When the moon, sun and stars align, you need to take collective action

There are times in the life cycle of a community when the sun, the moon and the stars appear to be in alignment. I put forth that we are in that unique position now when it comes to education.

You cannot look at any news source without seeing a story on the condition of our educational system, whether on the local, state or national level. And with the stories is a proliferation of theories on what we need to do.

To a great degree all the theories are correct. There is no miracle cure that will magically close the achievement gap and ensure that all children enter the public school system ready to learn and come out the other end college- and career ready. No one agency, institution, organization, educational program can provide what is needed to address the barriers and challenges facing our children and families today that prevent students from achieving academic and developmental milestones that ensure success in school and in life.

In winter 2011, the Stanford Social Innovation Review introduced the concept of “collective impact,” authored by John Kania and Mark Kramer. This article, along with a subsequent one, “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work,” published recently, sets forth the conditions necessary for highly structured collaborative efforts to achieve community level change. To do that there must be a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and an organization that steps up to provide the “backbone” support necessary to keep the ball rolling toward the common goal.

Several successful examples of collaborations achieving collective impact through collective action exist. This includes Shape Up Somerville, an effort that showed results in reducing childhood obesity in elementary school children in that Massachusetts town; Communities that Care, which placed 6,000 public housing residents in jobs in Chicago; and, the STRIVE Partnership, which improved educational outcomes for children in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

So, what would this look like for education in Hartford? We already have the beginning of this in the Hartford School-Community Partnership.

This partnership of Hartford Public Schools, the city of Hartford, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and United Way formed in fall 2007 to take a holistic approach to addressing the challenges faced by Hartford’s children and families through a community school model.

Simply put, a community school is a partnership between a school and a lead youth-serving agency. This allows the principal and teachers to focus on what they do best — teach our children — and the lead agency to focus on what it does best — address the health and human service needs of students and families outside of the classroom.

Currently there are five active community schools with two more in the planning stages. As the five schools involved from the beginning entered their third full academic year, the evaluation by OMG Center for Collaborative Learning cited that “the partners can point to many programmatic wins at the school level.”

An emerging partnership in its infancy is evolving around the Third Grade Promise. This is one of the goals of Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, that all students who enter a Hartford public school at grade pre-K or kindergarten will be able to read at or above grade level by the end of third grade – a critical benchmark for future success.

While the goal of this emerging collaboration is to ensure all children in Hartford are reading by Grade 3, the focus is on the system that affects these children: the educational community as well as families, residents, businesses, philanthropy, the public library and an array of community groups. The research and planning to date suggests that this work is not about services per se but about systems and how Hartford could function as a system with a myriad of partners at various levels of engagement, building on their individual expertise and knowledge to move a common agenda.

Working together, we can turn the tide for our children and our families. It is called “collective impact” and is our last best hope of making the type of change we are hoping to achieve for our children. It is not a program or initiative. It is a way to pull all of the theories, if you will, together so that we are all working together, heading in the same direction.