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Key Lessons for Applying Continuous Improvement Tools to Improve Educational Outcomes at Scale

Fri, 2016-11-18 11:25

Collective impact has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the social sector, and, unfortunately, the term gets used for a range of activities that deviate from the original intent: achieving results at scale. Our focus with the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network has been to establish standards for what this work really takes to achieve its true purpose. We have tried to clarify how it differs from collaboration, but that has not been enough as this beautiful concept continues to get watered down.

In order to show the true power of collective impact, we are investing in a core group of communities to become demonstration sites or “Proof Points.” One of our key insights thus far from this work is that communities need to create a culture and build the capability to use data not just to prove what works, but to improve how they support children each and every day. There is an entire field built around this practice known as continuous improvement. Most of the lessons and insight are based on all that has been learned from its application in the private sector. Fortunately, the health sector has been working over the last 20 years to help use the science in hospitals, giving us key insights into how continuous improvement can apply in the social sector in general.

Continuous Improvement Graphic
We are currently on the cutting edge of understanding how this work can best work in the education sector and across community partners, and we want to capture these lessons and share them rapidly to help raise the bar on quality from the start and avoid the propagation of yet another buzzword in our sector. Back in 2008 when the flagship cradle-to-career partnership was launched in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we worked with GE Aviation to apply one continuous improvement method — Six Sigma — to help partners use data to improve outcomes at scale. We had some significant failing forward experiences that inform our work now with the Network and can inform the field as a whole. These form a baseline of knowledge we have been building on significantly as communities including Dallas, Memphis and Spartanburg continue to test new ways of applying improvement in the field.

A few key lessons have emerged to inform the field as a whole. These include:

  • Continuous improvement is not a technical tool but an adaptive process. In the work to apply Six Sigma in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we became overly focused on the process and related tools. We provided traditional classroom lectures and over 100 pages of technical documents. This masked the true challenge of improvement: dealing with the changes in behavior those engaged in the process must consider as they learn more about what does and does not work for those they serve. So using a more simplified process — like the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle — and applying it in real time to a real-world project is a much more effective way to learn.
  • The team doing improvement work matters … a lot! We were often happy just to get participants from different systems to show up at meetings. We did not care who it was or how often they came. We just wanted the institutions represented. It is impossible to make progress with an ever-changing cast of characters. Instead, it is critical to map out exactly who needs to be involved and to make sure they stay consistently engaged based on the role they play. Leaders need to be visible champions and practitioners need to be working to interpret data at least every other week. Without this level of clarity, the significant time invested won’t lead to any significant change.
  • New roles and capability are needed to embed and sustain the work in communities. Given the complexity of managing the change process and engaging the right people in the right roles, it is critical to invest in having new roles and building partner skills and capability. Having continuous improvement coaches work arm-in-arm with practitioners to help them gather, analyze and (most importantly) apply learning to their everyday work is simply critical. Simultaneously investing in training to build the capability of partners to model improvement in their organizations, is fundamentally critical to embedding the work in the community long term.

This is only scratching the surface of the lessons StriveTogether is learning to make sure communities not only realize the potential of collective impact, but bring the rigor required to the practice of continuous improvement right from the start. If we focus on quality, we can achieve better results for children and communities — and embed a critical body of work in our everyday practice to improve outcomes for kids … not just create another buzzword.


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Ten Effective Strategies to Increase FAFSA Completion in Your Community

Tue, 2016-10-18 08:00

Through the work of the Postsecondary Enrollment Impact and Improvement Network, here are ten effective strategies to increase FAFSA completion.

When working to increase FASFA rates, cradle to career partnerships are always looking for proven, easy to replicate strategies that lead to results. Through the work of the Postsecondary Enrollment Impact and Improvement Network, we know the effective strategies used to make sure that more students successfully completed the FAFSA.

1. Implement In-Class Interventions

In most states, FAFSA completion work can be used to meet state curriculum standards. Partnering with high school economics or social studies teachers to have students complete FAFSA as a class or homework assignment provides them with the opportunity and support needed to complete the FAFSA.

2. Use Student-Level and/or School-Level Data

In most states, school districts have the ability to track FAFSA completion at the school- and/or student-level. Using school-level or, better yet, the student-level helps to identify the students who are or are not completing the FAFSA. This allows school districts and their partners to focus their work on the specific students or schools that needs the most support.

3. Build a School- Campus-Based FAFSA Team

School- or Campus-Based FAFSA teams improve staff awareness about the importance of FAFSA completion and how they can help. Convening a team (assistant principal, guidance counselor, central office staff, Gear Up partners, etc.) on a monthly basis allows its members to review the data and discuss strategies for how to reach students who have yet to complete the FAFSA.

4. Host FAFSA Only Events

The most successful FAFSA events, like a FAFSA completion night, were the ones that just focused on FAFSA because it created the space and time for students and families to focus. Identifying a champion for each event helped determine the best time of day for the event to ensure the best attendance possible.

