Douglas ESD collaborates and builds relationships
When The Ford Family Foundation offered county school district superintendents the use of its conference center for their monthly meeting, Michael Lasher eagerly accepted.
“It was a new venue for the superintendents, a change of view and scenery that helped them think in new ways,” says Lasher, superintendent of the Douglas Education Service District, which convenes the meetings.
Soon, the superintendents began to invite Jeneen Hartley, the Foundation’s program officer for youth development and education. “It was obvious that Jeneen and the Foundation were eager to help districts,” Lasher says, “And the fact that the Foundation was coming to the table allowed people to think about solutions.”
Today, the Douglas ESD and its member districts work with the Foundation on several projects, from early learning initiatives to professional development for teachers.
“It’s a true partnership, both in the depth of the relationship and in its reciprocity,” says Analicia Nicholson, the ESD’s director of student services. “If we have an idea, we’ll call Jeneen and ask her what she thinks, and together we come up with solutions.”
The Douglas ESD plays a strategic role in providing services and programs that benefit the county’s youth inside and outside of school, from newborn to age 21. That kind of regional delivery system is a boon to rural school districts, which often lack the resources to offer their own programs. The Douglas ESD, which serves as a regional coordinating entity, can be responsive to a district’s needs while avoiding expensive duplication of services.
Collaboration extends those benefits by allowing community partners to bring ideas and support. And it’s not just a matter of money — it’s a matter of relationships. The Douglas ESD is heavily involved in countywide initiatives that address critical issues such as early childhood education, mental health and career technical education.
Establishing these critical relationships enables the Douglas ESD to reach out to other groups in the community to see who is doing what and identify gap areas, then work with other organizations to find solutions.
These partnerships have produced a host of innovative programs. The Ready, Set, Learn Behavior Intervention Program (see next page), was developed by the Douglas ESD in partnership with local districts, mental health professionals and the Foundation. The Douglas ESD, the Foundation and the business community all work together on the Business Champions for Kids program, which provides services and technical support for Douglas County employers seeking to support work-family balance.
“As educators, we tend to think that foundations are like banks that you ask for money. It took me a little while and some coaching to realize that the Foundation is in the same business I am — trying to make the community better,” Lasher says. “They want to be a real partner. That was a valuable lesson for me to learn.”
A request by member districts for regionalized professional development resulted in a collaborative effort by the Douglas ESD and the Foundation that brought a countywide workshop around trauma-informed education to the Douglas County Fairgrounds in October. More than 600 Douglas County educators attended, representing all but one of the 13 districts served by the Douglas ESD.
The Foundation and the Douglas ESD are currently working with the Institute for Research & Reform in Education (IRRE) on a data-based school improvement project. IRRE’s Measuring What Matters team collects existing education data and teacher and student surveys from the 13 Douglas County districts. The resulting reports provide an analysis specifically designed to help school leaders and educators examine key elements of instructional quality and locally identify areas to take action on improvement.
“The other thing I noticed is that the ESD and the Foundation are often at the table with the same partners,” Nicholson says. “We are familiar with each other. We can advocate for each other. We can reach out to other groups in the community to see who is doing what and identify our gap areas.”
“The Foundation’s involvement has really helped produce a much better conversation at the superintendents’ level,” Lasher says. “We always have skin in the game, but we know they are a partner and willing to put money in the solution. It allows Ford to be a real part of the conversation.”