Talking Shop: Community Impact
Allison Blankenship joined the staff of the 'Iolani School, Hawaii, U.S., in 2006, returning home to the independent school she graduated from four years earlier. When she became the community service coordinator in 2010, one of her initial tasks was to speak with other schools about community summer programs as the 'Iolani School was looking to build a program of its own. From those conversations and other background research, Blankenship and her colleagues eventually created the KA’I Summer Program—a partnership between 'Iolani and nearby Jarrett Middle School that provides underserved youth a free, high-quality, six-summer learning program, culminating in high school graduation.
Now, Blankenship’s full-time job is director of the KA’I Programs, which include an early childhood education program, a school-year tutoring program, and a postsecondary program. Here’s what she learned about creating a successful public-private partnership that has support from the entire community.
Why are community partnerships important to 'Iolani School?
The mission when 'Iolani started was to provide educational opportunities for children in our community. We’re lucky to have a high-achieving student body, but when I think about our original mission as a school, it was to include kids from our community, especially Hawaiian kids, especially underserved kids who may not have the same access to education. Every independent school should have a commitment to take some responsibility for the health and well-being of its surrounding community, so this partnership is being true to the mission of who we are.
Where did the original idea of the KA’I Summer Program stem from?
Right behind our school is a big public school that had the worst graduation rate in the state of Hawaii. Here we are, this independent school with a 100% graduation rate. You can’t just be in your own walled-in community and say, “That’s not our problem.” We looked at that public school to see what was going on, and we found that a big portion of the dropouts were coming from the Pālolo Valley community.
When I was tasked with designing a program and talking to other summer programs around the nation, I learned that middle schools were often an entry point. There was a phenomenal principal at Jarrett Middle School, and right away she was excited to work with us. She let us know that learning loss really happens in the summer when students don’t have the same opportunities to keep their brains working. We said, “OK, great, we’ll take the summer. We’ll take these kids that are deemed high-risk or likely to drop out of high school, not because of behavior or anything like that, but because of life factors.” With support that could be changed.
How did the program grow from there?
Initially the goal was improving high school graduation rates, but it grew because of the needs of the community and the needs of our students. We know that having a college education is the best way for our students to advance. It’s so hard for first-generation, low-income kids to be able to do that because of many barriers, so we added our postsecondary support program to cover the full tuition gap for each of our kids in college. And that same year, we added our preschool program, recognizing that most of the kids from Pālolo Valley entered kindergarten with no early childhood education. Then we started our tutoring program, which was a request from our KA’I students who wanted more support during the school year.
How did you know what the community needed?
Because we decided to make a commitment to one community so close by, we formed relationships with people in the community like housing managers and school staff that we have open conversations with. They saw we were there to help. If we didn’t have those community players, it’d be hard, because we wouldn’t know those community needs, we’d be guessing. It’s taken a while. It’s been us not coming in in a pushy way but coming in and proving we aren’t going anywhere. We’re there to be a partner in the education of those kids, supporting those families, and seeing it as very much an 'ohana (a Hawaiian word that means "extended family") model.
How are the KA’I Programs funded?
It was difficult at first because we didn’t have a program and a lot of foundations want three years of proof of concept, but you can’t have three years of proof without money. We were so lucky to have a seed funder who basically said they’d give us US$100,000 and three years without having to report. I know it is so unrealistic to tell other independent schools to try to get a seed donor who doesn’t need reporting in the first three years, but you could do that in several ways. It could be from your independent school community, or it could be your independent school itself saying, “We’re going to float this thing while you build your program.”
Now, we have five major foundations that we go to. We write grant proposals every year, spend the money, report, and then we do it all over again. Our programs run mostly off funds from the foundations, who align with the missions of our programs, but of course there are other costs that are not covered by that. There are always extra costs, so that is when we rely on individual donors. In the beginning, we didn’t really have a lot of [donors], but now we have 400 individual donors because 'Iolani has really adopted the program. For example, for Giving Day, we were one of the main programs promoted to give to.
What advice would you give other institutions hoping to form successful private-public partnerships?
I think the biggest advice that I was given that was so helpful was pick one community to partner with and start small and build success. Also, be in it for the long run.
We are always learning about the challenges that come along with being a kid that grows up in an under resourced area, so we’ve made a long commitment to the community. We are very open to having our program needs develop from the needs of that particular community.
About the author(s)
Beth Mechum is the Manager of Strategic Communications at CASE.
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