Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #061. First published in the St. Cloud Times Aug. 28, 2012


Not so long ago — just a few decades — this “back to school” time of year had direct bearing on a majority of households in the St. Cloud school district.. Almost three-quarters of homes had school-age children.

Now that figure is something like 20 percent.

In those bygone days, student success was an immediate concern of most adults, because student success was the success of “my kids.”

These days it’s easy to think “it’s not my concern.”

But more than just demographics has changed dramatically in the interim. Our economy, our society, our prosperity depend, more than they used to, on the success of all our kids. Far from being “not my concern,” the success of all kids matters hugely to everyone, and it’s not just a concern, but a great opportunity.

The preconditions for success extend well into young adulthood. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce demonstrates that by 2018 almost two-thirds of jobs will require not just a high school diploma, but post-secondary education or training.

That’s just six years from now, when students who start seventh grade next week will be finishing their high school senior year. At that point, those who graduate will still need additional schooling to be prepared for two-thirds of the available jobs. And those who don’t graduate will be virtually unemployable.

How can we assure the success of all our kids in this radically new environment? Fortunately, work is well advanced on an imaginative and ambitious initiative to do just that.

I wrote about its beginnings in my June 2011 column, and can now report its readiness for a public launch. Partner for Student Success will be formally introduced Sept. 26 to the community at a luncheon co-sponsored by the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce at River’s Edge Convention Center. (Disclosure: My wife is a consultant to the initiative, and I serve on one of its committees.)

The focus of Partner for Student Success is the development, from cradle to career, of a child’s self-motivation, self-determination, persistence in education, academic performance and goals for the future. The key to making this happen is moving from an outdated belief that schools are almost exclusively responsible for student success and achievement to the realization that everyone in the community has ownership and a stake in the development of our children.

Partner for Student Success draws on one of the freshest new insights in social science. John Kania and Mark Kramer recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review an article with a title that signals a radical change in how to make difficult things happen: “Collective Impact.”

Kania and Kramer argue that “large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.” They cite examples of what can be accomplished “if nonprofits, governments, businesses, and the public [are] brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.”

Collective impact is different from the much more common collaboration.

It requires, according to Kania and Kramer, “a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.”

This is precisely how Partner for Student Success is organizing itself. That more than 20 local nonprofits, businesses and educational institutions already have signed on as Charter Partners (and more are being added weekly) testifies to their appreciation of the initiative’s commitment to those five requirements.

Partners, whether organizations or individuals, can tutor children; become a mentor in school, out of school, or an e-mentor; host a school-to-business internship; provide career exploration and/or civic engagement opportunities for students.

Partners can donate space; equipment and technology; expertise; transportation; scholarships.

Partners can sponsor summer learning opportunities; post-secondary campus experiences; parent training; after-school and weekend educational activities.

The launch on Sept. 26 will feature as keynoter Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York. When president of the University of Cincinnati, she spearheaded an initiative called Strive, which is one of Kania and Kramer’s examples of collective impact and informs the work of Partner for Student Success.

Zimpher’s message: “Only by working together — public and private institutions of higher education, state education departments and school districts, civic and corporate leaders, and elected officials — will we see results.”