Lessons Learned: Building Partnerships with Schools

Twenty-one nonprofit organizations share key take-aways about building successful relationships with public schools.

The increasing decline of funding for music education in public schools in the United States and Canada has led to a massive gap in students’ education and access to music opportunities. Many arts nonprofits, including choral organizations, are working with schools to provide a combination of in-school and afterschool programs to fill this gap.  

Chorus America’s 2022-23 Music Education Partnership Grant (MEPG) program provided an opportunity for collaborations between these nonprofit organizations and public schools to increase access to choral music education for students. Twenty-one organizations in the United States and Canada received grants to implement their programs, many of which specifically offered opportunities to students in Title I schools.  

Partnering with public schools was a way to reach a large and diverse population of students, support schools’ existing music programs or bring music to schools which did not have existing programs, and provide teachers with professional development opportunities. The Music Education Partnership Grants program emphasized the importance of keeping the core values of access, diversity, equity, and inclusion at the heart of all the different programs and provided support for grantees to bring these values to life in their own ways.  

Some grants supported new partnerships; others supported existing partnerships as they continued to strengthen and develop. Throughout the process, nonprofit partners learned a lot, both about building strong partnerships with public schools and about partnerships in general. This article addresses some of the most important lessons that they took away to inform their programming in the future.  

Plan Ahead to Navigate Bureaucracy 

Partners learned that they needed to prepare for the possibility that school system bureaucracy might cause delays. Bureaucracy within the public school system exists to ensure layers of protection, but it can make it challenging to get things done, particularly when it comes to disbursing funds.  Macon County Youth and Children’s Choir (MCYCC), which provided music classes in Macon County Schools in Franklin, North Carolina, ran into issues fulfilling some time-sensitive needs, like purchasing instruments and supplies and paying external personnel.  

At the time of receiving the grant, MCYCC was not yet an incorporated 501c (3) so could not receive funds itself. Because of the bureaucracy involved in having the school receive the funds, the project had trouble paying artists and purchasing supplies on time and had to borrow money for upfront costs. While the partners were able to find solutions in the end, MCYCC reported that this is something they would organize differently in the future if at all possible. When partnering with a public school, MCYCC recommended having the grant money sent to the external nonprofit organization, which would likely require less bureaucracy to process those funds.  

Plan Ahead to Navigate Scheduling

One of the challenges that nonprofits faced was getting programs off the ground far enough in advance to work with the schools’ timelines. Since schools are closed over the summer, the best time to contact teachers and administrators is the spring of the previous year so that all necessary approvals can be secured to get programs kicked off right away in the fall. Because of how the MEPG timeline worked, some grantees were unable to give schools enough notice, sometimes resulting in fewer in-school sessions because the schools did not have time to plan for additional activities.  

For example, Seattle Pro Musica brought in composers to conduct workshops with several area schools, teaching students about composition and the music of various cultures: Chickasaw music, Filipino music, Southern Indian Carnatic music, and music of the African American diaspora. “I think the biggest challenges have been internal to the schools, in terms of when we can offer something and how those individual schools have to work with their own systems and schedules,” said artistic director and conductor Karen Thomas. “We had numerous teachers in schools who were super interested and ready to do all of this a year ago. Then when it comes time to really set dates and make it all happen, some of those teachers found that certain visits wouldn't work for them, or they had other challenges to deal with.” Some grantees suggested that knowing about funding a year in advance would be helpful in scheduling with schools and coordinating with teachers and teaching artists’ schedules.  

Making decisions about whether to plan events during school hours or after school also means making decisions about how to balance equity and access with the challenges of scheduling. Planning programs during school hours means that more students can participate because they are already at school and there is no transportation barrier. In addition, more students will have the benefit of participating in the programs if they take place during school hours, particularly with lower grade students who do not have elective classes. However, programs during school hours take more time to plan, particularly if music is not already a subject allocated protected time during the day, because these programs require aligning school and class schedules with external teaching artists’ schedules.  

Ask Schools What They Need  

Nonprofit partners reported that having frank conversations with teachers and school administration about their needs led to more successful partnerships. In partnerships where there is a power imbalance—generally in favor of the party implementing the service—it is easy for one party to try to come in and “fix” the problem without asking the other party what would be most beneficial for them. Asking for input from the organization receiving the services results in the best possible outcomes for all involved as it means that those organizations and communities receive directly relevant support.  

Border CrosSing in St. Paul, Minnesota provided performances and workshops celebrating Latinx music for schools with student populations that identify as Latinx. Led by education coordinator Natalia Romero Arbeláez, Border CrosSing’s team asked the various schools they worked with what their needs were to understand how the organization could best offer support. “Everything we're doing is based on asking the teachers: How can we help you? What do you need? How can we be a part of your program? What can we bring to your classroom?” said director and founder Ahmed Anzaldúa.  

Although the schools were located in the same city and had similar student demographics, the needs varied greatly. Some teachers asked Border CrosSing to work with their choir, others wanted support with a specific grade level, one teacher asked for help filling a specific gap in their knowledge of musical styles, and another wanted support in diversifying their curriculum. Asking schools about what intervention was needed and working in partnership with the schools ensured that teachers and students got the specific support they needed. 

Prioritize Equitable Compensation and Community-First Hiring 

Compensating music educators, teaching artists, and musicians fairly for their labor is an important priority for music education programs—especially because these have traditionally been undervalued and underpaid professions. In several cases, grantee organizations were able to approach hiring the help they needed to implement their programs in creative ways that also built community. In many cases, this went beyond paying professional musicians and teaching artists fair wages for their labor to also compensating others involved in this work more generally.  

