Newly appointed Executive Director Sheila Merry gave an update on the communitywide Cradle to Career (C2C) initiative at the March 16 Joint District 65/202 School Board meeting.  She discussed the goals and agenda of the program that will rely on a “shared challenge” for the Evanston community as a whole in raising “productive” young adults.

“Evanston is fortunate enough to have very strong schools, a committed city and a wealth of high quality non-profits,” said Ms. Merry.  “Yet despite all of our best efforts, a significant number of young people are not having the opportunity to achieve their potential and that’s something we’ve got to figure out how we can work together to change.”

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

“That’s not just the responsibility of the school districts, it’s going to take the community,” said Ms. Merry.

The strategy is to bring together an unprecedented collaboration of local organizations and partners to find new ways to work together toward a common goal.  The efforts will be “informed by high quality data, research-proven best practices and the wisdom of the community”.  Currently, the initiative has 27 committed partners and that number is growing.   As part of the collaborative effort, all partners have committed to sharing data, strategies and accountability for outcomes. 

Evanston is a “damn smart community and we need to take advantage of all resources we have here”, said Ms. Merry.  “It’s not that we don’t know how to collaborate” it’s the “sheer magnitude of this collaboration” that is different and what “makes a significant difference in what can be achieved. Our partners have committed both their time and their finances; they said this is important enough that we’re willing to put money on the table and invest in this effort,” said Ms. Merry.  “Most importantly”, she added, “our organization is committed to shared strategies and to recognizing a common responsibility, which means being willing to change what we do.” 

Priorities

To date, most of the progress has focused primarily on building the structure of the organization.  The team has now been assembled and continues to grow; the infrastructure put in place and the goals laid out.    Cradle to Career has begun accessing resources of regional and national networks.  The United Way chose the program to be a part of its Neighborhood Network Initiative which puts Evanston in touch with “resources coming to us and our efforts,” said Ms. Merry. It also allows Evanston to take advantage of being a part of a network of organizations that is collaboratively struggling with the same sort of challenges, where we can learn from others’ experiences, she added. 

Over the next year, the priorities of the program will include defining, collecting and evaluating baseline data; initial solutions on design teams; development of a inclusive communications plan; development of initial strategies for fiscal sustainability; and broadening community engagement.

Feedback, Examples, Data

District 202 Board member Bill Geiger asked Ms. Merry to give some examples of how the solution design teams would work.    Using the example of the districts’ joint literacy goal, Ms. Merry said C2C should be poised to help “expand literary initiatives beyond the school year.” This could be achieved by looking prenatally, from birth to 3 years, early childhood programs and seeing that they connect well with District 65.  Churches can build literacy into Sunday School programs.  To deal with summer learning loss, the program can work with camps.  Sports camps can read about a sports hero while playing a game. 

District 65 School Board member Candance Chow brought up a concern with reliable data.  “We have to realize, when it comes to data, this is a place where there is absence of data by definition.  We have to think creatively about how to include the voices of the folks who have not had access. How do we represent data when there is lack of data by virtue of the problem?”

Dr. Paul Goren, District 65 Superintendent, said Fifth Ward Alderman Dolores Holmes was one who routinely pushed those involved to ask “Who is missing?”

The program will serve to “stretch our thinking,” said Richard Rykhus, District 65 Board member.   He said his hope is that C2C will help determine causes of why some children do not succeed.  He believes the community knows some of the contributing factors, he said, but that “we’re probably missing some.” 

Ms. Merry said she believes that the breadth of the program will help answer some of those questions in a way that might not become apparent during the school year.  The program has to look at “how best to engage families.  We want people to see themselves as part of the solution,” she said.