Community collaboration narrows achievement gaps

That fine Minnesota tradition of everybody pitching in to help those in need or to ward off threats to the community — think of the barn-raising after a fire, or all hands showing up to fill sandbags during spring flooding — is resurgent in the Twin Cities these days.

The threat at hand, which also is a tremendous opportunity, is more subtle and much more dangerous long-term than fire or flood. We are in real peril from the unacceptable gaps that have opened up in education attainment for poor kids and our young people of color, and are linked to a closely related gap in unemployment for the same people as adults.

Unless we fix or substantially close these two gaps, our economy will suffer and Minnesota will lose the competitive advantage it now enjoys in business climate and quality-of-life indicators. Business leaders are among the leading prophets about this certainty, and agreement on the urgent need to mind and close the gaps is virtually unanimous.

To reduce this unacceptable inequality in both education and employment, a host of forces are gathering in two remarkably comprehensive “total community” efforts that feature corporate and business leaders, parents groups, school officials, philanthropists and foundations, nonprofits, elected officials and religious leaders.

One effort, which is being launched with some fanfare this week, has been dubbed Generation Next and is modeled on the “cradle-to-career” education network called Strive that was developed in the Cincinnati area over the past decade. This model is spreading from Seattle to Houston to Boston and many other metropolitan areas, and it is already going strong in St. Cloud and in the Grand Rapids/Itasca County area in Minnesota.

A second similar campaign, not yet as publicized, is germinating under the label “Everybody In” and is focused toward the employment end of the education pipeline, on workforce training and specifically on reducing the race gaps in unemployment.

The basic thrust of Generation Next is comprehensiveness, moving beyond piecemeal panaceas (high-stakes testing, public school privatization, school uniforms), silver bullets or “spray and pray” philanthropy. Under this model, everybody in the coalition commits to coordinated teamwork in helping all the children all the way through the education pipeline, from before birth right through to career launch. Generation Next will put a new emphasis on goal-centered networks and organized effort and individual attention, using data and evidence-tested methods and detailed road maps to seal the leaks in that pipeline and keep kids on track toward postsecondary completion.

Simultaneously, but with a lower profile, the Everybody In initiative was spawned by a major study conducted by Ramsey County officials and published in late 2011, drawing attention to some of the worst disparities in unemployment in the nation, right here in our river cities.

Like Generation Next, Everybody In has attracted broad Twin Cities participation by the private, public and philanthropic sectors, and is focused on a comprehensive approach to reducing minority unemployment and under-employment. As St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said when the Ramsey County report was released, “This is a very complex issue. There isn’t a silver bullet. There isn’t even silver buckshot.” Several dozen participants are meeting regularly and drawing up action plans, and the group is likely to become more visible in 2013, with a strategic plan to improve workforce training, encourage minority hiring, and reduce disparities in employment.

In my organization’s report on collaborative efforts across Minnesota to improve student success (“Whole Towns Coming Together for All Students”), we cited a Stanford Social Innovation Review report that makes the case that large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination.

The authors of the Stanford report attributed the Strive/Cincinnati success to “a core group of community leaders [who] decided to abandon their individual agendas in favor of a collective approach to improving student achievement… These leaders realized that fixing one point on the educational continuum — such as better after-school programs — wouldn’t make much difference unless all parts of the continuum improved at the same time … Instead, their ambitious mission became to coordinate improvements at every stage of a young person’s life, from ‘cradle to career.’”

Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and a leader of the original Strive Partnership in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky area when she was president of the University of Cincinnati, was the keynote speaker earlier this year when the St. Cloud community launched a Strive-like effort called Partner for Student Success.

Her central message has been echoed by legions of education experts and the field’s most informed thinkers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan under President Barack Obama, and Diane Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary under President George W. Bush.

“It is a myth that one person or group can fix education by themselves, no matter how visionary or passionate,” Zimpher wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed last year. “Only by working together — public and private institutions of higher education, state education departments, school districts, elected officials, civic, philanthropic and corporate leaders — will we see results.”

We do need to see results. And there’s no better way to begin than by having everybody in, working collaboratively and systematically for the next generation.

SIF 2015