School District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren, left, and District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon were among the speakers at the retreat held by Evanston’s Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative.   RoundTable photo

More than 100 people representing 40 organizations attended a day-long retreat for the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center on Jan. 29. The group listened to presentations on collective impact, the progress made to date, equity, baseline data, goals and measures of success, commitments to share data, and ways various organizations are working internally to improve literacy for youth in Evanston.

 EC2C is built on the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, institutions, community organizations, business groups and others can have a greater impact by working together to address complex social and educational issues than working alone.

The overall mission of EC2C is: “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be leading productive lives.”

In the last year, a leadership structure has been firmed up; an executive director and data manager hired; a Literacy Solution Design Committee, with more than 50 members divided into five working groups, has accomplished some near-term goals and identified goals for this year; a Community Engagement Team has been soliciting input from the community; a Data Committee has prepared a baseline report; and EC2C has identified five overarching goals.

School Districts 65 and 202, the City of Evanston, the Evanston Public Library, Northwestern University and more than 35 other organizations in the City are partners in EC2C. EC2C is making progress, but there is “a profound sense of urgency” said Sheila Merry, executive director of EC2C.

“Too many of our children are being left behind. Too many of our children are not getting to enjoy the richness of the resources of our community.”

The Nature of Collective Impact

Many communities across the nation are relying on collective impact models to solve complex social problems, such as disparities in educational outcomes.

There are significant differences between collaboration and collective impact initiatives. “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 lead paper, “Collective Impact” (2011) by John Kania and Mark Kramer, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Collective impact initiatives have the potential to be “transformative” in the community, said Michelle Shumate, an associate professor at Northwestern University, who has done extensive research in the area and who worked with Evanston leaders in the planning phase of EC2C. She said collective impact initiatives require a long-term commitment, and they see change five, six, or seven years into the initiative. “This is not an overnight silver bullet.

 “What’s different about collective impact is ultimately about two processes,” said Dr. Shumate. “The first one is what we call system alignment.” She explained that Evanston may have many different institutions and non-profits working independently and providing programs and services that may not work together as a system. “They might not be interlaced or connected like puzzle pieces.” Collective impact models seek to align the programs and services.

The second is “somewhat different,” and involves “system improvement,” Dr. Shumate said. This means the community determines “what is working better than other things are working. You find the things in the community that are the highlights, that are really moving the needle for a particular population, for a particular program, for a particular metric, seeing where there is improvement for kids and families who are touched by a program.”

The community should then “scale up” what is working across the community. Conversely programs that are not working should be changed.

She added that almost all the “low-hanging fruit” in most collective impact efforts are not brand new programs or new projects, but carrying out an existing program in a more effective way.

“It is outcome driven,” Dr. Shumate said. “It requires an intense study of the data. It requires an intense transparency across the system.”

The importance of collective impact initiatives was emphasized in an article, “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work” (2012), by Drs. Kania and Kramer. They say, “We believe that there is no other way society will achieve large-scale progress against the urgent and complex problems of our time, unless a collective impact approach becomes the accepted way of doing business.”

The approach may also be driven by State funding. Jose Rico, senior vice president of United Way Metropolitan Chicago, said he thinks the State may change the way it funds social services and require that social service agencies demonstrate they are collaborating with each other and having a positive impact in order to obtain funding. “If that happens, the work that you’re doing here today is going to be critical,” he said.

Some Progress to Date

Ms. Merry summarized some of the progress made by the Literacy Solution Design Committee, whose overarching goal is to ensure that youth have the literacy and reading skills they need to succeed in life. The committee is divided into five teams, each focusing on a different age group or area to work toward achieving the goal in a holistic manner.

The Well-Being, Health and Safety Action Team has created a pilot that builds on the City’s 311 system. The 311 system has been a resource for City services; under the pilot it will also be a resource for available social services. Many communities around the country have a similar call in system. This year, the team is planning to expand the pilot, to develop an approach to assist homeless families in School District 65, and to frame an advocacy role for EC2C.

