Mobilizing the Village: Collective Impact, Portland-Style
Please welcome our guest blogger Dan Ryan! Dan Ryan is the Chief Executive Officer of the Portland Schools Foundation in Portland, OR.
About this time each year I start to get that feeling. You know the one. The sun returns, the days stretch longer into evening, and that sinking sense of freedom slowly settles in. Summer is on its way. But for a lot of the young people in my north Portland neighborhood—and across the country—summer doesn’t hold the same promises it held for me as a kid: art camps, sports practice, family vacations, trips to the library, and steady summer jobs every year since I was fourteen. Instead, without the stimulation and structure of school, summers can become defined by boredom, anxiety, and risky behaviors. Academic skills slip away, unused for months on end. Compounded over years, summer learning loss accounts for up to two-thirds of the ninth grade achievement gap.
In 2007, the Portland Schools Foundation published a study, known as Connected by 25, that showed that Portland students who fall behind in credit accumulation in ninth grade are four times more likely than their peers to eventually drop out of school. The research also showed that nearly half of local students were failing to graduate on time. The study, together with a litany of other research, pointed to summers as a crucial time to intervene on behalf of struggling students.
In recent years, ominous reports on education issues have become as common as the Portland rain. But after this particular report was published, something interesting happened. Portlanders began looking at each other and asking “What are we going to do about this?” We were motivated to try something new, some bold idea to patch our leaky education pipeline. And what was different about this moment—what I believe holds the keys to real and lasting change—was that we were driven to act together, as an entire community. Our city boasts a handful of nationally recognized education and support programs but our staggeringly low graduation rate had convinced us that no single program, school, or organization—no matter how outstanding—could bring about the large-scale changes we were seeking.
The conversation grew into a partnership called Ninth Grade Counts, managed by the Portland Schools Foundation. The theory is simple: make constructive use of the summer months to engage and inspire struggling students so that they start high school on a solid footing and stay on track to graduation. And do it on a communitywide scale. The collaboration that emerged links nonprofits, schools, colleges, businesses, and local government, into a web of supports and resources for struggling students as they transition into high school. It’s paying off; and we know that it is thanks to the expertise and generosity of Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). NWEA President and CEO, Matt Chapman, donated NWEA’s considerable research capacity to track the academic outcomes of students who received this extra support. The research compared participating students with similar students who didn’t receive services and found that Ninth Grade Counts students earned significantly more credits by the end of ninth grade, a key milestone toward high school graduation. These results are flanked by survey research conducted by Portland State University, in which students overwhelmingly reported that after participating they were more prepared for high school, more motivated to graduate, and more confident about the possibility of going to college and entering a good career.
These results didn’t take a big investment of new money. What it did take was a decision by dozens of individual organizations and leaders to start doing business differently—to start pulling in the same direction at the same time. Schools and nonprofits repurposed their resources to emphasize the ninth grade transition. Superintendents from six school districts adopted an identical set of academic criteria from the Connected by 25 research to identify at-risk students and target them for extra support. The Office of Mayor Sam Adams corralled scores of local businesses, colleges, and training programs to roll out the red carpet to give hundreds of students an early glimpse of life on the other side of the graduation stage. Teachers-in-training from Marylhurst University fanned out across the county to serve as tutors. Oregon Campus Compact mobilized a small army of several dozen AmeriCorps members who dedicated four hundred hours each mentoring, tutoring, and saying, “I believe in you,” all summer long to students who may not have been hearing those words very often. The Mayor and County Chair even teamed up with the public transit provider to give students free rides to their programs throughout the summer.
Experts recently coined a term for this kind of collaboration. They call it “collective impact” and in Portland, Oregon, the idea has caught on. An all-star team of executive leaders from all sectors of the community have come together to replicate this success along the entire educational pipeline, from cradle to career. Portland is not alone. Cities across the country have joined the effort, building on the success and lessons learned of Cincinnati’s Strive partnership.
Teamwork and collaboration are nothing new. What is unique about this growing national movement is a tenacious commitment to use data, not just to prove (or disprove) an individual program’s value, but to systematically and continuously improve our individual and collective efforts, and to do it on a communitywide scale. A project of this magnitude takes superintendents, elected officials, mentors, students, and CEOs. It also takes serious data expertise and analytical capacity. As an engaged private sector leader, NWEA’s Matt Chapman, pitched in with that precious resource, living up to NWEA’s commitment of partnering to help all kids learn. Creating change on the scale that we envision will require all hands on deck. How wonderful to stand on that deck alongside partners like Northwest Evaluation Association.