The Challenge: For many children, school is a safe haven from life beyond the schoolhouse door - hunger, health challenges, family strife - all of these issues play an immense role in undermining a child’s academic success, and all are problems that schools are increasingly called upon to address.
A Solution: The city of Cincinnati focuses on supporting children “from cradle to college” by realigning its vast public and private resources to chart a child’s success, making each school a center for a wide variety of support services to help create a learning environment at school and at home.
(Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)
CINCINNATI, OH – Eight-month-old Calvin Boggs, Jr., grinned when social worker Heidi Sullivan pulled a cardboard book emblazoned with the face of the character Thomas the Tank Engine out of her bag.
"What is that? It's a book! Go get it!" Calvin’s mother, Maressa Wagner, said. Calvin grabbed the book and stuffed its corner into his mouth.
"I know you look at it and you're like, ‘Oh, he's going to ruin this book,’ because he's licking on it and gumming on it,” Sullivan told Wagner and Calvin’s father, Calvin Boggs, Sr. “But it's OK! Because it's actually kind of the earliest of early literacy skills: to get him familiar with it, and feel the texture, and look at the pictures up close.”
Building a hearty appetite for reading at an early age is just one part of a “cradle to career pipeline” intended to guide and support every child in the city from the moment they are born, though college and, ultimately, into a job.
It’s a network that has been a decade in the making, thanks to the strong support of community leaders, educators, businesses, nonprofits, social-services and health-care workers and volunteers.
Calvin is one of its youngest beneficiaries. Sullivan, who works for the nonprofit social services agency Every Child Succeeds, has regularly visited Wagner at her home since before Calvin was born, and continues to see the family twice a month. Her goal is to help Wagner, Boggs and other first-time, at-risk parents raise their babies in a stimulating, nurturing environment.
There are indications that the early intervention and sustained support are working: The percentage of children deemed ready for kindergarten, while still just over 50 percent, has increased 9 percentage points since 2005.
Eighth-grade math scores for Cincinnati public school students have increased 24 percentage points over the same period. Strive officials estimate that around 100,000 children and students participate in the partnership in some fashion.
The Cincinnati model has attracted national interest. The Obama administration has dedicated $100 million since 2010 to a “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative that encourages community groups to form similar partnerships.
Many cities have loose networks of educational, social service and philanthropic agencies. But it’s rare for a network to be focused on the singular goal of raising student achievement. Also key is getting agreement on a common method of tracking their work, said Greg Landsman, the executive director of the Strive Partnership, which provides an organizational backbone to the collaboration.
“Can you get them to agree on a common set of goals and shared outcomes?” Landsman said. “We did many, many years ago, and now we've been working toward those shared goals.”
If the pipeline works the way Cincinnati community leaders hope it will, Calvin and his family will continue to work with Sullivan for the next two years. When Calvin is three, Sullivan will help his parents place him in a preschool program, which will continue to work with him to develop the basic vocabulary and literacy skills he’ll need to become a strong reader.
And when Calvin finishes preschool and enters kindergarten, he may come under the watchful eye of someone like Kimberly Mack.
Mack is the principal of John P. Parker School, one of Cincinnati Public School’s “community learning centers.”
The schools offer not just regular classes, but also tutoring and after-school programs, health-care services and outreach for parents and other community members, all under the same roof.
Mack has a spreadsheet of incoming kindergartners that shows her how each student has fared by various measures of school readiness, including how many days of preschool they missed the previous year. One student, she said, had missed 53 days and was late an additional 28 days.
“So we know by having that type of attendance in preschool, in kindergarten they’re going to need a lot of extra help,” Mack said. “So this is a child that we know, number one, our social worker needs to go talk to that parent. ...Then, from there, we know this child probably needs tutoring.”
As the students progress through the school, Mack and her tutoring coordinator, Patsy Holmes, can use a database developed by the school system and Strive to see exactly where students are struggling academically and assign and track tutors accordingly.
