Katy Pacyna, Director of Research and Evaluation of EC2C

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On Nov. 7, Katie Pacyna, Director of Reach and Evaluation, presented an updated strategic plan to the partners of the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative at a meeting held in the lower level of the Lorraine Morton Civic Center. About 50 people attended the meeting, including the leaders of many of the partnering organizations.

More than 40 organizations are currently partnering in EC2C, including School Districts 65 and 202, the City of Evanston, Northwestern University, and many non-profit organizations and faith communities.

Guiding principles of EC2C include that “long-standing inequities and social injustices in Evanston disproportionately affect children and families of color and those from lower-income homes,” and “true equity cannot be achieved until we are able to make inroads in tackling the fundamental inequities around poverty, housing, safety, education, and systemic racism that exist in our community.”

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 Updated Strategic Plan

 “We’ve placed a real emphasis on early childhood in our initial few years,” said Sheila Merry, Executive Director of EC2C, in her opening remarks. “Now we are really pushing ourselves to say, not that we’re abandoning early childhood – we’re still very much concerned and committed to early childhood – but we do want to look more systemically and more effectively throughout the EC2C pipeline.”

Ms.  Pacyna said it is common for collective impact initiatives to tweak, update or refresh their ideas and the ways they are operating in order sustain their growth. “That is exactly what’s happening at EC2C,” she said.

Betty Bogg, Executive Director of Connections for the Homeless, said that leaders of EC2C held a day-long retreat earlier this year at which they discussed goals and strategies. “We had a clearly defined goal around kindergarten readiness and a lack of clearly defined goals in other areas,” she said, adding that the group came up with clearly defined goals in other areas and then determined what structure they needed to reach the goals”.

Ms. Pacyna summarized the desired result or goal for five different time periods in a child’s development: a Healthy Start, Kindergarten Readiness, K-12 Learning on Track, Post-High School Preparedness, and Pathways to Adulthood. She also summarized the desired results or goals for two areas that applied throughout a child’s development: Safety and Stability, and Trauma Informed and Equity Work. 

For each area, Ms. Pacyna summarized what EC2C’s partners should collectively strive to do, strategies that the partners should implement, strategies that families and students should implement, and benchmarks and metrics to assess progress in meeting the result  of goal over the long-term.

A Healthy Start. The goal is: “All Evanston children and families launch a path to school success at birth.”

Ms. Katy said, “We really need to push back our thinking about how to shore up a child’s development and the role families and communities play in that, starting at birth and ideally earlier than that.”

Some of the strategies include building consensus throughout the community about the importance of early brain development and health outcomes on school readiness, providing parents a reliable connection to resources that support child and family needs, encouraging at-home early learning and development activities, providing access to high quality, affordable health and mental health care providers, and championing and promoting parents as a child’s first teachers.

Kindergarten Readiness. The goal is: “All Evanston children going to kindergarten arrive with skills and abilities indicative of Kindergarten-level readiness.”

Some of the strategies include providing high quality, affordable center-based pre-K education consistently across Evanston, encouraging age-appropriate at-home learning, encouraging parent participation in school and learning communities, and encouraging educational screenings to assess skill and development needs as a child grows.

K-12 Learning on Track. The goal is: “All Evanston students develop grade-appropriate learning skills on time.”

The goal is “really about making sure that the students develop grade-appropriate learning and skills,” said Ms. Pacyna. “That’s the real on-track part of this. That’s the academic skill in addition to all the developmental goals that we want them to hit in order to enter high school on track to 9th grade.”

The strategies include providing high quality, affordable out of school time programs to enhance and build on classroom learning for all student levels, and coordinating an organized system of services to support student health, development and family stability.

Post-High School Preparedness. The goal is: “All Evanston students develop a post-high school plan that leads to a career pathway in which they feel they can thrive.”

