By April Bourie –
It’s common – almost automatic – for cities and counties in Arizona to rank economic development among their top priorities. Those charged with developing the economies of their municipalities work to help new and existing companies in their area to survive and thrive and to bring new businesses to the area. However, achieving these goals is difficult without a sizable trained workforce, supported by a healthy education system.
George Hammond, director of the Eller Center Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona, said at a recent event that this is a big issue for Tucson because the city’s working-age college graduation rates are below the national average.
“One of the things that reams of academic research have shown us is that states and local areas with high levels of highly educated individuals tend to grow faster than in regions with lower levels,” Hammond said at a recent “Breakfast with the Economists,” hosted by the Eller College.
Realizing that these issues need to be addressed in Pima County, the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona began to look for ways to improve the situation in 2014.
“We have no shortage of wonderful education initiatives and programs working to change the situation, but we have lacked the community infrastructure to get results at scale,” said Amanda Kucich, senior director of Cradle to Career Partnership, which was created in March 2015. “We needed something transformational, something that could coordinate efforts for maximum impact.”
Looking at how other communities address their education issues, United Way representatives discovered the “Strive Together National Network,” operating in 73 communities. This national network takes a systemic approach and involves the entire community to affect positive change.
Local United Way representatives felt it could be successful in Southern Arizona and invited 16 community members to rigorously evaluate the framework to determine how it would work in Pima County. Over the next six months, the group developed the structure of the partnership, created goals and determined how success would be measured.
Cradle to Career was created.
Its first step was to bring together more than 150 education, business and nonprofit community leaders to determine how to achieve the partnership’s mission of supporting the preparation of Pima County students for success in school and life with an end goal of ensuring the economic vitality of the community.
It was decided that the best way to achieve the mission was to determine a baseline performance metric and then report progress each year. Using both public data and information that had been collected in local school districts, the baseline report was created in 2016. It focused on seven community-wide indicators for students’ success:
• Kindergarten readiness
• Early-grade literacy
• Middle school math achievement
• High school graduation rates
• The number of “opportunity youth,” those youth who are not in school or work, who reconnect to education and/or career pathways
• Post-secondary education successes and career attainment
• The number of young adults entering a career
The minority achievement gap is also determined among all the indicators.
Since then, the partnership has worked to improve the education system in the county by gathering data to discover and share what they call the “bright spots” of education.
“At every school, there are great teachers doing great things and allowing kids to grow at a faster rate than other schools,” said Steve Holmes, Sunnyside Unified School District superintendent. “We start by focusing on those ‘bright spots’ to determine how these practices can be replicated across districts to improve learning. This collaboration between districts around the data is unique to this partnership and is very helpful.”
Vicki Balentine, former Amphitheater Public Schools superintendent and C2C co-chair, agreed.
“As we identify those practices that make a difference, we can share them across districts to improve educational results and, ultimately, the economics of the county,” she said.
“We need to accelerate the improvement of student outcomes to increase and sustain the readiness of a local workforce,” said Jon Kasle, VP of Communications and External Affairs at Raytheon Missile Systems and the business co-chair of C2C. Raytheon was an original investor in C2C and is continuing that investment for 2018.
“We are seeing positive results on several outcomes. I am recommending to other businesses that this is the most effective and efficient model for investing in the reputation of Pima County over the long term.
“In addition to other larger businesses announcing moves to, or expansions within, the Tucson area, Raytheon Missile Systems is adding 2,000 new employees to its operations here over five years.
“The positive developments we are seeing for our local economy indicate that the word is very much out on Pima County as a superior area for locating and growing a business,” he said.
“C2C’s collective impact approach makes possible the first evidence-based initiative solely focused on improving student outcomes in Pima County. Our data analysts extract, present and share data for the purposes of stimulating new collaborations between school systems and other organizations already totally committed to improving specific measures. We bring together Pima’s leaders in education on a regular basis, and in a structured way that has established networks and clear accountability for moving from strategy to action” Kasle said.
In the future, C2C hopes to have what it calls “change networks” for all seven indicators. The networks will consist of volunteers from local businesses, nonprofits and education institutions charged with finding and sharing the bright spots throughout school districts in Pima County. However, because of limited resources, C2C currently has only two change networks fully running with both paid staff and volunteers.
The first is called First Focus on Kids and is working to improve kindergarten readiness. According to C2C, a high-quality childcare and preschool setting has teachers and caregivers who have expertise with children ages 5 and younger, learning environments that nurture emotional, social and academic development, and prepare children for kindergarten.
First Focus on Kids currently is concentrating on two projects. The first collects data to identify barriers early childhood education students face to determine strategies to overcome those barriers. The second project collects data at Maldonado Elementary School in the Tucson Unified School District, which has predominantly Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students. This study will determine if a “community connector” placed at the school can better engage and encourage parents to take advantage of available services that promote kindergarten readiness.
The second network is called Youth on the Rise, which focuses on re-engaging opportunity youth. To this end, the network worked with the Pima Prevention Partnership to create the Youth Re-engagement Center. There, opportunity youth are paired with a coach who connects them to education, career and support services to help them reconnect with education and/or obtain work.
A smaller change network consists of local superintendents who are focused on improving high school graduation rates.
“Ninth-grade attendance is a key factor in graduation rates, and Flowing Wells also has higher ninth-grade attendance than most other high schools in the area,” said Holmes, pointing out that Flowing Wells High School has one of the highest graduation rates in the city. “Our next step is to determine what is influencing this at the school and figure out how to share this across districts.”
C2C has applied for a grant to create a change network focusing on post-secondary education success, and it will find out in late 2017 or early 2018 if it will be awarded funding.
“I really believe that the C2C partnership sends a signal that we are all in this together and want to operate with one voice,” said Holmes. “There is power in voice when everyone comes at the issues from one vantage point.”