Cradle to Career — A City Unites
The kids in greater Cincinnati were having no more educational success than kids anywhere else. Some succeeded. Many struggled. Well-intentioned do-gooders from the outside, armed with money and ideas, came and went. Not much changed. Life went on.
Then, about six years ago, Nancy Zimpher had a better idea. She was president of the University of Cincinnati at the time and had a presidential thought: Suppose the community at-large could be convinced to play a bigger role in kids’ development, easing pressure on parents and teachers. Suppose government and civic leaders, corporate executives, college and university officials, heads of nonprofits and advocacy groups all gathered around a table with a common goal: identify areas of deficiency, devise metrics to measure them, develop strategies to improve them and use existing resources to get it all done.
She wasn’t thinking about any silver bullet quick fix or another carrot and stick approach that might help for a year or three.
No, what Nancy Zimpher was thinking about was a long-term, sustainable, community-based we’re-in-it-to-win-it program—Cradle to Career—to reverse those nasty trends that now say the United States ranks near the bottom among the top 20 industrialized nations in educating their young people.
“You have to have a very big commitment,” she said. “You have to get to a point where enough people bought in to make a difference.”
Did they ever.
Zimpher and three other founding partners—Chad Wick, President & CEO of KnowledgeWorks, a Cincinnati area education reform group; Kathy Merchant, President and CEO of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation; and Rob Reifsnyder, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati – brought together representatives of about 300 organizations to form Strive as an arm of KnowledgeWorks, with the goal of improving prospects for kids in Cincinnati and two nearby Kentucky cities, Newport and Covington. By the latest analysis of its 53 indicators of success, Strive identified positive trends in 40 of them.
The improvements have been so impressive that Strive’s executive director, Jeff Edmondson, now serves as president of Strive Network, working with nearly 70 other cities that have expressed interest in replicating the Strive model by adapting it to fit the particular assets of their own communities.
The group includes cities with large urban populations like Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, as well as smaller towns, like Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Green Bay, Wisc., and Albany, New York, where Nancy Zimpher now serves as Chancellor of the SUNY system, the largest comprehensive system of higher public education in the country.
Strive’s approach to change reflects what Mark Kramer and John Kania, managing directors of FSG, a nonprofit consulting group, call “collective impact.” It essentially means organizing around a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforced activities, continuous communication among participants and a separate administration to hold everything together.
Strive was born when Zimpher realized that piecemeal programs were not having the desired effect of improving educational accomplishment and career prospects for the Cincinnati region’s younger citizens. At the time, Ohio and Kentucky were trailing other states in college attainment rates. By her reasoning, only a partnership with stakeholders willing to set aside egos and personal agendas to agree on a common set of evidence-based interventions could generate the kind of sustained change that would make a difference.
Naturally, it involved education, but the local school districts were initially resistant to any it-takes-a-village approach involving outsiders. “They rebuffed us,” she said. “They told me, this is our problem.”
Strive formed anyway. Foundations contributed money and operations support. Procter & Gamble and GE Aviation loaned executives, staff and meeting space. Local colleges and universities provided in-kind data support as well as meeting space, printing and communications tools. The University of Cincinnati designed a roadmap of social and academic benchmarks from infancy through college years, and the United Way of Cincinnati invested $10 million to see if data-based research could work.
In addition, each participant signed a memorandum of understanding that outlined their expectations, which includes co-chairing one of the priority strategy areas or serving on a strategy team that focused on early childhood education, teacher quality, college enrollment and completion or student support services, such as mentoring and after-school tutoring.
In short, everyone gives time, talent and money, which results in shared accountability and no finger-pointing if a trend moves in the wrong direction.
The school systems bought in after they realized that Strive wasn’t about new educational models or curriculum reinvention; it was about using research data and the power of a unified community sharing the same data base to move outcomes. They pitched in with staffing support for the priority strategies, like teacher professional development, which allows teachers to meet and work through continuous improvement processes to improve teaching practice.
Among some of the more notable improvements since the first measure in 2005, from Strive’s 2010 Report Card:
- The percentage of Cincinnati children prepared for kindergarten increased 9 points.
- College enrollment by Cincinnati public school students is up 10 points.
- The percentage of Covington students doing 4th grade math by the 4th grade increased 28 points.
- The percentage of Newport students doing 8th grade math by the 8th grade increased 42 points.
- The percentage of local students entering the University of Cincinnati with no deficiencies in math or English improved by 17 points.
Many of the benchmarks, while showing improvement, have moved at a slower pace. That’s understandable, even expected, said Zimpher. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And shared purpose is the key.
“People are tired of spray and pay,” she said, referring to financial support for individual programs. “There’s donor fatigue, and there’s research fatigue. We knew we’ve got to do something different. When people realize it, that’s the ‘aha’ moment.”