5. Assign Appointment Times

Assigning students an appointment time to complete the FAFSA, either during a completion event or during the school day, makes the meeting or event seem mandatory. The appointment times were not strictly enforced, there was no penalty for missing an appointment but the assumed accountability associated with the appointment time dramatically increased completion rates.

6. Frequent Data Monitoring

Most school districts across the country have the ability to access weekly or bi-weekly FAFSA completion data either form their state’s department of education or the U.S. Department of Education. Monitoring completion rates either weekly or bi-weekly allows school district staff and community partners to get quick feedback the effectiveness of their FAFSA completion work and helps keep FAFSA completion at the front of everyone’s mind.

7. Partner with Local Postsecondary Institutions

Partnering with local postsecondary institutions can help significantly with FAFSA completion. Financial aid staff are experts in their field and can provide additional capacity and support during FAFSA completion efforts. Additionally, financial aid staff can provide insight on what is specifically preventing students from getting the financial aid they have applied for – often times it’s a simple as a missing social security number or mismatched identification numbers.

8. Connect Work to its Impact with Run Charts

Run Charts, or time series charts, can be used to connect FAFSA completion work with the result (the number of FAFSAs completed during the work period). As a result, run charts are incredibly powerful tools so partnerships who want to understand the impact their work is having on students.

9. Create a FAFSA Phone Bank

Having a scheduled event where parents, guardians and students can call in to ask questions about completing the FAFSA was a very successful way to reach families who didn’t want or need to attend a completion event.

10. Test Small Before Going Big

All of our teams focused on FAFSA completion selected a specific population of students or high school as the focus of their initial work. With each intervention this allowed the teams to learn what worked well and what could be improved before scaling the work across multiple high schools or multiple districts.



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Increasing FAFSA Completion Rates Across the Country

Tue, 2016-10-11 08:00

Over the past year, six communities across the country have been participating in StriveTogether’s Postsecondary Enrollment (PSE) Impact and Improvement Network.

Over the past year, six communities across the country have been participating in StriveTogether’s Postsecondary Enrollment (PSE) Impact and Improvement Network. The goal is to increase FAFSA completion in their communities. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). An increase in FAFSA completion means more students have access to financial aid for, and access to, college.

Using a combination of continuous improvement techniques, Results Based Leadership tools and an equity focus, we’ve achieved great success!

  • 5 out of 6 partnerships: Increased FAFSA completion rates at the school level
  • 4 out of 6 partnerships: Increased FAFSA completion rates at the district level
  • 3 out of 6 partnerships: Increased FAFSA completion rates by 10% or more

“Our participation [in the PSE Impact and Improvement Network] helped to lay the foundation for setting multi-year goals focused on FAFSA and to build buy-in for the importance of FAFSA regionally.” – Impact Tulsa

The results of the PSE Impact and Improvement are exciting. But, what I find the most interesting about the results is the way that they were achieved. Each partnership used basic continuous improvement techniques like Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) test cycles, run charts and frequent data monitoring and reporting to test their strategies and improve them over time. Here’s why the PSE Impact and Improvement Network members found these tools so useful:

“I believe the biggest benefit of participation is sharing of best practices and tools. When you see the impact of the interventions, it really takes guessing out of the picture and encourages more intentionality.” – PSE Impact & Improvement Network member

“The PDSA helped tremendously to ensure each step was aligned to the overall goal. It helped us operate much more systematically and helped us improve our process.” – Seeding Success

“Mapping interventions to data (even after the fact) helped raise awareness about effective practices.”Commit! Partnership

“Using run charts helped us identify the most promising interventions because we could literally see what worked the best.” – P16 Plus

“Looking at data regularly, and talking about it is important. Regularly updating superintendents, the school teams, our collaborative action group (PACT), and various stakeholders across the community with progress kept the momentum going and created a “middle” space for best practices to rise up and spread.” – All Hands Raised

“Sharing before and after [FAFSA] completion numbers with each event team help them immediately see the need for follow-up events and strategize about students they were missing.” – Road Map Project


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Rise Up: Three Insights from the 7th Annual Cradle to Career Network Convening

Tue, 2016-10-04 10:01

The 7th Annual Cradle to Career Network Convening was an outstanding success, due solely to the great work each and every person in the room does to achieve our ambitious vision.

The 7th Annual Cradle to Career Network Convening was an outstanding success! This is due solely to the great work each and every person in the room does to achieve our ambitious vision – supporting the success of every child from cradle to career – and our short-term goal: Establishing five Proof Points by June 2018.

This is so exciting. And there is so much more to do.

Now that we know how to use data on the ground to inform action, we have to RISE UP and make absolutely sure we are identifying the most critical practices to eliminate disparities for every child in each community across the country. In order for all this work to be worth the effort, we must directly address the structural racism that far too often hinders our ability to spread and scale those impactful practices to make sure they are at the fingertips of every child who needs them.

There were three key insights that emerged for me that were captured in some incredibly profound insights from the amazing cadre of presenters. But I wanted to make one general observation about the Network overall: we have successfully made the shift from partners simply talking about working together to partners actually changing how they work every day to improve outcomes. You are no longer talking about getting to action. You are using data to act differently and seeing real and tangible improvements as a results.