The Parent/Caregiver Empowerment Action Team has identified Vroom, an app, that can be used to send daily texts to parents of children 0-3 years old. The texts suggest various activities that parents can engage in with their children to promote early childhood development. For example, the text may suggest that parents talk to their kids about colors, suggest ideas on approaches for that, and explain the importance of doing so. A number of other communities around the country have had success with text-a-tip programs, which are relatively low-cost. 

The team is also working to develop public awareness about the 30 million-word gap that exists for many low-income households at 3-years old, and about the importance of talking, reading, and signing to children 0-3 to optimize early brain development. The team is working with Northwestern University students to research the best ways and strategies to do this. This year, the team also plans to promote literacy development through public workshops.

The Literacy On-Track Action Team has worked with District 65 to prepare a revised kindergarten registration form that will gather more in-depth information about children’s pre-K activities. The team has improved communication between early childhood providers and kindergarten teachers to identify children who may need extra support when they enter kindergarten, and to share strategies that have been effective with those children. This year, the team plans to reach consensus on a definition of kindergarten readiness based on both academic and social and emotional measures and to plan next steps using information obtained through the new kindergarten registration forms.

The Prepared for Adult Life Action Team is working with community leaders to develop strategies to promote literacy at the high school, including through disciplinary literacy, apprenticeships, and career and college opportunities; it is creating an action plan to implement college and career readiness; and is establishing a committee of employers committed to partner with EC2C to support and promote the entry of Evanston youth into the work-place. 

The Community Support Action Team is working to bring literacy services to nontraditional settings, and encouraging all organizations to incorporate literacy into their programming. One thing being done – in large part to build awareness of EC2C – is to build and install small libraries throughout the community, in parks or other areas. The team is working with Evanston Township High School to build the libraries, the City Recreation Department to install them, and the Evanston Public Library to stock them with books that would appeal to the people in the neighborhood in which they are located.

Ms. Merry also said EC2C, with the assistance of a Northwestern University student, has prepared a draft “community asset map,” an interactive, online map where members of the community may obtain information about child care centers, food pantries, and other social services, including their location and the type of services provided. The draft will be circulated to all partners in EC2C who can help ensure the asset map is complete and the descriptions of services is accurate.

Deep Community Engagement

EC2C needs to have “great community engagement” where people who are the intended beneficiaries of the services are at the table and presenting ideas on what is needed, what is working, what is not working, and what might work better, said Dr. Shumate.

Mr. Rico presented the issue from a slightly different perspective. He said oftentimes the people who need the services mistrust those who are providing them. He said this needs to be met head on.

A Community Engagement Committee was formed last year to address this issue and keep it in the forefront. The committee has gathered input from the community through “casual listening” at various events and through focus groups, which included people whom the initiative is designed to benefit. 

Several of the Literacy Committee’s action teams have been using focus groups and parent advisory groups to help shape the pilot for the 311 program, the text-a-tip program, and the new kindergarten registration form in a usable and effective way.

Ms. Merry said that one of the challenges facing EC2C in moving forward is “really meaningfully engaging the community, sharing power and sharing accountability. I think that’s going to be a significant piece, and we’re going to struggle with over the next few years.”

Barriers to Opportunity and Race

Dr. Nicholas Pearce, a pastor, asked people at the retreat to list potential barriers to opportunity and equity. People mentioned low incomes, unemployment, the high cost of housing, the location of housing, race, gender, disabilities, criminal records. Dr. Pearce focused part of the discussion on race and “white privilege” and illustrated how different racial or ethnic groups may perceive things in a vastly different manner.

Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes said, “If we don’t talk about race, we’re not going to get to those other issues.” Other people attending the retreat said, “Race is the biggest predictor of disparity,” and a discussion of race may require a “concession of one’s own privilege.”

Ms. Merry said the partners in EC2C need to dig deeper into issues of equity and race. “If we don’t do that, we can’t possibly achieve what we’ve set out to achieve here,” she said.

