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A planning committee, formed in the spring of 2013, presented a draft “Evanston Cradle to Career” initiative (ECCI) to a group of 28 interested organizations on Dec. 12. The model is built on the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, community organizations, business groups, and others can have a greater impact by working together to address complex issues, than working alone.

Many communities are relying on collective impact models to develop cradle-to-career initiatives. One example is Strive Together in Cincinnati. “Unlike most collaborations, collective impact models involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communications and mutually reinforcing activities among participants,” says a paper “Collective Impact,” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The “vision” of the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative is: “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be leading productive lives, building on the resources, education, and support that they need and their families have had to help them grow into resilient, educated, self-sufficient, and socially responsible adults.”

The proposal plans to address this vision by initially focusing on six areas: literacy, community poverty and stability, youth and family violence, health, career and post-secondary readiness, and parent connections.

The planning committee recognizes that education is interwoven with a youth’s entire life experience, said Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of School District 202. “We in no way lessened the emphasis on education or academics, but tried to think a little more holistically and to interweave that into the total fabric of what we’re trying to do.”

The draft plan – which is still a work in progress – was developed by a planning committee, under the leadership of Michelle Shumate, an associate professor at Northwestern University who has done extensive research in the area  of interorganizational networks designed to impact large social issues. The planning committee is composed of persons affiliated with School Districts 65 and 202, Northwestern University, Oakton Community College, the City of Evanston, the Childcare Network of Evanston, Evanston Community Foundation, McGaw YMCA, Second Baptist Church, Youth Organization Umbrella and YWCA.

“This is an inclusive initiative,” said Sue Schultz, assistant superintendent of District 65. “It’s not meant to leave any community organization out.”

Strong Buy-In

 “I’m so excited about the whole idea of collective impact,” Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable. “I really do think it could be a game changer for us. We have a lot of fine organizations and agencies and a lot of good work going on in the community. But we’ve never really created a collective impact kind of approach saying how do we leverage all of this where the whole is greater than the parts. That’s what I’m excited about. I think we can coordinate our efforts in a much more coordinated way.”

“This is something I feel very passionately about in terms of how we could impact some of the most challenging issues we face in our community,” said Bill Geiger, president and chief executive officer of McGaw YMCA. “There are issues of violence. There are issues of the opportunity in the academic achievement gap. There are issues of health and well-being and chronic diseases that children and families face. I am increasingly committed to this idea that if we’re going to move the needle in these areas, it’s because the whole community comes together around common issues, common principles and some shared accountability. I think this gives us hope to impact some of these areas where we may have not been as impactful working on our own.

“This shared accountability model, this shared collective impact model is a model that has worked in other communities, so we’re not inventing the wheel here,” he added.

Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U., told the RoundTable, “I think this is an absolutely thrilling initiative for our community because it’s everyone aligning behind a common vision for success and then working together in a shared accountability framework to realize that success.”

 “There’s a lot of evidence from other communities like Cincinatti where they have a very similar collective impact model called ‘Strive’ that this can truly move the needle. And the reason is that holistic care is essential for youth and families success. While our organization is proud to provide a lot of services, we are still only covering kids out of school and ages 8-21. So there’s a huge early childhood piece, there’s a huge career piece on both sides of us. This is opportunity to align with them.”

Barb Hiller, chief administrative officer of District 65, said, “For too long, everyone’s been working group to group in isolation. Working in isolation just does not work. … I think it’s important to play into every organization’s strengths about what they bring to the table. No one school can do it. No one agency can do it. I think the only way this is going to work is if we all partner and play to our strengths.”

“The collective impact model is a perfect opportunity for Evanston,” said Karen Singer, president and CEO of YWCA Evanston/North Shore. “It takes one of Evanston’s greatest assets, its ability to develop partnerships and collaborations, and builds on it by bringing together many different community voices and efforts to enable children to reach their fullest potential as they grow into adulthood. Recognizing the complexity and interrelationships of the challenges facing many children and their families in our community, this initiative calls on us all to commit to developing community-wide, proactive strategies to help all families and children succeed. The YWCA is very proud and excited to be part of this effort.”

