Why Multi-stakeholder Teams Matter for School Change

Strategies of Effective Challenge Success Teams

The most valuable part of being on this team has been working with people in different roles and learning how we can listen to each other and use each other’s positions within the school community to implement our goals. — Challenge Success Student Team Member, Winter 2019

Over the past 15 years, Challenge Success partner schools have made many changes to increase student well-being and engagement in learning. At the center of each school’s reform effort is a team of committed people — faculty, students, administrators, counselors, and parents — who work together to identify a shared vision, gather and assess data, design an action plan, and engage their broader community in positive change.

When a school applies to our program, one of the first questions we ask is about their investment in convening and working as a multi-stakeholder team. The commitment to work across roles and listen to diverse perspectives is essential to our model. We’ve seen that when team members come together with the common goal of improving student well-being and engagement in learning they have the power to spark a school-wide movement toward beneficial reforms.

There are many good reasons to work as a team. Teams can help to distribute the workload, meet requirements for accreditation or funding, and broaden communication and buy-in. But there is also a larger purpose. Multi-stakeholder teams, specifically, bring diverse lenses, experiences, and sets of knowledge to complex and seemingly intractable challenges. When effective, these teams guide efforts to see root causes clearly, craft new ways of thinking and doing things, test solutions with openness and curiosity, invite the broader community into the conversation, and build momentum and connection across groups that could (and sometimes do) blame each other for the challenges faced.

While every team and school context are a bit different, we have found that Challenge Success teams are most effective when they:

  • Keep students at the center of the conversation. We know student participation matters in school reform initiatives, and having students on the team is essential. Students have a sense of urgency for change and insight into the daily experience that can’t be gained elsewhere.  One administrator captured the value of students this way: I’m loving having two student reps on our Challenge Success team. They keep us on track and really steeped in the student experience. Very powerful!
  • Share responsibility and distribute power. Team leaders recognize that parent, staff, and student engagement in leadership roles positively supports both school reform efforts and student outcomes. Rather than playing the blame game (It’s the teachers’ fault! It’s the parents’ fault! It’s the students’ fault!), each member recognizes that they are part of a larger system, and the problems and solutions within that system are everyone’s responsibility. We are all on the same side.
  • Focus on research and data: Effective teams use data to inform and develop priorities related to their vision and action plan. Collecting and interpreting data, taking responsibility for sharing findings with their broader stakeholder groups, and raising questions all enrich the discussion and build a shared conversation.
  • Pilot and assess discrete, incremental changes:  Effective teams try out strategies based on their school’s needs and research-based practices known to improve student engagement and well-being. They also evaluate results before deciding to institutionalize large-scale reforms.
  • Have clear roles and responsibilitiesincluding a leader to help facilitate, schedule, set agendas, and keep the team on track.
  • Honor process and partnership. As anyone who has ever been part of a team knows, the work often feels slow and cumbersome, particularly at the start. There is a process. Group norms! Scheduling! The need for consensus building, reflection, and jargon clarification! And yet, these processes and conversations–which are sometimes frustratingly slow—provide an important foundation, sense of connection, safety, knowledge base, and commitment to the work ahead. By setting and upholding shared norms, participating in courageous inquiry and listening, teams may build empathy, gain insight and trust, and set a tone for the broader school community.
  • Hold the big picture and take the long view. Teams understand that students (and teachers and families) are navigating lots of different settings—academic, social, extracurricular, athletics, and family life. They know that change takes time and is often incremental. Teams also connect their work to the broader school mission and strategic or master plan and to other efforts within the school.
  • Celebrate strengths and wins (even the small ones). Effective teams take the time to pause and reflect on what they’ve accomplished and communicate these wins to the broader community.

Working in teams is not always the best way to get things done. But to solve complex issues that involve a whole system of people and their interests, a team is essential. Importantly, the act of forming a multi-stakeholder team, having research-based conversations about causes and solutions, sharing power and voice, and testing out new ways of thinking about and doing things to benefit student learning and health, is action. With a committed team, change has already begun.

Further reading on the power of teams:

Mary Hofstedt, School Program Director at Challenge Success, is an educator, mom, and facilitative leader with a passion for supporting youth and families to thrive.