We can do it, especially if we internalize the following insights:

  • “Our ability to understand what the data is telling us is limited by the knowledge we bring to it.” – Adriane Johnson-Williams

We are challenged to accept that the typical partners engaged in change and improvement do not have all the answers. We must engage parents and caregivers, students and educators to help us better understand what the data tells us about both the real issues we must address and the real impact for the programs and services we are analyzing. We simply can’t interpret data in a vacuum.

  • “No more heroing.” – Becky Margiotta

It feels so good to save the day. It’s amazing. I always reflect on the movie Waiting for Superman and the stark realization there simply is not one coming. We have to look in the mirror. And there will be people who put up roadblocks, trying to protect the status quo. These folks who “pee in the pool” tempt us to want to come to the rescue. But our role is to empower others to stand up and confront the challenge and ensure whatever is done is sustained as long as it has impact.

  • “Who’s history do we teach when none of the demographic boxes we ask children to check work anymore.” – Dr. Jim Johnson

We are in the midst of a massive demographic shift. It’s more like a tsunami. And if we are not armed with the skills and competencies to navigate this shift, those trying to protect the status quo will be all the more likely to trigger more violence. We need to arm community members with new ways to achieve shared results. We have the ability to do this based on all we have learned by combining Results Based Leadership, Continuous Quality Improvement, Design Thinking, and an Equity Lens. What we need to find is how to do this at scale so we embrace the opportunity of this change and all it can mean for our democracy.

As an organization, StriveTogether is committed to maintaining the momentum generated during this event. As we all know, insights must lead to action for true impact. We want to be sure we keep you all as Network members connected with one another to share lessons learned around processes and tools that accelerate the achievement of shared results. Over the next year, you’ll see more opportunities to connect with one another and through cohorts.

Here are a few ideas on next steps. We want to amplify your great work. So let us know what you think of these and/or chime in with other ideas:

  • Find Equity Impact Agents: First and foremost, we need to iterate on our Impact Agent stories a bit: let’s find a lift up people changing their behavior to specifically eliminate achievement gaps. Help us find partners who have used data with children, families and practitioners to identify and spread what works for the most vulnerable student. Let’s make them rock stars we can all work to emulate. We need to plaster these stories all over the ballroom at the next convening.
  • Take on Structural Racism: In the same vein, let us know how you are working to navigate challenging discussions around race, class, and culture in your community to address the root of structural racism that often prevents us from spreading what works and meeting the real needs of our most vulnerable students.   Memphis modeled one way to do it. If you have another, please let us know. We need to make sure everyone can get in the HOV lane on the highway!
  • Build Capability: Finally, we have heard that capability-building is a primary and under resourced need in almost every community. We encourage Network members to take advantage of a few opportunities coming up other than the Accelerator Fund. Your partnership data guru can apply for the second round of the wildly popular Tableau Data Fellowship – the application process will open next week. And in December, you can go to Atlanta to learn the basics of Results Based Leadership that is changing how partnerships tackle the most complex challenges. We plan to announce other options in early 2017, so make sure to read the newsletter for announcements.

And just as a quick reminder, starting in January each partnership will have a designated Network Navigator to serve as your StriveTogether liaison to ensure you are able to maximize your Network membership on your journey to Proof Point. And in the interim, you can always head to the Partner Portal to post questions, share and find examples and templates, and find peers that can test your skills and push your thinking.

Thanks again to everyone who joined us in Memphis and for your deep commitment to this work. The time we spent together was both motivating and challenging. It left me with no doubt that we will achieve our short term-goal of establishing five Proof Points by June of 2018 and the lessons we learn will catapult the network to establish many, many more soon thereafter.

See our Storify wrap-up from the convening:
[View the story "Rise Up: Education Excellence for Every Child" on Storify]


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Ms. Price goes to Washington!

Thu, 2016-09-29 14:24

This week Juliette Price, director of The Albany Promise, a Sustaining member of the Cradle to Career Network, will travel to Washington, DC for a very special visit to the White House in which she will be recognized as one of eleven “White House Champions of Change for College Opportunity”

This week Juliette Price, director of The Albany Promise, a Sustaining member of the Cradle to Career Network, will travel to Washington, DC for a very special visit to the White House in which she will be recognized as one of eleven “White House Champions of Change for College Opportunity” for the work she is facilitating in the community of Albany, NY to improve student outcomes from cradle to career. StriveTogether congratulates Juliette for this exciting and well-deserved honor.

This won’t be Juliette’s first visit to Washington and with her background in public policy she should feel right at home. In fact, Juliette and a team from The Albany Promise visited with White House and Department of Education leaders, including then Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, back in 2014 to provide guidance on how the federal government can make college more affordable and within reach of all students. These conversations helped inspire First Lady Michelle Obama’s work to improve college opportunity through initiatives such as Reach Higher and Better Make Room.