Macon County Youth and Children’s Choir took the time to build a mutually beneficial network by hiring music education students at a local university to provide music classes, thereby providing work experience to these students as well as highly talented young teachers to provide music education to children in these rural schools. “It's been a wonderful thing for us because of the passion and energy that they're [music ed students] bringing with it,” said MCYCC founder Maggie Jennings. “They're so fresh, they're so excited, and the kids have been picking up on that.” Hiring university students also built connections between the local university, K-12 schools in the area, and MCYCC.  

VocalEssence had planned to hire a translator to assist in their work with pregnant or parenting teen students at Longfellow High School because such a large percentage of the student body primarily spoke Spanish. The organization ended up hiring a bilingual student at the school itself to translate during the weekly sessions. VocalEssence associate artistic director G. Phillip Shoultz, III said that hiring the student provided a leadership opportunity and immediately increased student engagement, as students realized that he was willing to do whatever he could to make the program a comfortable space for them. These types of innovative thinking that also empower students are at the heart of grants built to increase access, build community, and diversify the field.  

Consider Future Sustainability 

Many of the grantee organizations expressed the importance of continuity in music education. Building trust with the students who received these programs by sustaining both the programming and the relationships formed was important for the overall wellbeing of the students as well as their musical growth. One aspect of Tucson Girls Chorus’s (TGC) work supported by the MEPG program brought music education to students at three elementary schools in Tucson. “This is my second full year with them,” said TGC’s community engagement director and teaching artist Nicky Manlove about one of the elementary programs. “They're starting to get into some really sophisticated musical things like they just started singing in harmony, which is a first, for our school partnership programs.” Manlove also talked about the importance of “having personal relationships with the singers, some of them I've known for two years, which is longer than the current music teacher has been there.” Sustaining relationships is particularly important to communities that have seen a lot of turnover and been disappointed by offers of help and programs that do not last.  

It is particularly important for programs dependent on grant funding to consider sustainability beyond the grant period because there is no guarantee of continued funding. Many MEPG program leaders had already started mapping out how they would continue these programs, what was feasible to do with potential reduced funds, or how they would try and source funding from elsewhere to continue the programs. For example, Martha Brown, founder of Voices in the Laurel, said that she had suggested that the Haywood County Schools Foundation hold arts-specific fundraisers that could continue to fund the kind of cross-cultural community initiatives their grant supported in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Relationships between institutions as well as those between students and teachers are established over time, and it is important to build trust to demonstrate that they are truly partnerships working for the benefit of the community. 

Another way to build sustainability is to educate the educators. Several of the grantee organizations’ programs had some sort of educational element built in for music teachers, whether it was in a formal setting such as workshops for teachers, or simply building opportunities for classroom teachers to observe and learn from the teaching artists brought in for the specific projects. For example, Phoenix Chamber Choir and Seattle Pro Musica’s projects included workshops for music educators with teaching artists. Other programs incorporated ways to provide resources for teachers and schools, including helping them design syllabi that met their needs, providing a library of music, or providing instruments. Border CrosSing provided teachers with relevant curriculum and music, as well as percussion instruments like chapchas, quijadas, cajones, and claves if requested. Voices in the Laurel made relevant syllabi and the organization’s  music library available to teachers in its county. Professional development for teachers has an ongoing impact because it enriches the experiences of their current students and the students that they will teach in the future as well. 

Do the Work in Community  

Choral education work can feel isolating because it often involves local organizations taking on a small part of providing solutions to larger societal problems. Having community and connection with others can help overcome some of the feelings of isolation and create solidarity in a common cause. Over the duration of the Music Education Partnership Grants program, connections were forged in two ways in particular.  

Grantee organizations gathered virtually—as well as on occasion in person, including at the 2023 Chorus America Conference in San Francisco—to talk about their programs and share ideas, challenges, and successes with each other. The grantees greatly appreciated the opportunity to talk with others doing similar work. “I really am singing the praises of this grant, because of the way that it was organized, allowing us to get to meet each other in different groups,” said Bi-National Arts Institute executive director Lori Keyne. Keyne, whose organization is based in Bisbee, Arizona met a colleague at Desert Sounds, located about a three-hour drive away in Mesa, Arizona, at one of these meetings. Their connection resulted in Bi-National Arts Institute inviting Desert Sounds to come and perform at one of their events.  

The other was the opportunity it provided for grantee organizations to build relationships within their communities, both with individuals and with institutions. In some cases it allowed them to strengthen existing relationships, in others it allowed them to build new relationships. Bi-National Arts Institute’s project had elements that connected students in two different schools and the organization reported that this sparked more inter-school district conversations. “I think there's been a lot of successes, but I'm going to say the biggest one is the collaboration that we've seen between Naco and Bisbee school districts and Naco Sonora,” said Keyne. “Just that collaboration between those entities I think is the biggest success.” Desert Sounds noted that people in the community were so excited about the organization’s elementary school mariachi program that people started walking in off the street to volunteer their time and talents to the project. These budding relationships, which have the opportunity to grow into deeper connections, would not have formed without this initial opportunity.  

Key School Partnership Take-Aways

  • Plan well in advance so that partner schools have enough notice to allocate time and resources to the project.  
  • Keep in mind the best interests of the community, including the long term impacts of an intervention and the sustainability of a program.  
  • Keep in mind principles of equity and diversity at all different stages of a process. This includes properly compensating people for their time and skills including teachers at schools, teaching artists, and other staff. Too often marginalized communities’ and artists’ work in general is devalued and underpaid.  
  • Work in partnership with communities. Always ask what the community needs help with and then work with them to find the best way to provide that support. It is so important to recognize peoples’/communities’ understanding and knowledge of their needs and what will work best for them.   
  • Continue to build networks and communities at a variety of levels. This work can be isolating and having help and solidarity goes a long way towards making it a success.