ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
DALLAS — Mayor Mike Rawlings is a plain-spoken former CEO who is rather brash about his city’s emergence as the center of what is now the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan area and a powerhouse of economic growth, or as he puts it, the top-ranked destination in America for U-Haul trailer drop-offs.
And yet Rawlings also is rather humble about how the long-term economic health of “Big D” is directly threatened by the opportunity gap for students of color and those from low-income families, who make up about 80 percent of Dallas County’s public school enrollment.
So Rawlings is helping lead a comprehensive cradle-to-career strategy aimed at “doing the hard stuff of honest discourse and data-driven strategy” across many school districts in Dallas County, to improve all indicators of learning and success, toward a goal of much improved postsecondary completion rates.
The collaborative student success organization that Rawlings helps lead is Commit! (to Dallas), and its mission and modus operandi are common to the burgeoning national Strive Together movement of similar groups. Minnesota — along with New York, Texas, and California — is among the most active states in generating local Strive models.
These strivers, meeting in Dallas last week, are committed to closing gaps and improving student outcomes by engaging every sector and conceivable stakeholder, from low-income parents to CEOs, and then setting measureable goals along the entire pathway from birth through career launch, and achieving these goals through action networks.
The Twin Cities has its own ambitious effort underway, Generation Next. But this is most definitely not just a big-city movement. Rural and small-town communities were well represented at the Dallas conference, from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Adrian, Michigan.
Minnesota contingents at the conference came from the communities of Red Wing, Austin and northern Minnesota’s Itasca County, which is at the forefront in Minnesota with an already well developed Strive-like model and “road map,” under the banner of the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success.
Each community’s Strive creation story is different, and homegrown originators tend to be leaders in the local business, civic or philanthropic community. What they have in common is an “everybody in” mentality, a total community effort around closing educational opportunity gaps and improving performance from cradle to career, and increasing postsecondary attainment and workforce readiness.
Strive organizers call their comprehensive plans “road maps,” and they tend to set specific measurements of achievement for kindergarten readiness, third grade reading proficiency, eighth grade math competence and postsecondary completion rates.
Another Strive trademark is reverence for data. The strategy is big-hearted but also hard-headed, relying on meaningful metrics and measurable outcomes. Many of several dozen breakout sessions at the Dallas conference focused on data: which measures of student performance to use, how to set goals, and how to interpret and communicate data to wider general audiences.
Among other key takeaways at sessions the conference:
Business likes a comprehensive approach. Minnesota’s Target Corporation was a leading sponsor of the Strive Together conference in Dallas, as was the MetLife Foundation and the national United Way. Reba Dominski, director of community relations for Target, told the attendees that “strong businesses and strong communities are inextricably linked.”
It’s harder than it looks. Although Strive Together efforts have started up in dozens of communities, a recurrent theme throughout the convening was that no part of the process is easy. National leaders talked about “failing forward,” learning from mistakes and persevering in the face of apathy or pushback. A key concern I heard was that the movement needs more authentic engagement from the parents and students in the low-income communities it serves.
Next come “proof points.” The theme of this year’s conference was “Raising the Bar Together” and the compelling need to produce “proof points” that show tangible progress in student achievement where communities are beginning to implement the national network’s detailed and increasingly formalized “Theory of Action.”
Look for proof outside of standardized tests. Although academic performance improvements lie at the core of the results-driven Strive strategy, the organization is exploring how to incorporate social and emotional learning and outcomes into the Strive framework. A plenary presentation featured an intriguing discussion around new research including a report showing how social and emotional competencies can outweigh academic performance in life and careers.
A key architect of the Strive strategy, Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of The State University of New York (SUNY) system, opened the conference with the observation that attendance and representation had grown exponentially over the past four years from about 75 attendees to 450. And she suggested that the comprehensive cradle-to-career strategy and the collective impact model has become “a bit of a movement.”
No question about it. And the way that Mayor Rawlings explained the problem and the purpose underscores the urgency and importance of building a movement. Dallas’ competitive position in 2030 or 2040, Rawlings said, will be all about what’s happening right now with the city’s children, or “what’s going on between their ears and in their hearts. … These kids are our kids and not just somebody else’s problem.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol report on Thursday, October 4, 2013.