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Why is Collaborative Decision Making Effective for Problem Solving?

Today on the blog we take a case study from Building Community by James Gruber focused on participatory decision making processes. Many people may question why this problem solving process is so important when we elect and hire leaders to make decisions for us. Participatory problem solving and decision making are at the heart of effective and healthy communities. The collaborative style is attributed as a key factor in the success of the Young Achievers School in Boston, Massachusetts whose story is showcased in chapter 11 of Building Community.

Excerpt from Building Community

Bring Them Together — Young Achievers School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA by Bo Hoppin


The mission of the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School is to create an exceptional teaching and learning environment in which science and mathematics concepts are explored through new technologies and made central to teacher and student inquiry.

The school was one of the initial five Pilot Schools founded in 1995 by a passionate group of black and Latino community leaders, parents, and teachers from the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods of Boston. The founders envisioned a kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) school where all children would be known and cared for during an extended learning day. Today, the school is governed by a democratic participatory process that relies on active partnerships with families, students, community members, and community institutions.

Introduction and General Overview

The school has worked to push students, parents, and community members to the front of the decision-making process. It has challenged staff to engage in extensive committee work that lasts well into many evenings. Community partners are invited to support the school’s academic achievement goals by thoughtfully connecting their work to the curriculum. The school’s leadership embraces local, district, and state institutions as strategically integrated partners working to fulfill the school’s mission. The outcome is a sophisticated, complex K-8 school serving over 600 students.

The notion that a public school can break free from the reins of a centralized education system to create a participatory system is ambitious. Urban public schools are under intense pressure to succeed academically, which really means higher test scores. This inherently pushes schools toward centralized decision making and away from engaging the community. The Pilot School system in Boston, Massachusetts, was created with the unique vision of bringing community participation back to the schools. The pilot system has thrived in placing community at the center of a school’s decision making; however, it struggles with the larger district to meet the formal requirements of school accountability.

All was going well...and then, in 2014, came the call from our school principal, a local icon known for being one tough cookie. I felt dread walking into a meeting of school leadership, teachers, and parents urgently called by our school principal—I knew before I arrived that she was going to ask us to enter into a high stakes bet that would require intense commitment and most likely result in a big goose egg.

Young Achievers was just emerging from five years of dramatic transitions as requested by Boston school leaders. To its credit, the school’s staff embraced these transitions as opportunities. Five years into school and program restructuring we were finally getting our traction.

Now, a powerhouse principal was going to ask us to enter into yet another monstrous transition by applying for an Expanded Learning Time grant. She explained that this opportunity “was our first chance at substantial funding to realize the founder’s vision for an extended school day that addressed our student’s academic needs.” She asked each of the nine meeting participants to share their thoughts (H-I). I expressed my dread and raised my hand as “yes” when the straw poll was called. So did everybody else. It is a credit to her leadership, knowing when to push and when to listen.

Goals and Approaches

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Expanded Learning Time grant program is a large state-run program that supports schools to extend their school day beyond the conventional 6.5 hours. Their goals are to provide teachers with more time for collaborative planning and to enrich the school day for students by leveraging the power of community partners (A-B-J). The fiscal resources they offer schools are substantial, in our case over $400,000 per year. I attended the grant program’s information session with a continued sense of dread. I had been to too many of these and the drill was always the same. A stuffy hotel conference room, peppermints, and powerpoint presentations about accountability through data-driven decision making. Or, “Get your damn test scores up!”

This program communicated a new and refreshing message: “Let’s get kids engaged in an expanded school day through leveraging the power of community partners.” The program asked schools to form leadership teams comprised of teachers, administrators, parents, and community partners to define how they would meet the goal of extending the school day for a total of 30 additional days of education. The state facilitated connecting new applicants to successful Expanded Learning Time schools (B-D). Most importantly, it let each grant applicant define their path through a model of support rather than prescription (I-K-F).

The Expanded Learning Time grant application process emphasized innovative approaches for engaging students and community partners in a meaningful extended school day. In just one year, Young Achievers had contracted with 17 local nonprofits. Students were more physically active at Sportsmen’s Tennis Club. They were challenged to defend their opinions through the Debate League. They applied math skills through building rowboats with Boston Family Boat Building and learned ecological processes while planting a school garden with Green City Growers. Local elders tutored reading for our younger students through Generations Inc. A program called Keys to Literacy mentored our newest teachers. An entire community of nonprofits, local leaders, and citizens made learning come alive for some of Boston’s most vulnerable students. So what do the outcomes look like when partners participate in decision making?

The nearby Boston Nature Center (BNC) served as one of our closest partners. Our 4th and 5th graders visited the site every other week for three hours. Their teachers stayed back at school for focused and facilitated curriculum planning. The students worked with BNC’s naturalists to expand their understanding of local ecology and scientific processes. On a bitter, cold January morning, under bright blue skies with the landscape covered by a recent dusting of snow, school unfolded as a magical journey.

Children play ball together


Alder says “Hey, look at that, it’s a rabbit track, no wait, maybe it’s a deer.” Darnell: “It is definitely deer, see how the two half circles are close together.” Tristan chimes in, “But look, there are two big prints in front and two little prints in back, that is a rabbit.” In unison “NO WAY,” and one says, “It’s both deer and rabbit out here, and look at all the prints, they are all over the place!” A little farther down the trail we come across another print, they run back and grab the identification card out of my hands. All three are now gathered around this new print, struggling to also look at the tracking identification card. “What is it? Can’t be rabbit, there are too many sections. Wait, I count 2, 5, 8 sections on that print. WOW! That is a coyote! Here in the city? Can’t be!” Kim, the BNC naturalist, asks them how we could have found this print if there was no coyote here in the city. They quickly discard the idea that someone must have come out here and put that print in the snow. They decide it is indeed a coyote, and it must be followed.

The three boys track their coyote down a hill and onto a small frozen pond. They decide the coyote was chasing a rabbit, with ample evidence to validate their reasoning. They have sticks in their hands, which started out as guns for hunting, but became pointers to show each other characteristics of the tracks. The pointers morph into clubs to explore how the ice of this small pond could be cracked, leading to all sorts of inquiries about why they are standing on ice that is cracking, but they are not falling into the water.

The opportunity for Alder, Darnell, and Tristan to make their discoveries is how budding scientists are created. They explore, ask interesting questions, and experience the joy of being in charge of their own learning. Leveraging the resources and expertise of community partners allowed their inquiry to come alive.

Reflection on Principle J: Decide Together

The essence of Principle J is getting people to listen to each other and build together. Open and collaborative relationships can foster more creative learning opportunities for the community, and outcomes for students like Darnell, Alder, and Tristan can be stronger. The activists who founded Young Achievers envisioned a more impactful schooling experience for their kids. They viewed a science and math-themed school as a strategy for engaging kids in growing toward a meaningful career. For many of the neighborhood kids a passion for science and math equaled a career path out of poverty.

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recognizes that many of our most vulnerable schools and students need additional class time to meet academic standards. They also recognize that there are resources within each community that can be used to enrich school practices, and effectively replace “drill-and-kill” tactics. These acknowledgements, in addition to appropriate state grant programs and tireless engagement from school staff and the community, have helped to create a Young Achievers that lives up to the vision of its founders. What started as a sense of dread for making a school more complicated morphed into optimism about the power of partnership.

Author James Gruber

Author James Gruber

James S. Gruber, PhD, PE, is Director of the PhD Program in Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England and a member of IUCN Council for Environmental Economic and Social Policy. He has also worked as a town manager, a solar engineer, and a consultant. He lives in Alstead, New Hampshire

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