The strategies include aligning middle school and high school activities that explore career opportunities, expanding and aligning college and career preparation into current classroom and out of school program curricula, supporting parents in engaging in early and ongoing career exploration with their children, providing hands-on opportunities for students to “try on” different career interests and possibilities, and providing mentorship and advising for skill and talent assessment,

Pathways into Adulthood. The goal is: “All ETHS seniors directly connect to a post-high school pathway upon ETHS graduation.”

The strategies include fostering partnerships to build and promote clearly articulated post-high school pathways into a variety of careers, building a broader network of programs to support students in early college years, and developing opportunities to provide “hands-on” development of real-world career skills and understanding.

Safety and Stability. The goal is “Evanston families will experience fewer experiences of conditions that create unstable, unsafe living conditions.”

Ms. Pacyna said, “There is no doubt – and we have had a lot of discussion around this – that we cannot accomplish any kind of comprehensive goals for kids if we do not speak to the reality of their families and their community life.”

Whenever EC2C has polled community members on what is the number one issue in Evanston that EC2C needs to work on fixing immediately, the answer is “housing,” she said. ”

Some of the strategies of the strategic plan include designing effective short-term solutions to ease the affordable housing crisis experienced by Evanston families, streamlining access to services addressing basic needs, and integrating mental and emotional health services into other basic services.

Trauma-Informed and Equity Work. The goal is: “Evanston families, children, and young adults will experience education, support, and services designed to acknowledge their identity and respond to their needs.”

Ms. Pacyna said, “We also are recognizing that equity and trauma-informed are mutually reinforcing paradigms. You cannot have equity without a trauma-informed practice because we need to be meeting every child where they’re at. That’s what trauma informed brings to us.”

She acknowledged that many organizations are doing this work, but some are not. “We have to collectively agree that we all get here.”

The strategies include developing a culture among the partners that promotes trauma-informed, equitable responses to serving children, students, and families, and providing affordable counseling solutions to address the effects of past and current trauma.

In the past year, several principals at District 65 schools emphasized that their schools were serving increasing numbers of children who were suffering from trauma.

Going Forward

 “This is incredibly difficult. It is hard work,” said Ms. Pacyna. “It requires deep trust. It requires masterful relationships between organizations that may not exist yet. It requires us to think about things differently. These are changes that take time to happen.”

She discussed some of the benchmarks which were shaded red, indicating where the community needed to make progress. She said that the benchmark metrics were not to be used as a “scorecard,” adding that it would take a generation to make significant progress.

Eric Witherspoon, Superintendent of School District 202, said, “The red is the compelling argument of why we need Cradle to Career. It’s not new. It’s generational. It’s been in existence for as far back as we can find data in this community. … We have to change the system because we’re going to have red if we continue doing what we have always been doing. It’s the old adage. If the horse you’re riding dies, dismount. It’s time to work collectively on how we can change the system.”



Some New Approaches to Gathering Input, Building Trust

At EC2C’s Nov. 7 meeting, Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Executive Director of the Moran Center, provided an update on the work a group of nine organizations were doing to improve services for youth. He said one of the things the group did was to hire five former clients of the organizations to attend the group’s meetings and provide input. The five former clients also provided input and helped in developing and conducting surveys. This work is driving towards the group’s developing an action plan, which Mr. Devlin said they hope will be developed this spring. This is, perhaps, a novel way to gather and use input from the people who are recipients of social services.

Mr. Devlin also said the group of organizations brought about 150 to 200 of their staff together to meet for a day-long cross-training session in the Levy Center to talk about their programs and barriers to participating in their programs.

Maureen McDonnell, Executive Director of PEER Services, said an important part of EC2C is to build deep relationships with people in other organizations serving youth in Evanston.  She said the joint meeting at the Levy Center was a step in doing that.

“We all come into the room thinking, ‘In Evanston, this shouldn’t be so hard,’ but it is. And so what are we going to do about that? But I’m also deeply encouraged by all the people that I met in that cross-training. The depth of commitment of every single person who was there to the work they do is amazing.”

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...