Andrea Densham, executive director of Childcare Network of Evanston, said, “At the core is the notion if we harness the collective resources of Evanston, if we mobilize and leverage on the collective talents and skills and expertise, we can actually mobilize a great transformational change for the residents of Evanston and build what we hope is a thriving, strong and healthier Evanston for 20 years to come. And really importantly, this is not just a one to two or five year project. We see this as a game-changing activity that is 10 and 20 and 30 years out – that we will continue to see positive benefits not just in my daughter’s generation, but in generations to come.”

Sara Schastok, chief executive officer of Evanston Community Foundation, said ECCI, “will have a greater impact than a collection of individual efforts because this collective, systemic approach better recognizes and addresses the many disparities that poverty creates–there are no simple answers, so having this array of organizations engaged and committed will generate greater impact. And, in taking on such a complex problem, there will be no quick solutions either. We’re looking at 15 or 20 years – so engagement across the non-profit, tax-supported, business, and philanthropic sectors is what will keep us moving forward on the many dimensions of the problem over time. Then, too, over such a long term, community circumstances will change in ways we can’t anticipate, and having everyone at the table for the same purpose means the community can respond more nimbly to make course corrections as needed.”

Ms. Schastok added, “NU professor Michelle Shumate is a terrific asset as facilitator in building this coalition.”

Guiding Principles

 The draft acknowledges there are “issues of racism and disparity in our community” and that “we are all responsible for the success of our young people.” As part of the “Guiding Principles,” participating organizations “commit” to do six things:

• “Work collectively to establish an inclusive community based upon equitable access and opportunity for all children, youth, and young adults in Evanston.

• “Maximize the potential of each child, youth, and young adult from early childhood to age 23.

• “Work in an intentionally coordinated manner, including a mutually agreed upon performance measurement system, to achieve our shared vision for all Evanston youth.

• “Assure that Evanston children, youth, and young adults, as well as their families, have the positive support structures needed to be successful. These supports include, but are not limited to, social services, emergency assistance, housing assistance, workforce development, mentoring and financial literacy.

• “Leverage and redirect our collective existing and future resources toward the accomplishment of the Cradle to Career vision,” and

• Recognizing that learning and education occur in various settings, “we will be intentional in fostering an atmosphere that encourages and provides life-long learning/educational opportunities to all.”

Gathering/Reporting Data

ECCI plans to hire a data analyst to collect and report data, disaggregated by socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and gender (if possible) showing “how young people are doing and the community is doing.” The baseline data will be used in setting goals and measuring progress.

For education, the plan is to collect data showing enrollment rates for preschool and home visiting programs; percent of children kindergarten ready in five domains of school readiness; proficiency in writing, reading and math for grades 3-11; growth between the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT tests; high school graduation rates; and post-secondary enrollment and completion.

There is no stated plan to measure the percent of students who are on track to “college and career readiness” at grades 3-12. Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable, though, that ECCI would track the percent of students, third grade and up, who were on track to college and career readiness.

ECCI also plans to gather data in non-academic areas such as health, income levels, involvment in the criminal justice system, and housing stability. Longer-term, the initiative hopes to be able to gather additional data, such as youth’s hope and resiliency, socio-emotional learning, and career planning. 

Goal Setting

The draft proposal does not set any overarching goals for the initiative as a whole and does not specify how progress should be measured toward meeting any goals. 

Instead, “broad-based working groups” will be formed around six themes: literacy, community poverty and stability, youth and family violence, health, career and post-secondary readiness, and parent connections. These working groups, the proposal says, “are charged with setting goals and creating initiatives to reach the goals of the initiative.”

Mr. Geiger told the RoundTable that the model differs from the “Strive Together” cradle to career model used in Cincinatti. There the initiative adopted up front five overarching academic goals and measures of success and then branched out to set goals in specific areas that would support the overarching goals. He said some people felt this was a “top-down” approach.

By contrast, the Evanston approach is “kind of a hybrid” approach said Mr. Geiger, where six broad-based working groups will adopt goals in six specific areas. The groups will be composed of representatives of participating organizations as well as community members with direct expertise in the area. So that the six groups do not become “silos,” a Steering Committee “is charged with guiding the way that the groups set goals and create initiatives.”

The Evanston approach will also bring to the table people whom the initiative is designed to serve. The approach is “a kind of bottoms up or a grass-roots approach,” which some people feel is “vitally important,” said Mr. Geiger.

Dr. Witherspoon said the approach “is very typical of the Evanston way, and I’m very much in favor of it. We’re going to let this grow out of the work of the people that are coming together collectively to work on it … we want the people that it is aiming to serve to be empowered and have voice in the work that we’re doing,” he said.

