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Collaboration & Partnerships: Moving Towards Maximizing Impact for CBLO & Adult Education Programs

by Ahoo Salem

In the fall of 2019 and as the newly appointed Executive Director of Blue Ridge Literacy (BRL), a small community-based literacy organization (CBLO) in Roanoke, Virginia, I was privileged to find myself in a position of possible collaboration with our region’s adult education provider. To learn more about best practices and other partnership success stories, I reached out to several CBLOs in Virginia.

This led me to identify several important areas of collaboration based on differences in both services and resources. The most common area was referral partnerships, in which each entity makes a formal or informal referral to the other organization based on the needs of the learners. This was followed by partnerships based on sharing resources such as space, supplies, and areas of expertise. Examples of the latter include the provision of classroom volunteers, trained instructors, and teacher training workshops.

I was, however, much more interested in partnerships based on similarities of services and activities. This type of partnership can be best defined as a working relationship in which involved entities collaborate to recruit and provide services to adults to improve their literacy skills. For this type of collaboration, two pre-conditions need to be met. First is to make sure the time and location of the provided services do not result in duplication of efforts, followed by guaranteeing that the CBLO is able to meet the reporting requirements of their regional adult education provider. Among other factors, this includes CLBOs ensuring that they have the time and staff resources needed to collect and deliver intake and assessment data, as well as costs associated with CASAS and TABE tests and answer sheets.

A good starting point for initiating collaboration is to open a dialogue about the mutual benefits for both the CBLOs and adult education programs, as well as their learner-base populations. This can be followed by discussing how collaboration can create synergy, achieve reporting goals, increase access to funding opportunities, and ultimately enhance community awareness for both parties. Based on the nature of their work, each organization brings valuable characteristics to this working relationship. Over time, collaboration can help improve outcomes and accomplishments beyond what would be possible with each organization working independently. CBLOs, for example, can bring in an additional personal element from the type of relationship and trust they are able to build with learners. This sense of familiarity, in turn, creates accountability that can be used to foster higher retention rates. It also allows for the possibility of reaching out to learners through more informal channels when needed.

The current COVID-19 situation, which has put a hold on all in-person classes and programs, is a good example of the importance of these informal ties. For example, to re-establish contact with our learners after the sudden cancelation of classes, BRL staff used a wide range of communication tools, such as sending Facebook messages, calling learners’ relatives, and utilizing word-of-mouth communications within communities served. This developed into chat groups for the different levels of classes that are now employed to keep in touch with learners, share community-related news and information, and plan and organize remote classes.

To complement CBLOs efforts, regional adult education providers offer a wide range of professional resources including professional development opportunities for CBLO staff, as well as assistance with data collection and reporting elements of the partnership. Most importantly, adult education programs often have access to seats for distance education tutorial services. This access is of critical importance at this moment during the pandemic when there is increased demand for moving towards remote and hybrid forms of instruction. Both sides of the partnership bring valuable opportunities for cross advertisements on different platforms, as well as among differ-ent target populations which aim to increase the reach and impact to literacy learners. Such partnerships can also be leveraged for joint grants and proposals—where a history of collaboration serves as a strong advantage point in securing funding.

Based on BRL’s relatively new experience of collaborating with our regional adult education provider, open communication, clarity, and flexibility have been key factors in maintaining a successful relationship. Having a clear understanding of the reporting requirements and the extent of each party’s responsibilities—in terms of collecting and tracking data and ensuring an adequate budget for staffing—requires open dialogue. As the two organizations move into their working relationship, shifting conditions and requirements may arise. Establishing clear communications and being adaptive to change help facilitate a smooth and successful partnership.

As literacy providers navigate the new conditions of remote teaching, social distancing, and limited in-person contact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly important to work towards collaboration based on similarities of services to achieve the greatest impact in local communities.

Ahoo Salem

Ahoo Salem is the Executive Director of Blue Ridge Literacy (BRL), a CBLO that offers adult literacy services to foreign and native-born residents of Roanoke Valley. As a sociologist with a passion for integration initiatives, Ahoo is especially interested in the ways in which differential access to resources shapes and impacts experiences of everyday life for immigrants in different host settings. She utilizes her experiences to create cross sectional partnerships and collaborations with community partners to address the functional literacy needs of BRL’s learners. Originally from Iran, Ahoo holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Universita Degli Studi di Milano, in Milan, Italy. She has been living in the U.S. and working with Blue Ridge

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