At the local level, Juliette and the partners of The Albany Promise have been digging deep into their data and taking action. Albany has seen SAT test-taking rates increase by 29% – with a 15% increase access for Black and Hispanic students after the partnership helped implement universal in-school SAT and PSAT testing. Partners also joined together to understand and combat the problem of ‘summer melt,’ when students who are committed to going to postsecondary fail to matriculate. You can read more about this work that was recently featured in one of StriveTogether’s #ImpactAgent stories.

Please join us in congratulating Juliette for this honor. We know that she will use this platform as a way to continue to drive improvement in education outcomes for all students.


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New Data, New Opportunities

Wed, 2016-09-28 12:18

With the implementation of the new ESSA law, cradle-to-career partnership new opportunities to support the law’s implementation in their community and in their state.

Too often, policy can seem inaccessible to the people in charge of, or affected by, its implementation. That’s why, in part, the StriveTogether network has identified four different roles cradle-to-career partnerships can play in policy:

  • Data expert
  • Partner Convener
  • Community Mobilizer
  • Advocate

Connecting each of these concepts is one major role: liaison.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance of being a community liaison as communities learn about the flexibilities and potential opportunities under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Lillian Pace, Senior Director of National Policy at KnowledgeWorks, and I facilitated a workshop at the 2016 StriveTogether Cradle to Career Convening, Rise Up: Education Excellence for Every Child, in Memphis, Tennessee, last week. The event explored ways that StriveTogether partnerships can best help communities accelerate the achievement of results from cradle to career. The room was filled with representatives from across the country, all with similar priorities—understanding the new ESSA law, exploring the implications for their partnership, and finding opportunities their partnership can take to support the new law’s implementation in their community and in their state.

We presented an overview of the law, focusing specifically on accountability measures and the new data states will collect to determine how schools are performing. (For action items that cradle-to-career partnerships can take to support ESSA implementation, read our one-pager.) The new ways in which a state is required to report on school success gives parents, advocates, and community stakeholders access to data they may have never had before, and StriveTogether partnerships are in a unique position to help them interpret that data with the right partners to continuously improve efforts to improve child outcomes in their communities.

To get a taste of what this might look like, workshop participants reviewed a draft of the California proposed school accountability report card, considered how their communities might react if this was the required report card for their school, and shared ideas about how states and districts can be more thoughtful in presenting data to the community. There was agreement that focusing on growth and proficiency is a positive step for states, as California anticipates doing. The multi-dimensional focus gives credence to schools that are continuously improving—both high and low performing schools.

Which brings me to the liaison piece. Participants talked about how they can help interpret data for parents and community members, finding bright spots and helping establish next steps and strategies for growth in communities. They discussed the nuances of picking particular measurement indicators, such as parent engagement, and focused on how they might be able to help shape the conversation to focus on what’s appropriate for their community.

Finally, participants discussed what ESSA can mean for their stakeholders, including how they want to measure success, how they’d like to give feedback to their state departments of education during this visioning and application process, and developing tools for local partners to understand data once it has been reported upon.

Partnerships can play a key role in bridging the gap between policy and implementation, and ESSA is no exception. Being a liaison and convener to help partners understand the new law will help create an even more robust system of continuous improvement and change, strengthening the communities where partnerships reside.

As your community looks at the new ESSA law and explores implications and opportunities of the new law’s implementation in your community and state, ask yourself these questions:
  • Does the way data is presented in the California proposed school accountability report card work for your community? What do you think about the new areas of focus being shared?
  • What can you do to help interpret data for parents and community members? What kinds of tools, training, or materials would help parents and advocates use this data to find stronger opportunities for all students?
  • What does ESSA mean for your stakeholders? How will ESSA impact your work?
  • How do you want to measure education success in your community and how can you share that feedback with your state department of education?


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Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact

Tue, 2016-09-27 11:24

At the 2016 StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network Nation Convening, attendees shared ways they were having impact within their communities.

At the final morning in Memphis, Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York, invited the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network convening attendees to stand for the gatherings they had attended as she cycled through the locations of the last seven years. Once everyone was on their feet, she announced, “Welcome to the Network!”

The feeling of community was carried over into the morning’s speakers, whose stories of impact ranged from Learn to Earn Dayton’s push for kindergarten readiness to Graduate! Tacoma’s work to improve high school graduation rates. Everyone was invited to see their own impact in making big changes from the smallest step forward.

“The data did the work,” says Ginger Walker of P16Plus, who shared, along with executive director of the partnership Judy McCormick, the impact of making one small test of change at a single campus.

“From teachers to lunchroom staff, everyone was talking about FAFSA completion,” Walker says, highlighting the challenge of college enrollment and persistence among the majority minority population in San Antonio, TX. A FAFSA team was gathered monthly to look at data and make changes in real-time to ensure more students were getting the supports they needed. Government and Economics faculty were incentivized to encourage and give time for FAFSA completion during the school day, and pep rallies were held to rally students around the importance of submitting their FAFSAs. In just one year, they saw an increase of 10 percent, and the program is taking off – 7 campuses will be employing the same methods this coming year.