In addition, unlike the Strive model in Cincinnati which adopted five overarching academic goals, Evanston is taking a more holistic approach. Dr. Witherspoon said he thought ECCI’s vision statement would become the overarching goal of the initiative, and that the goals developed by the six working groups would become goals of the entire initiative. If so, ECCI would be working under a common set of holistic goals.

There is no broad-based working group for math or science, or overall college readiness in all subjects, and thus there is no structure built in to develop goals in these areas.

Dr. Witherspoon said, though, “These are the initial working groups that we’d like to get started so we can start to create some models on how to do them. If we can create our own working model about how we’re going to approach problems, how we’re going to pool our resources, and pool our energies, we really believe we’ll see our working groups expand their mission or possibly even recognize that we might need working groups in other areas. Math would be a good example.”

While there is no working group built around early childhood education, the proposal acknowledges there are existing coalitions focusing on early childhood education. Rather than merge these coalitions into the initiative, the proposal says ECCI “aims to encourage best practice dissemination and coordination among these agencies.” In addition, early childhood providers may be members of the broad-based working groups and the Steering Committee.


The Evanston Community Foundation will act as the fiscal agent. A “Steering Committee” will be responsible for the management of the initiative, including hiring all personnel, providing oversight for their work, guiding the broad-based working groups, supervising data collection, encouraging cooperation among partner agencies, fund development, and all program related decisions.

The Steering Committee will be composed of representatives of the broad-based working groups and representatives of key organizations committed to the initiative. In addition, the committee will include people whom the initiative is designed to serve. 

Initially ECCI plans to hire two people, a project coordinator and a data analyst contracted with Northwestern University. Cost for the first year is pegged at $203,000.

As for accountability, Ms. Densham said, “We do think collective impact requires collective responsibility. As we’re moving forward, we’re going to be reporting on the programs to the community. We hope the community and the citizens of Evanston will hold us responsible for moving the lever in a positive way.”

On Dec. 15, Assistant Superintendent Sue Schultz provided the School Board some background on the evolution of the cradle to career initiative and told Board members that a formal presentation would be made at the joint meeting of the District 65 and 202 School Boards on Jan. 13. Ms. Schultz is a member of the planning committee that drafted the proposal.

Several District 65 School Board members asked some preliminary questions. Claudia Garrison asked how high school graduation rates would be computed and whether data would be collected on truancy and chronic tardiness. Candance Chow asked if data would be collected on behavioral issues or disciplinary action.

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said, “I would think we’d want to see alignment with the college and career readiness benchmarks that we’re looking at for the joint literacy goal and that we look at for ourselves. I want to know how we as a Board can get involved in some of the planning process because I think it’s important that we have some input into how those metrics are formulated so they are very much in keeping with what we have ourselves.”

Ms. Schultz said the proposal was a draft and that organizations would have an opportunity to provide input as a member of the working groups, one of which is focused on literacy.

Collective Impact

Communities across the nation are relying on “”collective impact”” to solve complex social problems, including initiatives to address disparities in educational outcomes. In a paper “”Collective Impact,”” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, authors John Kania and Mark Kramer say, “”Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among participants.””

“”Shifting from isolated impact to collective impact is not merely a matter of encouraging more collaboration or public-private partnerships. It requires a systemic approach to social impact that focuses on the relationships between organizations and the progress toward shared objectives.””

The authors say that successful collective impact initiatives typically have five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results:

First, “”Collective impact requires all participants to have a shared vision for change, one that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.””

Second, “”Developing a shared measurement system is essential to collective impact. Agreement on a common agenda is illusory without agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported.””

Third, “”Collective impact initiatives depend on a diverse group of stakeholders working together, not by requiring all participants to do the same thing, but by encouraging each participant to undertake the specific set of activities at which it excels in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others.””

Fourth, there must be continuous communications. Participating organinzations, businesses, non-profits, and schools must build up trust amongst themselves.

Finally, a separate organization must serve as the backbone for the entire organization. “”No collective impact effort can survive unless the backbone organization is led by an executive possessing strong adaptive leadership skills, the ability to mobilize people without imposing a predetermined agenda or taking credit for success.””

They add, “”Collective impact efforts are most effective when they build from what already exists; honoring current efforts and engaging established organizations, rather than creating an entirely new solution from scratch.””

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...