Collaboration in Rural Community Aligns Partners, Volunteers & Resources for Student Success

In five short years, the Grinnell Education Partnership, a campus-community initiative has transformed the community of Grinnell, Iowa’s educational and non-profit landscape. Connecting volunteers and organizations to leverage existing resources in new ways, the Partnership has captured the community’s imagination, rallied volunteerism, fostered relationships, and achieved measurable results in student success. 

New Collaborations

Through new collaborations, participants have piloted or enhanced more than 15 community-based programs – such as creating a full range of summer enrichment opportunities for elementary-level students, combating chronic absenteeism, and creating a high school internship program to help new graduates get a leg up.  

Student Success

With everyone working together, the Grinnell Education Partnership has yielded significant results in a very short time for the community’s kids and families. Reading scores are up and the achievement gap is rapidly closing.  In-coming kindergarteners are arriving at school ready to learn (with 92% testing as “proficient” in 2017-18 vs. just 63% in 2015-16). Kids who participate in the SLICK program no longer lose reading proficiency over the summer, and instead over 90% maintained or gained reading skills). Fewer students are chronically absent (decreasing from 15% to 6% among targeted k-4th graders between 2017 and 2019), and more third graders are reading level (with 88% testing as “proficient” in 2017-18 vs. 79% in 2015-16). Most notable is that the improvements are even more pronounced among low-income students – reflecting the community’s focus and in strong contrast to statewide trends. 

Relationship Building and Capacity Building

And, while we are proud of measurable results for students, we are equally thrilled with the intangible benefits of new relationships, greater understanding, trust, and respect that has grown from the project.  Some of these new connections are professional – summer host site supervisors now meet weekly, helping each other with everything from program planning to tech support. With support and coordination of Grinnell College, they jointly come together each summer to recruit Summer Learning Corps members, conduct team interviews, and cooperatively decide which applicants should be accepted, and into which programs they should be placed. Some of these new connections are intergenerational – for the past two years, we’ve had both college students and retirees serving as AmeriCorps After School Enrichment Aides, sharing life experiences from across the decades, yet jointly committed to improving the lives of preschoolers. Finally, some of these connections cross town/gown divides. With both Grinnell College and Grinnell High School students making up the largest numbers of Summer Learning Corps members, these two groups now interact in large numbers as never before. Serving side by side as equals in the summer program, these young people are getting to know each other as individuals, with their own unique skills and knowledge to bring to bear. With a structure that empowers participants to try new ideas, new community leaders have emerged. Sustainability

The Partnership’s structure allows for a great deal of experimentation and creativity, yet is also mindful of making sure successful programs can be sustainable into the future.  To date, several programs have been adopted as ‘standard operating procedure’ into some of the partner organizations who appreciate their contributions. Examples include an Attendance Coordinator hired by the school district to make sure that the attendance initiatives continue into the future. Likewise, the county economic development organization has hired a coordinator to oversee the high-school skills gap programs. Each of the community’s summer youth programs are now coordinating with each other and with the statewide Campus Compact organization to hire summer AmeriCorps members and collaborate on programming to maximize scale, resources, and impact. Grinnell College has also reorganized its staffing to fully embrace its supporting ‘backbone’ role. In January of 2020 Grinnell College created a ‘Director of Collective Impact’ position, ably filled by Melissa Strovers who spearheads the college’s role in the Grinnell Education Partnership.