In Tacoma, WA, they’re seeing tremendous gains, as well. High school graduation rates were estimated at 55 percent in 2010, and have risen steadily over the last five years to 82.6 percent in 2015 – above the state average even among schools whose students aren’t majority economically disadvantaged, which theirs are. Amanda Scott Thomas, Director of Community Partnership, Academic Equity and Achievement at Tacoma Public Schools, insists their successes are due to shared ownership in defining a clear goal.

After digging into the data, the way ahead was clear in Dayton, OH, too. Ritika Kurup, Director of Early Learning with Learn to Earn Dayton, explained how upon seeing the correlation between high school graduation rates and kindergarten readiness, the community mobilized around summer learning efforts. After disaggregating summer reading program data, the disparities were clear. Learn to Earn Dayton shared their findings with local libraries, who took the initiative to change their practices to better support the children most in need. A new library card was introduced, one that didn’t require a parent signature and didn’t accrue late fines. A book drive was also organized to provide books where children need them most: in the home. In 2012, the drive’s first year, 8,000 books were distributed. This year? 80,000. Students with the greatest need received a book a week for 10 weeks.

“It was all about getting the right programming for the right kids,” says Kurup.

And while every partnership had details to share about how their communities achieved such incredible results, Graduate! Tacoma’s Executive Director, Eric Wilson, insists there’s “no silver bullet.”

“It’s not just one thing, it’s 50 things,” says Wilson. Each community is different, but many communities share similar challenges, making annual convenings all the more valuable for learning and networking opportunities. For, as Zimpher pointed out, they’re an opportunity to reaffirm the value of collective impact work and to “hold hands and work together.”


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Learn to let go of the desire for credit. If you want recognition, get a puppy.

Thu, 2016-09-22 11:24

Post image for Learn to let go of the desire for credit. If you want recognition, get a puppy.

Do you find yourself just doing the work yourself because it will be faster, easier, and done the way you want it to?

This was the question that framed Becky Kanis Margiotta, co-founder of The Billions Institute and lunchtime plenary session speaker at StriveTogether’s 2016 Cradle to Career Network Convening. While she was quick to assure everyone in the audience that they were “good people” for rolling up their sleeves to do the hard work of collective impact, she also said that we all have the potential to be better when we put responsibility where responsibility belongs.

“This isn’t a ‘do it yourself’ bone,” says Kanis Margiotta, speaking of the value of the backbone organization and her own experiences learning to let go of control, learning to say no, and discovering the unique strengths and interests of the individuals she worked with when she took a step back and allowed others to step up.

Powerful keynote from Becky Margiotta about how to create a backbone on connection, creativity, and collaboration. #RiseUpC2C

— ROCtheFuture (@ROCtheFuture) September 21, 2016

According to Kanis Margiotta, the key to success is having a shared aim – and the only way to know if it’s truly shared is when you’re asking of others what you would ask of yourself. If you’ve been doing it all, it’s not too late. Asking more of your partners offers them the opportunity to recommit to the work, which can be energizing for everyone, and freeing for you. Kanis Margiotta insists that we must learn to let go of the desire for credit. “You must profoundly, madly let go of your own ego,” says Kanis Margiotta. “If you want recognition, get a puppy. The best possible media is when you are an afterthought.”

Profoundly let go of your own ego. Stop heroing. #RiseUpC2C #BeckyMargiotta

— Allison Titcomb (@AllisonTitcomb) September 21, 2016

When the people doing the work are the ones in the spotlight, they’re that much more encouraged to keep doing what they’ve been doing, to do more, to do better. When asked how to ensure funding for the work of the backbone organizations when they can’t attach their names to the work directly, Kanis Margiotta encouraged attendees to create their own metrics, different from those of their partners, that would still show their value within the community.

The sum of Kanis Margiotta’s message was the power of collective impact work to build a collective “us,” empowering everyone while moving the needle for all children, from cradle to career.


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What Education Excellence for Every Child Really Means

Wed, 2016-09-21 16:25

At the 2016 StriveTogether Nation Convening, convening attendees are having conversations that will shape the future of equity in our communities for years to come.

According to Adriane Johnson-Williams, founding facilitator of the Seeding Success partnership in Memphis, TN, the work of collective impact and confronting structural and institutional racism is like a highway.

“All lanes must be maintained,” insists Johnson-Williams. “And you need to be able to change lanes when you want to – and not worry about being pulled over because you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be.”

“Everyone should have a right to change their lane.” – @AdrianeW901 on racial equity in the classroom. #RiseUpC2C

— Seeding Success (@seedingsuccess1) September 21, 2016

Johnson-Williams was among the opening speaker’s for this year’s StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network Convening, “Rise Up: Education Excellence for Every Child.” She introduced a series of speakers that addressed what it means to truly commit to “every child,” including the discomfort that can come with confronting the inherent inequities in education. Zandria Robinson, Ph. D, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Rhodes College, spoke to the notion that institutions “crave stasis.” “They’re weebles,” says Robinson. “They wobble, but they don’t fall down.” Robinson encouraged attendees to consider that some of the changes pursued in institutions like education won’t fix the real problem – that they are designed to reproduce status, and maintain income inequality – unless we expose the structural racism inherent in the system.

