Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why I voted yes on a new agenda for Washtenaw County youth

Jenna Bacolor, Executive Director, Rec & Ed

Last month, the Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth (WACY) asked the executive directors of its member organizations to vote on a proposed new direction and structure for the seven-year-old collaborative. Over twenty leaders from youth-serving agencies in Washtenaw County cast ballots. 

If you're not familiar with WACY, it's a collaboration of youth-serving agencies dedicated to improving services, quality of life and success for youth in our community. Its mission is simple: all Washtenaw County youth will be ready for college, work and life by age 21. Members include the Neutral ZoneOzone HouseCommunity Action NetworkEMU Bright Futures, the Family Learning Institute, and Catholic Social ServicesRec & Ed has been a member since WACY's inception in 2008. 

While WACY advocates for the healthy development of all children and youth, they pay particular attention to increasing opportunities for economically disadvantaged children and families. (See my earlier blog post on the challenges facing Washtenaw County children who live in poverty.)

During my few years of involvement with WACY, the focus has been around identifying effective youth program evaluation tools, producing a county-level youth report card, and providing training on Youth Program Quality methods. Many Rec & Ed staff have received training in these methods with a direct benefit for our child care, after school and summer camp programs. 

These efforts were important for developing a common vocabulary and understanding among youth-serving agencies, but I often wondered if we could do more by harnessing our power as a group.

So, I was curious to hear about the proposed new direction for WACY, especially when I learned that it would utilize a Collective Impact model. This model, which originated at Stanford, promotes social change efforts by bringing people together in a structured way to form a common agenda and vision, use shared measurement tools and perform mutually reinforcing activities. A strong "backbone institution" and communication among partners are essential.  

WACY leaders presented the Collective Impact framework and asked Executive Directors to vote on each of the following three proposals:

1. A new Common Agenda.  
This common agenda focuses WACY on positive youth development for children who are economically disadvantaged. The three focus areas for youth in the common agenda are social emotional health, health and safety, and academic and career readiness. Numerous indicators within each of these areas will be tracked over time.

This infrastructure includes an "anchor institution" (the Washtenaw Intermediate School District or WISD) and a new structure for WACY committees that matches the other two Washtenaw County youth collaboratives listed below. The WISD is the backbone infrastructure for all three of the collaboratives below.

3. A commitment to a Cradle-to-Career approach with other youth-focused collaboratives in Washtenaw County. 
This approach creates overlapping communication, accountability, and collaboration among WACY and the two other collaboratives: Washtenaw Success by Six Great Start Collaborative for 0-8 year olds and Washtenaw Futures for 14-24 year olds. 

These organizations form the Cradle-to-Career network in Washtenaw County.
To me, the common agenda and cradle-to-career approach make so much sense. A common agenda with specific goals and ways to measure progress will help focus our efforts. Over 14,000 K-12 students -- nearly one in three of all students enrolled in Washtenaw County -- qualify for free or reduced price lunch. I agree that WACY should strive to improve social emotional health, health and safety, and college/career readiness for economically disadvantaged youth.  

As for the backbone institution, the WISD is a natural organization to provide this service for the three collaboratives. The key will be for them to find stable revenue to employ one or two critical staff. 

I wasn't alone in my support for the proposal. Of the 23 member executive directors who voted:
  • 22 voted in favor of the Common Agenda; 1 voted to abstain
  • 21 voted in favor of the Backbone Infrastructure; 2 voted to abstain
  • 22 voted in favor of WACY's partnership in Cradle-to-Career; 1 voted to abstain. 
So what happens now? The next few months are critical. It's exciting to agree to a common agenda, but working together to have collective impact will take strategic action and cooperation in an era of tight budgets.

One thing is certain: children who live in poverty in our community deserve our unwavering efforts to empower and improve their lives. 

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