Reimagining the College Town
For many, an instinctual reflex is to marry the term “college town” with images from the movie Animal House. While stories of youthful exuberance make for interesting water cooler conversation, they serve to conceal real opportunities for public schools to collaborate with postsecondary institutions.
In Dutchess County, New York, the Red Hook Central School District has been quietly leveraging the possibilities of the college town through its relationship with Bard College, located just a few miles from the district near the Hudson River. My hope and intention is that more districts will see similar opportunities hidden in plain sight. As with most successful collaborations, it comes down to individual relationships, establishing a network and understanding the capacity of the network to improve your organization.
At RHCSD, the administrative team started the process by identifying which parents of our students were affiliated with Bard College. Fortunately, they found that a number of them were professors or held high-level administrative posts, including vice president for administration, dean and associate dean of student affairs, vice president and dean for international affairs, director of the trustee leader scholar program.
Seed Activities for Students
We set about nurturing these relationships on the individual and group levels. Building-level administrators established deeper links with these critical parents, and district-level officials structured informal meetings for the whole network to discuss opportunities for cooperation.
There is an important point to be made at this juncture. Because these were parents in our teaching and learning community, we knew that they were personally invested in improving Red Hook schools. We framed our initial conversations around exciting, and immediately feasible, opportunities for students. For example, we arranged for advanced foreign language students at Bard College to instruct elementary students in Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Latin. This is what I have come to call a seed activity. In other words, this was a relatively simple activity with high growth possibility. Over the last two years, we have planted many other seed activities (e.g., debate club, vocal music residencies, science visitations), many of which are evolving into valued annual programs.
While Bard College offered many opportunities for our students, we quickly became aware of opportunities for faculty, as well.
With the support of a Bard College intern, departmental events at the college were collected and posted in our professional development catalogue. We arranged for in-service credit to be granted to teachers who attended these events. For example, a social studies teacher could receive in-service credit for attending the Bard College Bicentennial Conference on Abraham Lincoln, or a music teacher could receive credit for attending a lecture series on 18th-century composers. We quickly discovered that this was a convenient and inexpensive way to encourage professional development.
As we enter the third year of a strategic partnership, the network has expanded to include new members of the Bard College community who may not otherwise be connected to our school system. We structure opportunities for key personnel to expand existing programs and/or develop new programs. We are particularly excited about the possibility of having Bard faculty give regular talks to our faculty that involve brief content-area conversations about cutting-edge ideas in particular fields.
Not every college seeks to have a deep relationship with its neighbors. In Red Hook, we feel fortunate that Bard College is focused on its civic responsibilities and is working to transform the negative connotations associated with “college town.” We only see benefits for our students, adults, and the community at large.
Paul Finch is the superintendent of the Red Hoook (N.Y.) Central School District, a K12 district of 2,200 students.