Lean into discomfort to have conversations necessary to address structural inequities. Yes, Maria Oceja! Listen to ppl who know. #RiseUpC2C

— Lisa Lazarus (@lisaflazarus) September 21, 2016

The data doesn’t lie. Wendi Thomas, journalist and editor of MLK50 Memphis, a yearlong reporting project on economic injustice, shared some powerful truths. Among them? It will take 228 years for black families to accumulate the same amount of wealth as white families. According to Thomas, “this problem can’t be solved by education because it wasn’t created by education.”

So what can be done? Maria Oceja of Bridges USA, a Memphis-based youth leadership program, insists it starts with the way we think about the work.

“We need to do this work with opportunity youth, not for opportunity youth,” says Oceja. She, along with the other speakers, encouraged attendees to consider creating a space for those directly impacted by structural racism to share their experiences and knowledge. “They’re the experts.”

#RiseUpC2C @zfelice at @StriveTogether: What we say education does and what education actually does.

— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) September 21, 2016

Cordell Orin, Executive Director of Stand for Children, imagines a Memphis where “power and wealth and privilege are more reflective of current demographics than they are of the history of structural racism in our community.” When there are more than 28,000 opportunity youth in Memphis alone – individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed – his dream might seem unattainable. But getting the right people at your table, or getting at the table of those whose input and influence are critical to achieve true systems change, is an essential first step.

Over the next day and a half convening attendees will continue having the conversations that will shape the future of equity in our communities for years to come. For, as Johnson-Williams says, “if we are not actively working to address disparities and their underlying causes, we might as well stop working.”


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In Cincinnati, Systems are Changing and Student Outcomes are Improving

Tue, 2016-09-20 00:00

Post image for In Cincinnati, Systems are Changing and Student Outcomes are Improving

As hundreds of leaders and practitioners across sectors converge in Memphis for StriveTogether’s Cradle to Career Network Convening, we are proud to announce the designation of StrivePartnership of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as our first Proof Point Community, celebrating the achievements of local partners and institutions working together to change how education systems work to improve outcomes from cradle to career.

After a decade of cross-sector efforts, nearly 80 percent of key indicators of student success are improving. And, behaviors, policies, and practices have changed and continue to change across the community to align efforts and resources to improve outcomes from kindergarten readiness through post-secondary completion.

When StrivePartnership started in 2006, a group of leaders from various sectors throughout the Cincinnati area came together with a common goal: to improve academic success in the urban core. More than 300 cross-sector representatives joined the partnership, including school district superintendents, early-childhood educators, non-profit practitioners, business leaders, community and corporate funders, city officials and university presidents.

By sitting around the same table, partners were able to align around shared educational goals and outcomes.

Now, 10 years later, organizations, institutions, and community members – including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the United Way, Cincinnati Public Schools, and the business community – are aligning their work to support a shared cradle to career vision.

Here are some of the successes StrivePartnership and its partners have had recently that exemplify how systems are changing:

1)  Investing in what works: Public and private funders are changing the way they think about investments, recognizing the importance of investing in high-impact, evidence-based, scalable interventions in ways that secure sustainable public funding. Every Child Capital, a first-in-the-nation venture philanthropy fund focused on scaling proven early literacy interventions that have a business case for public funding and a secured public partner, has attracted more than $4 million dollars in funding.

Cincinnati Public Schools, in partnership with the Cincinnati Preschool Promise, is pursuing an unprecedented November 2016 levy to significantly expand access to preschool and strengthen the pre-K-12 public school system so every child has a strong start and a strong future.

2) Using continuous improvement: Over the last year, StrivePartnership developed a rapid-cycle continuous improvement capability training series, Impact U, for the region’s education leaders with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (CCHMC) and StriveTogether. Community leaders are improving early grade reading, and a key Cincinnati Public Schools executive is now working half-time at Children’s Hospital to ensure true collaboration.

“The bold experiment of ImpactU to build community capacity to have meaningful quality improvement skills that start small but build up in a systematic way is a critical partnership between CCHMC and StrivePartnership,” said Tom DeWitt of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

3) Aligning post-secondary partners: A collaborative of  two- and four-year institutions from Ohio and Kentucky are analyzing data across post-secondary institutions to understand root causes for low post-secondary attainment through the Persistence Project. Spending time together strengthened relationships and allowed for sharing data across state lines, which is almost impossible.

“The work done across higher educational institutions might be difficult to continue without the avenue and opportunity that StrivePartnership provides to collaborate. It helps to have a regional focus. With the catalyst to move it forward, that has a bigger impact than working alone,” said Dr. Patricia Mahabir of Gateway Community College.

The StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, which represents 68 communities across 32 states, is working toward the common result of the success of every child from cradle to career. StriveTogether has developed a method to assess the effectiveness of collective impact partnerships, helping communities stay focused on results and sustain impact over time. A community in the Cradle to Career Network will be designated as a Proof Point community when 60 percent of indicators across six cradle to career outcomes are maintained or improved year after year. Additionally, community leaders across sectors must demonstrate evidence of changing how systems work in four key areas: Shared Community Vision, Evidence-Based Decision Making, Collaborative Action, and Investment and Sustainability.

