Breakthrough Norcross completed a series of meticulously planned working meetings and conversations with community stakeholders culminated on October 14th. This process was facilitated by GCO, but was driven by the nearly 70 non-profit, church, and other community leaders who have participated in the meetings. Each of these leaders have integral expertise and front line experience that provide insight into the specific barriers to opportunity that exist for Peachtree Corners and Norcross students.
The vision that these leaders have adapted for Breakthrough Norcross is:
Every child in the Norcross school cluster will have the necessary support to succeed academically, enter into a meaningful, self-sustaining career and develop into a contributing member of the community.
Success is not going to come easily, and it is certainly not going to come quickly, but this vision is worthy of intense pursuit, and given the unique mix of community assets and intervention programs within the Norcross cluster, I believe we are well positioned to begin the process of transforming our current reality into this great vision.
The image that comes to mind when I think of how this vision positions Breakthrough Norcross is one of a sculptor and large block of marble. Right now our community – the marble – definitely has some rough edges, and maybe some unsightly blemishes, but it’s still a large block of marble, ripe with potential.
Just as a sculptor starts with the end in mind, taking strategic, intentional action that will slowly move him toward his goal, we have painted a clear picture of where our efforts should take us, now all that’s left is to pick up the hammer and chisel. There will be some miss-strikes of the hammer, we might have to stop and re-tool for certain aspects of the project, and there will definitely be some blisters during the work. But, because we have a clear vision, we can now begin the work of making that vision into a reality.
A young, single, African-American woman sat in front of me. Having recently lost her job of six-years in the medical field, she was struggling to keep her apartment and had no other sources of support. I emphasized the importance of not to surrendering and not losing hope. She recognized that I supported and understood her yet she didn’t look me in the eye because she couldn’t hold back the tears. Anyone might find themselves in a similar situation and for different reasons. Before we had even finished talking, another family needed help with translating. In that short moment, I realized how important volunteering for the Norcross Co-Op Ministry can be.
As a research fellow for the Breakthrough Norcross initiative, I was able to spend time volunteering for the Norcross Co-Op Ministry during a GCO day of service. Upon first hearing its name, the Norcross Co-Op Ministry, I expected to walk into a church setting. Instead the Co-Op seemed more like an organized state social service agency.
Serving as an intake volunteer, I observed people sitting in the lobby waiting to be directed into private cubicles where they sat and discussed their issues. Each year the Co-Op serves over 10,000 people in addition to partnering with 28 local churches. These partnerships allow for more resourceful and effective service to the community by donating food, clothes, baby items, Christmas gifts or even financial aid for bills or rent. Uniquely, the Co-Op is the only non-profit organization in Gwinnett County that provides temporary housing for the homeless.
Shaken, individuals enter with no food, no home, or no hope. The crowds seeking aid range from young adults, single mothers, elderly, homeless, educated and previously wealthy. Sadly, an overwhelming percentage of those seeking aid are minorities. Many come in after an unexpected job loss and need help gaining marketable skills to compete for another job. They wonder about educational options such as degrees, certifications or high school diplomas. Most simply need aid to provide for their immediate necessities.
Life’s unexpected circumstances often weaken people causing their family, state of mind and financial resources to collapse. Those who suffer unexpected misfortunes or lack necessary resources may feel hopeless and even fall into deeper troubles. The Co-Op exists to be present in times of emotional or financial downturn where it seems that there is no way out. In recognizing the value for a positive attitude and hope for a better future, the Co-Op is able to recommend churches and spiritual support. Its staff and volunteers instill hope and purpose while establishing trust with the community and providing essential resources.
This perspective is foundational to the Co-Op. The building was donated by businessman Jim Ellis, owner of a host of car dealerships throughout the region, in honor of his son who committed suicide. The Co-Op works to combat similar feelings of hopelessness. That is why the Co-Op has an exemplary ability and vision to change lives. We all have a hope for a better future; the Co-Op makes sure that the people who enter seeking help have reached hope and an expectation to change the reason why they entered in the first place.
GCO’s Breakthrough Communities initiative is modeled, in part, on the collective impact framework developed by the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, OH. Over the past few months we have participated in numerous opportunities to learn from Strive, most recently we attended Strive Together’s third annual Cradle-to-Career Network Convening, in Dallas, TX.
To kick the convening off Jeff Edmondson, Strive Together Managing Director, shared a list of “Knowledge Nuggets” that he had gathered over his years of work in the world of educational collective impact. Below are a few that resonated with the work that is taking place in our first Breakthrough Community, Peachtree Corners & Norcross.
“I don’t care where it lives, I care how it behaves.”
One of the first questions I was asked at the convening was, “Where do you live?” To which, I answered “Buford, GA.” The woman asking the question was quick to clarify what she was asking, “No, What is your anchor entity? Where does your partnership live?” Now I get it. I shared briefly about GCO and how it is serving to support the Breakthrough PCN initiative. This really framed this Knowledge Nugget for me. One axiomatic realization from the Convening is that there is no normal for cradle to career partnerships. Some “live” in universities, others in United Ways, some in community foundations, a cohort are backed by chambers of commerce. The bottom line is that it should not matter what organization is serving as an anchor entity or backbone support role, what matters is behavior – how successfully is the partnership achieving its collective impact goals.
