Fostering collaboration: Communities of Practice

Published: June 13, 2024

Finding time for reflection and building vital connections with colleagues and partners is often challenging for school support staff and direct service providers, who are focused on meeting the immediate needs of students and families experiencing homelessness. Yet, these relationships are crucial, as a strong network for coordinating strategies and resources strengthens their ability to effectively support young people and families. Creating a space for collaboration and connection between school districts and community-based organizations was the goal of the Communities of Practice events held across the state this spring.

Communities of Practice participants receive funding from the state’s Homeless Student Stability Program (HSSP). HSSP funds housing support services for students and their families experiencing homelessness with a goal of providing educational stability, addressing racial inequities, and encouraging the development of collaborative strategies between housing and education partners.

HSSP funds are divided into two buckets: the first funds efforts by schools and school districts  to improve the academic experience and access for students experiencing homelessness; and the second funds community organizations to support the basic needs of the students and their families to prevent and address housing instability. While these ‘buckets’ have specific uses, schools and community organizations are working together to develop creative ways to ‘braid’ these funds to meet the diverse needs of students and families in their communities.

Building Changes, in partnership with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Education and the Office of Homeless Youth, developed the Communities of Practice events to convene these groups, providing a container to foster this creative problem solving. “That’s the idea behind the Communities of Practice events – to have folks share their strategies and knowledge while creating community by physically sharing space together,” facilitator Joey Heilman shared.

In the earlier sessions, participants were asked to share their ‘Glows and Grows’ – areas of strength and areas for growth. A common strength participants shared was consistency when working with students and families. “Our strength is being supportive – consistently following up and consistently providing a safe space to build trust.” Another participant added, “Being supportive of one another too, creating a safe place in the work environment so we can rely on each other to help families overcome whatever hardships they’re experiencing.”

There were common themes in the areas for growth as well. These included the need for stable funding sources, and the need for partnership with outside organizations who can provide resources when the schools can’t. “A challenge we’ve faced is not knowing which community partners are out there to remove the barriers we can’t.”

Subsequent Communities of Practice events delved into practical strategies organizations and schools can use to build these connections in their communities. Participants engaged in ‘eco-mapping’ – an exercise that grouped agencies from similar demographic areas to work together to chart out available resources in their area. Participants shared that this activity expanded their knowledge of resources available in their communities.

The Communities of Practice events provide a powerful model for fostering collaboration between schools and community organizations. Facilitator Jonathan Houston said, “In the future, I would love to see school districts and community organizations host these events in their region to create more opportunities for grant recipients to participate and become connected to their local networks.” By sharing resources, strategies, and building strong networks, schools and community organizations are working in partnership to meet the needs of students and families experiencing homelessness across Washington State.









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