StrivePartnership and its partners continue to strengthen civic infrastructure to support local efforts to achieve better and more equitable outcomes for children. Local partners are focused on continuing to build capability of leaders and practitioners to use data for improvement, adopt intentional strategies to address structural inequities, and expand parent and community engagement. They continue to pursue innovative approaches to align resources to what works, including public funding through a school levy to expand quality preschool.

Being designated as Proof Point is a significant achievement, but it represents a milestone – not the culmination of the journey. We congratulate StrivePartnership on this milestone, and we look forward to seeing the impact they will continue to make in the future.



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Network in the News: recognition, new leadership, and more

Thu, 2016-09-08 16:45


Partnerships are being recognized for their work and planning for the next big thing.

If your partnership has been featured or mentioned in your local news, send it along to We would love to share your work with our partners, stakeholders and friends.


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A gathering of experts and learners

Tue, 2016-09-06 09:00

The StriveTogether Expert Convening in Las Vegas this past June was a learning community of people practicing collective impact, all helping each other learn and grow.

Guest post by Victor Cedeño, Director of Networks and Education Policy with Generation Next, a Cradle to Career partnership in Minnesota.

This past June, I had the opportunity to attend the StriveTogether Expert Convening in Las Vegas. I was honored to be invited but was even more excited for the opportunity to learn from other communities. As it turns out, the title “Expert Convening” was somewhat ironic.

Each of the sites had expertise in their own work and many of the attendees were experts in their fields. And of course, each was working on very impressive initiatives including:

However, I would venture to say that few of the attendees felt like experts. In fact, soon after explaining our projects, many attendees began asking questions of each other that to outsiders may seem rather elementary:

“How do you describe your work?”

“How did you decide to take on this project?”

“How do you build buy-in in the community?”

“How do you work with funders to align efforts?”

These are just some of the questions and conversations we had in big and small groups and it made me realize that despite our best efforts to follow the StriveTogether framework, we are all still learning the best way to do collective impact.

The work of improving educational outcome for children, given the various challenges in our communities, is inherently difficult. Doing that work as part of a collective impact partnership is inherently complex. We have to juggle many interests, prioritize between all important issues, and galvanize others into action. We consider ourselves responsible for outcomes we mostly don’t even impact directly as partnership staff. Framework or not, there is no perfect blueprint for each our communities.

This is why I found the term “Expert Convening” to be ironic. Although many now consider themselves experts in the field of collective impact, the truth is that each community is its own unique subject. That feeling of ambiguity you feel is real and I bet most of us feel that way doing this work.

That is why gatherings such as the one in June and the one next month in Tennessee are so critical. The most useful resource for collective impact partnership staff is not a book, a framework or an expert somewhere. It is others, like us, who are struggling in similar roles, who may have tried similar strategies in the past and what any outcomes may have taught us.

My colleague from another city, Juliette Price, has already captured our learnings from June in an excellent blog, but no blog can do justice to the transfer of knowledge that happens in person or over the phone. Without connecting to others from Seattle, Dallas, Albany, Tacoma and other cities we could not have made the progress we have here in Minneapolis – St. Paul.

I’m looking forward for more opportunities to connect next month in Tennessee, and if we balance our expertise in our fields and communities with a desire to learn from each other, I know that it will be a productive gathering.

Victor CedenoVictor Cedeño is the Director of Networks and Education Policy with Generation Next, a Cradle to Career partnership in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Victor serves as the primary staff for identifying education policy innovations locally and across the country, and ensures these innovations are core parts of Generation Next strategies. He is also tasked with ensuring that Generation Next networks are supported, aligned, and working strategically to find and identify the most effective solutions to meet the coalition’s five key goals to close the achievement gap.


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Engaging Higher Education in the Data Utilization Revolution

Fri, 2016-09-02 11:13

As K-12 starts using data to drive more change, it's time to engage high education in the data utilization revolution.

In 2013, the data revolution was going full steam ahead in K-12 education, but it was going in the wrong direction. Everything was focused on using data for evaluative purposes and placing blame instead of using data as a resource to help drive improvement. The collective impact movement, when implemented with rigor and discipline in a community, has helped to slowly but surely shift the mindset towards that of improvement and I hope that continues. There are outstanding examples that can be shared of data being used by Cradle to Career Network members to lift up and build on what works.

But what about the other two ends of the cradle to career continuum: early childhood and higher education? One could argue that the federal intervention in early 2015 requiring all Head Start providers to reapply helped to reinforce the value of using data to improve quality. There was certainly a focus on making sure the agencies delivering services were having impact. Now there is an expectation that data is being used on an ongoing basis to improve.

On the other end of the continuum, higher education, the driver for using data for improvement is not as clear. One could argue that the talk nationally about outcomes based funding has had some effect. But I would venture to say that the Lumina Foundation’s Community Partnerships for Attainment (CPA) initiative has had an equivalent if not greater impact.