Holmes also uses color-coded sticky notes on a large whiteboard to track which students are working with tutors supplied by a half-dozen community organizations. If a student moves away -- which happens frequently at this high-poverty, high-mobility school -- Holmes can quickly reassign the sticky note representing a tutor to another student.
The ability to link social service, tutoring and mentoring to activities in the classroom is proving key to pushing students to success, said Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan.
When the district launched the Community Learning Center Initiative in 2001, Ronan said, the resource coordinators were immediately able to bring social services into the schools. But academic outcomes in the schools remained low.
“So it wasn't until we figured out that we needed to align all of those partners in the building, so they're all moving in the same direction,” Ronan said. “That's what I believe really contributed to the huge jump in academic achievement in the district.”
Linda Stover, who has volunteered as a tutor at Parker through the organization Whiz Kids since 2004 -- working with the same student the whole time -- said that the shared commitment to the students’ success is the glue that holds the partnership together.
“There is that community, like we’re sort of all in this together, working for the good of this child, educating this child,” Stover said. “And it’s a very impactful time, not just for the student, but also for the tutor. One of the sayings that we have at Whiz Kids is that one hour a week produces two changed lives, and that’s exactly what occurs.”
A version of this story also appeared at NBCNews.com.
Linda Stover, volunteer
General Electric awarded two grants totaling $25.3 million over 11 years to the Cincinnati Public Schools, plus thousands of volunteer hours and pro bono work.
General Electric also contributes to several initiatives, including the STEM Innovation Collaborative to increase the number of students graduating prepared for careers in science and engineering. Through GE’s “Lean Six Sigma” and “Change Acceleration” processes, the company has provided training to more than 200 nonprofit and education leaders to help them learn to measure, analyze and improve their projects.
The Greater Cincinnati Foundation awarded a $600,000 grant over 3 years to Cincinnati Public Schools. The foundation invested in the development of Cincinnati Public School’s Community Learning Centers. Kathryn Merchant, the foundation’s president and CEO, is also the Strive Partnership’s Executive Committee Chair.
The Cincinnati Public Schools’ Early Childhood Department is expanding its Book in Action and Summer Bridge programs to reach more children in the public preschool program. CPS will also provide more training to staff at community childcare centers so that they replicate the services offered by public preschools. These efforts will be aided by the Social Innovation Fund.
Youth development programs include after school programs at several Cincinnati community learning centers, leadership development and mentoring programs.
The Youth Career Access Network is a partnership of more than 20 organizations that provides education, employment and training, career planning and support services for youth ages 14 through 24. The network is funded in part by a $584,350 grant from the City of Cincinnati to provide training, support and summer jobs for almost 400 teenagers.
The university is expanding two programs that support first-generation college students and those who are emancipated from the foster care system. These efforts will be aided by the Social Innovation Fund.
Funding from the Social Innovation Fund will help expand Every Child Succeeds’ Transition Program, which helps families leaving the program move their children into high quality childcare programs.
The ECSITE program at the Cincinnati Museum will train Head Start teachers to include more science and scientific inquiry activities into their classrooms. These efforts will be aided by the Social Innovation Fund.
Launched in 2011, the Social Innovation Fund is a partnership of nearly 15 foundations and other grantmakers designed to support new and effective solutions to support students from cradle to career. The fund was initially supported by a two-year, $2 million grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. The partners will provide more than $7 million over two years in both grant funding and services to build capacity for nine specific projects in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
The center will replicate a transitional employment program to give students employment skills as they work towards MSSC certification. The program expects to help train and place roughly 20 students a year into entry level positions with a clearly defined career track. These efforts will be aided by the Social Innovation Fund.
While many communities have networks of educational institutions, health and social service organizations and philanthropic groups that work together, formal coordination is often spotty and groups are often working towards very different end goals. Cincinnati leaders say that both the key to their success – and the biggest challenge – was aligning the work of these very different organizations.
