True collaborative cultures are rare in urban schools, where many challenges to working together exist. This three-year case study explores intricacies involved in fostering collaboration in two urban elementary schools. We identify and emphasize the importance of contextual factors--specifically, principal leadership, established structures of special education service delivery, and school-wide collaborative vehicles. From these data, we make recommendations for building stronger collaborative communities.
Professional collaboration is considered fundamental to major educational reform. Without professional collaboration, serious efforts to improve schools, such as efforts to include high-risk students in general education, are likely impossible (Pugach & Johnson, 2002). In special education, educators tout collaboration's importance and describe how teachers might go about collaborating (Hourcade & Banwens, 2003; Friend & Cook, 2002). Missing from this literature base is research on how collaboration might be promoted in isolated environments (c.f. Brownell, Yeager, Rennells, & Riley, 1997). Existing studies evaluate effects of collaboration by analyzing benefits incurred to teachers and students, problems teachers encountered during collaboration, or contextual factors characterizing collaborative versus isolated school cultures.
While these studies provide useful information, they do not provide insights into how schools might move from more isolated to collaborative environments. Principals and teachers need information about ways to promote and support collaboration, and this is particularly true in urban schools, where challenges associated with working in those schools make developing collaboration more difficult. Urban teachers are often overwhelmed by problems children living in extreme poverty bring to classrooms, making it harder to focus on pedagogical dilemmas that all teachers encounter (Louis, Kruse, & Associates, 1995). Instead, teachers' work in urban schools is more hurried because educators are looking for strategies to solve urgent problems immediately (Rosenholtz, 1989). Not only is daily work more challenging, but resources and organizational conditions existing in urban schools create additional barriers to collaborative attempts. Urban schools are typically located in communities that cannot provide resources similar to suburban schools (Louis, Kruse, & Associates). Moreover, urban districts are large, often engaging teachers less in policy decisions while experiencing more difficulties recruiting and retaining talented teachers than suburban counterparts (Louis, Kruse, & Associates). Given these challenges, it is little wonder administrators and teachers find it difficult to establish collaborative communities that can develop innovations to promote inclusion. In fact, conditions of urban schools and barriers they create for teachers collaborating might partially contribute to the segregated services that urban, poor children are more likely to receive (Fierros & Conroy, 2002). Struggles faced by urban schools compelled us to examine how we might work with two urban elementary schools to foster collaboration. Lessons learned and challenges faced in this process revolve around specific contextual factors present at these schools.
Study Context and Methodology
We targeted two elementary schools as part of a 3-year federally funded effort to improve collaboration in urban schools. They are located in a Southeastern city with approximately 200 elementary schools in the district. At the time of the study, Hilton Elementary had a population of 382 K-5 students with 73% minority students and 84% of students on free or fee-reduced lunch. Special education students at Hilton were served in primarily segregated settings. Hidden View Elementary had 570 pre-K-5 students with 43% minority students and 52% on free or fee-reduced lunch. …