Starting in 2013, the Foundation identified 75 communities over three years and challenged partners to work together in a focused way to:

  1. Increase transparency and the pace of change around college enrollment, retention and (most importantly) attainment
  2. Take the time and energy to understand what is having impact and how to improve

The Lumina Foundation was not prescriptive in how to make these changes happen, but they worked to constantly identify emerging best practices they could lift up to expedite the progress of communities committed to increasing higher education attainment across the country. In so doing, Lumina Foundation created a demand for and respect of the value of data to inform action than we had ever seen before nationally.

One recent moment in this initiative reinforced this point perfectly. At the final gathering of the CPA communities in February 2016, there was a seminal moment and, strangely enough, it was a tale of data driven practice. Georgia State University shared the outstanding results they have realized regarding their progress helping non-traditional and first-generation college students complete their desired degree. The headline is indeed compelling. But those in the room have heard success stories before. What was interesting was how the conversation was less about the success and more about how the university utilized data to achieve their results. Georgia State University used data to identify the key barriers and then continued using data – with their most innovative faculty and staff – to identify and constantly improve upon what was working. People rushed to microphones after to ask questions and dozens were left wanting as the time ran out.

I can say with confidence this would not have been the case before CPA started. As communities engaged in this initiative and influenced their peers nationally, there has been growing recognition that higher education can use their inherent data expertise to be transparent about progress and look inward at their performance. The intense focus on enabling creative insights and solutions to emerge over the last three years through the initiative has been a significant accelerant to help make this happen. With this key foundational insight and some emerging exemplars nationally, I have much more confidence we will, as a nation, achieve the bold goal of 60 percent college attainment by 2025.


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Checking the Foundation for Collective Impact

Wed, 2016-08-24 09:54

Checking the Foundation

Adriane Johnson-Williams, founding facilitator for the Seeding Success partnership in Memphis, TN, is exploring what it looks like to truly do the work of collaborative action. Through stories of challenging conversations and genuine relationship building, she shares her experiences working to change behaviors and practices in pursuit of better and more equitable outcomes at scale. A native Memphian committed to improving outcomes in her hometown, she now works in philanthropy.

Using data to define problems, develop plans, and monitor progress may seem straightforward, but continuous improvement has never been among the competencies required in the youth development, direct service, or intermediary agencies that make up most collective impact partnerships.

I learned that the hard way.

When the Seeding Success Continuous Improvement Director negotiated a data sharing agreement for the partnership, we were presented with an opportunity and a challenge. Our direct service partners would be able to measure progress for the children they served, and we would be able to aggregate up to the partnership level. Our monitoring would be as regular as new data weres available.

We were responsible for data security and ensuring partners would use the data for continuous improvement. I worked closely with my teammate and developed a training that covered it all.

We adopted language from the Data Quality Campaign. We examined other approaches to continuous improvement training for nonprofits and designed something appropriate for our audience.

Or so we thought.

We made far too many assumptions about what our partners knew. Some staff had basic literacy and numeracy challenges. Others struggled to apply the concepts to their work. There were significant failure rates on the training assessments. Access to data was tied to proficiency, which means we were standing between our partners and very sought after data. Things got a little tense.

We had skipped an important step. We never assessed our starting point. If we had, we would have found that we needed to lay a foundation before attempting to build partner competency.

As our work evolved, a significant part of my job became focused on capacity-building. The better we got at it, the more need we saw. It has since become a focus of local philanthropy because we know that an agency’s ability to pursue outcomes depends on capacity. Thanks to regular conversations with the StriveTogether team and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Results Based Leadership faculty, I have interrogated my definition of capacity-building. Since my departure from Seeding Success, I have shifted my language to competence.

Defining and assessing competencies is achievable. It has been happening in the nonprofit management world for years. What has been missing is a systematic way of assessing competencies for continuous improvement in the sector.

Ultimately, we are engaged in a professionalizing of direct service work in the health and human development sector beyond the arena of licensed social workers and like professionals. We are asking child care, youth development, social service, and intermediary leaders to commit to a core set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions and be held accountable for them.

I am both excited about the possibilities and nervous about the implications. This is a corporate and somewhat scientific approach. Such methods privilege ways of knowing that have marginalized people of color and limited access for people living in poverty and in the working class. Professionalization sounds great, but it also suggests a weeding out of those who are unable (or unwilling) to see their work as systematic and scientific.

For some people caring is more important than competence no matter the outcomes. And in some circumstances, those people may be right.


Adriane Johnson-WilliamsAdriane Johnson-Williams, Ph.D. was the founding facilitator for Seeding S uccess, a StriveTogether Cradle to Career partnership in Memphis, TN. She now works in philanthropy. She is a native Memphian committed to improving outcomes in her hometown.


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Network in the News: community building and back to school

Tue, 2016-08-23 14:20

Happy Student

StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network members are building a sense of community around back to school, civil relationships, and election issues.

If your partnership has been featured or mentioned in your local news, send it along to We would love to share your work with our partners, stakeholders and friends.


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