosystem of governance structures that support educators in working collaboratively to influence the learning environment in ways that best meet the needs of students and families. Collaborative leadership supports and brings meaning to the school’s deep and meaningful partnerships with UCLA, community partners and families. Collaborative leadership also provides a mechanism to ensure the integration of other core pillars of its community school approach: integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, and community and family engagement.
This brief has detailed how local policies codify collaborative leadership and establish roles for all stakeholders in decision-making—a first step in ensuring that voices of multiple stakeholders are heard. While necessary, we demonstrate how policies, in and of themselves, are insufficient in operationalizing collaborative leadership within community schools. Beyond policies, we explore the larger context of the school’s structures that ensure leadership includes multiple stakeholders through formal designations. We also outline the many practices that support and leverage collaborative leadership. In particular, we identify how the school’s commitment to the local community undergirds shared leadership and assists in developing and sustaining a cadre of teachers who are dedicated to working collaboratively. Why collaborative leadership in community schools matters is made clear: to support an inclusive and empowering learning environment that recognizes and values all community members. As an educator-run community school, UCLA Community School provides a compelling example of what our public education system can achieve—the preparation and empowerment of individuals to work together to advance their communities.
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 For more information on the community school pillars see: Maier, A., Daniel, J., Oakes, J. & Lam, L. (2017). Community schools as an effective school improvement strategy: A review of the evidence. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
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About the Authors
Rebekah M. Kang is the network lead for Los Angeles Teacher-Powered Schools working with other teacher-powered educators to strengthen and promote teacher-powered schools. Rebekah is also the coordinator and one of the founding teachers of the RFK UCLA Community School. She is also a National Board Certified Teacher, a UCLA Writing Project Fellow, and Teacher-Powered Schools Ambassador. To reach Rebekah send an email to email@example.com
Marisa Saunders is associate director for research at UCLA’s Center for Community Schooling. Her primary areas of research focus on K-12 transformation efforts aimed to address longstanding educational inequalities. Her research explores students’ access to college, secondary to postsecondary transitions, and the postsecondary trajectories of underrepresented youth. Her work also examines the influence of teacher leadership, agency and ownership on K-12 transformation efforts and student outcomes. Marisa has authored a number of publications and books including Beyond Tracking: Multiple Pathways to College, Career, and Civic Participation and Learning Time: In Pursuit of Educational Equity.
Kyle Weinberg is the vice president of San Diego Education Association, the union that represents over 6000 San Diego Unified School District educators. Kyle has worked in a wide variety of educational settings, ranging from ESL, history and special education teacher to co-director of a grassroots media-making initiative in Central America. He earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership at UC San Diego and Cal State San Marcos, where he studied the critical educator role within collaborative leadership at UCLA Community School.
Kang, R., Saunders, M., & Weinberg, K. (2021). Collaborative leadership as the cornerstone of community schools: Policy, structures, and practice. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Community Schooling.