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Community collaboration builds in low-income districts

Organizations involved in Milwaukee Succeeds work to improve educational and social services
Danae Davis, executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds, reads to a class at Milwaukee Public Schools.
Danae Davis, executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds, reads to a class at Milwaukee Public Schools.

Urban districts struggling with budget cuts can increasingly look to foundations, nonprofits and private companies for support in driving district success efforts—from enhancing instruction to expanding healthcare to boosting college preparation.

“Collaboration across sectors is necessary to solve problems whose root causes are complex and multifaceted, and which need extensive, coordinated resources from many different sources,” says Carolyn Riehl, associate professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-author of the March report “Collective Impact and the New Generation of Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education.”

Researchers in that study found 182 collaborations nationwide as of January 2015. These constitute foundations, government offices, nonprofits, social service agencies, community organizations and private companies working with school systems to improve student outcomes.

The initiatives’ goals vary, and include increasing rates of childhood immunization, improving third-grade reading proficiency, keeping students on track for high school graduation, ensuring college access, and advancing post-graduation employment opportunities.

For example, the organizations involved in Milwaukee Succeeds—an initiative funded largely through philanthropic dollars supplemented by government funds—work together to improve educational and social services for students in the city.

Milwaukee Succeeds brings together staff and volunteers from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Schools and other agencies. Its programs cover literacy, early childhood vaccinations, developmental screenings, social-and-emotional learning and increased access to higher education.

Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver, a member of the organization’s executive committee, helps determine goals to pursue, monitors progress, and networks with other leaders to keep initiative running.

Communication and leadership In the past, organizations working individually have provided overlapping services, ignored other school needs and had a hard time finding resources.

Under today’s cross-sector collaborations, these groups can communicate more effectively to align purposes and strategies, and can identify areas where each partner’s expertise is needed most.

To make the partnerships work, district administrators should provide leadership, programmatic support, time and personnel, Riehl says.

For example, in Milwaukee, the district’s chief academic officer and chief officer for innovation and technology serve in leadership positions with Milwaukee Succeeds. Data sharing is also often a component, Riehl says.

“School districts have much to gain if children come to school healthier and better prepared to succeed—and if local companies and colleges offer concrete opportunities for students to pursue their college and career goals,” she says.