Data and Goals

A key part of EC2C is to have shared responsibility and shared accountability.

At the retreat, Shirley Gunther, director of outcomes and measurement at United Way and co-chair of the data committee of EC2C, introduced a report containing baseline data. The report is intended to inform the community about the depth and breadth of the problem and to aid in setting goals.

The baseline report shows disparities by income status and race, many of which translate into barriers of opportunity for youth in Evanston. For example, the median income households of black residents is $39,021, compared to $59,022 for Hispanic households, and $95,283 for white households. There are huge disparities in employment: 23.5% of black males are unemployed, compared to 5.9% for the City as a whole.

Many low- and moderate-income households stretch to live in Evanston, which leaves them with less money for other necessities. Almost 35% of low- and moderate-income residents spend more than 50% of their income on housing (and are “severely cost-burdened)”; an additional 16% spend more than 35% of their income on housing (and are “cost burdened”).  

The report also contains data showing there are significant gaps in student achievement. The table below shows the percent of students who are on track to college readiness in reading at third, fifth, eighth and twelfth grades at District 65 and ETHS (According to the Superintendents Joint Achievement Report).

EC2C has identified five “outcome” goals for Evanston’s children, and it identifies metrics to use to assess whether progress is being made toward meeting those measures: 

• Children arrive to District 65 ready for success in kindergarten. 

• Third and fifth graders are on-track for college readiness.

• Students in high school are on track for graduation and are prepared for post-secondary education and classes.

• Students are prepared for and begin post-secondary education and careers.

• Students complete post-secondary education or certification.

EC2C partners have committed to work together to “move the needle” on these outcomes. 

Improving Literacy Within Each Partnering Organization

Ms. Merry said while the partnering organizations have been working together to jointly have a collective impact, another challenge was for each organization to improve the literacy of Evanston’s youth within its own organization. She said, “So far we’ve been talking pretty much about outside our own organization and now as we move into this sustained phase it’s really going to be time to be more self-reflective. How is our organization contributing to literacy? How is our organization contributing to equity in our community? And that’s tough work and that’s going to be a tough transition.”

Representatives of many organizations laid out what they were planning to do to improve literacy in the community.

 Monique Parsons, chief operating officer of McGaw Y, said she hopes McGaw Y will be able to offer an after-school program at District 65, duplicating what McGaw Y is doing in its summer program at the District.  She said hopes they will serve about 100 students, with an academic component taught by District 65 teachers, and an enrichment component provided by McGaw Y. “That’s my plan to change the trajectory in the system,” she said.

Reggie Blount and Virginia Lee, assistant and associate professors at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, said they were heading up a program to establish a summer school for about 50 rising fourth, fifth and sixth-graders in the Fifth Ward that would be housed at Ebenezer AME Church. Mr. Blount said the program was just approved by the Children’s Defense Fund. He added that they will be talking to other organizations in Evanston to make it a collaborative effort. 

Next Steps

Ms. Merry told the RoundTable the EC2C has created its infrastructure and was now in “a position to make, I hope, more meaningful change.”

She said that EC2C will continue to advance the work of the Literacy Solution Design Committee. But she said she would like to shift from the notion that EC2C is simply the literacy committee and its action teams, and to think “of it instead as the collaborative work of all the partner organizations. …  So it’s not only Y.O.U. having somebody at one of our action team meetings, but Y.O.U. is looking at the way it provides its services and thinking about, “What can it do to advance equity? What role can it play in advancing literacy? And we want all of our partner organizations to be thinking about these questions as well. I think that’s going to be an important shift for us.”

Ms. Merry said she thought another challenge was how to make EC2C more “of the community,” and “I think that will include more interpersonal work around equity.”

 She added that she would like EC2C to take a look at the impact of trauma on youth, saying that nationally about one-third of youth have experienced significant trauma in their lives which has an impact on their ability to be successful in a variety of ways.

Rather than identifying the next solution design committee that will be formed, she said she thought the way to proceed was to see what issues emerge as the initiative moves forward.

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...