Greg Landsman, executive director of Cincinnati’s Strive Network, says that several components are necessary for that alignment to be created and be successful over time, and each can be a challenge for communities to build. The first factor is a shared commitment to collaboration among a wide variety of stakeholders – from college presidents to school principals to corporate leaders to mental health providers. At this stage, agreement on a shared set of goals is also crucially important. In Cincinnati, the shared set of goals are all related to boosting student achievement, though many of the organizations committed to the goals are not strictly academic.
The second component is a commitment to making funding and organizational decisions based on evidence of success – namely, through a commitment to collecting and analyzing data on the outcomes of the partners’ work. Programs and partnerships that demonstrate their success in boosting student achievement – such as tutoring programs in Cincinnati’s public schools – then become the focus of further investment.
In order to achieve the first two components, Landsman says a community needs an infrastructure that allows organizations to align their work. In Cincinnati, both the Strive Network and the school system’s Community Learning Centers operate in some ways to help partners coordinate their work.
For example, Strive worked with Cincinnati Public Schools and Microsoft to develop the Learning Partner Dashboard, which links data from early childhood organizations to schools and outside services, such as tutoring, and helps schools target specific services to the students who need them most.
Finally, partners must agree to sustain their commitment over the long haul, Landsman says. Sometimes grantmakers commit to a project for a set period of time and then energy for continuous improvement peters out as the funds do.
Each of these steps poses challenges, but Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan says they proved necessary to boosting student achievement. Even locating many of the health and social services in the same buildings as schools wasn’t enough on its own.
“[I]t wasn't until we figured out that we needed to align all of those partners in the building, so they're all moving in the same direction,” Ronan says. “That's what I believe really contributed to the huge jump in academic achievement in the district.”
These interviews were conducted by NBC News’ Jenna Wolfe. They have been edited and condensed for clarity.
JW: How badly did oyler need this community learning center?
MR: Oyler truly needed a community learning center because academic achievement wasn’t where it should be, and actually a lot of our youngsters are living in poverty and there are a lot of homeless youngsters living in our district. So they truly didn’t have access to these services or if they did they had to take their children out of school to wait during the day to get access to these services. So it truly has made a huge difference here.
JW: How do you know whether it’s working? How do you know if this is successful?
MR: These last four years in Cincinnati Public Schools, we have seen a large increase in academic achievement on our state of Ohio report card, so you have it in black and white that yes it is working and it is, I truly believe, because of the partners actually volunteering, coming into our buildings. But then we’re taking a leadership aligning all of this support. It truly has paid dividends in terms of academic achievement.
JW: Critics will say this is linear learning - you don't get the breadth of electives. What would you say in defense of this program?
MR: Our business model really has evolved over the years. It started off when the community was helping us design the buildings and it occurred to us that if we invited the social service agency that was down the street to actually have an office, co-locate in our building, that could save everyone time and money. So we helped them design their space, it’s rent-free, we pay the utilities, but to us, there’s a huge value for having their staff person on-site in our schools so the youngsters aren’t leaving to travel to whatever social service agency or health clinic during the school day.
JW: How long has this model been implemented here?
MR: Oyler was one of our first schools that embraced the community learning center model. Oyler was fortunate, they had a lot of community support and partners. At first, when we really took a look at our schools, we said well my god, some of these schools have one dozen or two dozen partners, but there did appear to be some repetition of school services and i don’t think everyone was moving in the same direction. That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned over the last decade. We need to align the services in the building and not replicate what someone else is doing. It used to just be come on in, everyone’s welcome because you really feel obligated as a school district not to turn any offer of help away.
JW: Is there a way to break down the cost per child?
MR: It is very hard to break down in terms of the cost per child because there’s so many in-kind services that are being offered once you open up your space and have the partners co-locate. You get, i’m sure, millions and millions of in-kind services from all these individuals groups who were in your building. But my only advice to any city or district wanting to replicate it is you do have to make sure things are aligned. That was the lesson we learned over the decade. It’s great to have hundreds of partners but you do have to have them all walking in the same direction and working towards that same goal or you won’t see the results as quickly or as effectively.