“There is a difference between engaged and committed.”
This resonated with me immediately. Of course, as one sits across a table from a community leader and brings up the topic of education the leader will be engaged in the conversation. Often community leaders will even be very excited about the efforts that are developing. However, what keeps the wheels of collective impact turning is not engagement, but undoubtedly, commitment. The process simply requires an organizational trust and vulnerability that all but prohibits success without the true long-term commitment of all involved parties.
“Action looks different now.”
Why must you be committed? Because, inevitably, this process is going to open your eyes to ways that action is going to change. Whether you are a funder who has to learn to look past outputs to true measurable outcomes, a non-profit who realizes that a program is ineffective and must be modified or eliminated, or maybe a business who realizes that the true battle ground for work force development is not what you expected – action looks different. There is no room in collective impact for a program that doesn’t push an indicator. Collective impact depends upon continuous improvement, and always pushing toward what proves to be the best solution. It was clear in discussions with partnership directors from around the country that action does look different now.
Through efforts to begin developing a collective impact here in the Norcross and Peachtree Corners communities, we are seeing the truth of these simple quotes lived out, and learning how deeply interconnected they are. The reality is, what matters about an intervention or support program is not who provides it or where it is offered – what should be the bottom line is its efficacy. However, growing that perspective requires some collaboration, which will demand the commitment of involved parties. Ultimately, as this starts to happen action will begin to look very different – and hopefully fare more successful!
The morning of September 17th, thirty leaders from community businesses, churches, and non-profits gathered at Brenau University’s North Atlanta Campus in Norcross to discuss how a Collective Impact effort could transform the landscape of social-service delivery in the Norcross and Peachtree-Corners communities.
Those at work in this space, quickly recognized the gap between an Isolated Impact approach – or as one meeting participant called it, “Every man for himself” approach – and the Collective Impact model, which focuses on a segmented pathway, where each organization and program serves a key role in getting the “client” to a desired end.
While this meeting was the first step in the process of filling the gaps between a shared community vision and measurable indicators, it marks a definitive transition point. A foundation was laid that recognizes the great value that each autonomous organization or program represents, yet establishes that each one of them is only capable of it’s most significant impact when working in harmony with those before and after them on the Cradle to Career pathway to success.
Who is responsible for our children’s education? Parents? Schools? Most would probably quickly agree that these parties are of paramount importance in insuring the education of future generations. However, what if businesses, faith-based groups, and non-profits were added to that list? What if there was community-wide shared responsibility for education?
Norcross high school is ranked 8th in Georgia. It boasts numerous athletic state championships, and is an International Baccalaureate World School — carrying a rigorous curriculum track that attracts students from other districts across Gwinnett County. However, only 70% of NHS students graduated in 2012.
At first glance, many would be shocked at this reality. How does a school of this undeniable high academic quality produce a graduation rate barely above the state average (69.72% in 2012)? In order to fairly answer that question, it helps go a few layers deeper into school data.
The Norcross cluster served just under 12,000 students in the 2011-2012 school year, of which 25% were classified as English learners and 72% as economically disadvantaged. The state averages for those classifications are 5% and 57%, respectively. This reveals a valuable insight: there are complexities impeding education that are rooted outside of the classroom. Given the external factors in place, Norcross is truly doing a phenomenal job at educating our children.
Demographic trends show that these emerging complexities are only growing in scope. So what is the solution?
You probably guessed it…that old “ it takes a village” cliché; except with a bit of a twist. Granted, the parent and teacher have a bit different role than the town blacksmith, but the blacksmith should still have a great interest in the education of his future clientele.
Because a community is impacted by its schools (e.g., property values, attractiveness to employers, etc), it should take a vested interest in their performance. As evidenced by the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, OH, cross-sector community investment in education is proven to effect significant change in educational outcomes. They have adopted a philosophy of varied accountability, but a fully shared responsibility.
Breakthrough Communities is GCO’s approach to taking the proverbial bull by the horns in the Norcross school cluster. We believe that by establishing a community-wide common agenda, participating in mutually reinforcing activities, utilizing shared data measures, and implementing continuous improvement, we can see the systems of support changed for our students.
Imagine how student performance could be changed if after school programs, summer day camps, community based mentoring efforts, tutoring initiatives, and teachers were all watching the same numbers, and each one knew exactly how their efforts played an integral role in improving those numbers.
What if, through a collective alignment of efforts, the Norcross High graduation rate increased to 90%? Don’t you think that the benefit of that change would impact more than the additional graduates and their families? The represented cohort of 195 graduates would increase the gross state product by $3.1 million each year and spend an additional $215,000 each year exclusively on purchasing vehicles.
So, next time you read an article or hear a news report that is blasting poor school performance, stop and ask yourself two questions: 1) What is the rest of the story behind the alleged poor performance numbers? 2) How can you be a part of changing the future realities for students?