Building and Sustaining School Partnerships

November 29, 2013

By Robert J. Volpe and Amy M. Briesch

If you have had the experience of entering an unfamiliar school and performing a well-rehearsed conference room pitch for some study you would like to conduct only to be rebuffed by the school staff, you are not alone. Although one of the more common concerns voiced by school staff is that there is already too much testing going on in the school, you likely have had the sense that the school staff views you as an outsider, of whose intentions they should be somewhat wary. If this is the case, the school has likely had one or more experiences dealing with what we call the slash and burn approach to conducting school-based research. Building research infrastructure is a lot like farming. Just like farming there are sustainable approaches, but there are also unsustainable approaches, which are ineffective for both the researcher and stakeholders. Research partnerships, just like any other relationship, are built on three principal concepts: a) mutual respect, b) mutual benefits and c) trust. Slash and burn farming involves cutting down shrubs and trees on a plot of land, setting the debris on fire and using the resultant ashes to nourish the soil for the purposes of growing food. Because the nutrients in the soil are rapidly depleted, the farmer must find a new plot of land and cannot return to the original plot until the natural vegetation grows back. School-based researchers often follow an analogous approach to partnering with schools because they fail to ensure that they are providing the school with adequate benefits and do not necessarily seek to sustain relationships within the school. Much like the farmer, slash and burn researchers find themselves repeatedly searching for new study sites because they have burned their bridges with former school partners who do not see the “partnership” as mutually beneficial. Alternatively, a key tenant of sustainable farming is developing and maintaining healthy soil, avoiding erosion, and supporting healthy root growth. A sustainable approach requires a greater investment of time, energy, and resources on the part of the farmer; however, it also results in both a more desirable product and long-term environmental benefits. The same can be said of sustainable research: although conducting an isolated study may require less time and effort than building solid partnerships with schools, the latter is likely to result both in a better study in the short term and fertile ground for future research down the road. In the table below we will compare these two approaches along some relevant dimensions.


  Slash and Burn Sustainable
Focus Short-term Long-term
Principal motivation How I can get my study run? How can my expertise serve the school?
Ideas about collaboration Preconceived/rigid Open and flexible
Communication Explaining Listening
  Abrupt Proactive and maintained
Follow-up Minimal Maximal
Role Outside consultant Partner
Engagement Low High


To build research partnerships that are sustainable requires the researcher to plan ahead. As early career scholars it is not a good idea to wait to contact a school until you need them as a site for a study. Early in your career or early in a new location, you have not yet built your “street cred.” By that we mean that you may have not yet demonstrated whether your relationship with a school is an asset to them or a burden. As a well-trained school psychologist (and perhaps a trainer), you know you have much to offer the school, but you will not know how you can best serve them unless you ask. Listening to the needs and developing research questions in this context is an example of participatory action research. We all want to do something to serve troubled schools, but when we listen to our school partners it helps us pursue informed action. Among the services we have provided to our school partners include:

  • Benchmarking (e.g., DIBELS) the school, crunching the numbers, and presenting the data to the school staff
  • Conducting staff in-service trainings on PBIS and RtI
  • Consulting on challenging behavioral cases
  • Evaluating programs
  • Converting classes to service learning courses where students implement academic interventions
  • Serving as a consultant to school leadership teams
  • Engaging in problem-solving with teachers and team leaders to identify and assess appropriate interventions

Each of the aforementioned projects was viewed as a win-win for both the school and us. We provided useful resources and services that the school needed and our students benefitted from the experience. In some cases we were able to publish data generated from these activities. Also, when we approached the school regarding a study we wanted to conduct, the study design was informed by what we had learned about the school and the perception across parties was that the project was another win-win situation. Identifying opportunities for dual benefits and building mutual respect and trust take both time and attention, but these investments will likely pay dividends. The mistake too many investigators make is that they wait too long to plant the seeds of partnership and then are surprised to find that their yield is much smaller than what they had hoped. If you keep these considerations in mind, and implement sustainable research practices, we feel confident that both you and your partners will reap incredible benefits!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *