Guest column: A collective effort to support children | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: A collective effort to support children

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

In many of my columns this year, I've written about the challenges facing our region's children and youth and about the efforts being led by the Aspen Community Foundation's Cradle to Career Initiative and others to improve outcomes for the 22,000 children from Aspen to Parachute. Here's how this important work got started:

Five years ago, the Aspen Community Foundation turned 30, and we reflected on our past and future. We felt pride in our efforts to focus on and support the valley's many philanthropic ventures, but as we looked comprehensively at the persistent needs around us, we found an alarming set of statistics.

Among the children 18 and younger between Aspen and Parachute, we discovered deficits in school readiness, academic proficiencies, high school graduation and college enrollment. Many kids didn't have access to preschool or after-school programs or summer activities. A good number of our students didn't know that going to college is a possibility or that a plan for a career is critical.

We knew that many local schools and nonprofits were delivering excellent programs to children, but still we thought, "How can we make an even bigger impact?"

We imagined a continuum of services so that all local kids would have a pipeline of support from birth through high school. And with the help of an emerging, nationwide strategy known as "collective impact," we took a bold step in 2012 and launched the Cradle to Career Initiative. The mission, simply stated, is to ensure that all 22,000 children from Aspen to Parachute are ready for kindergarten and graduate from high school ready for college and career.

The collective-impact strategy includes three core principles: First is a community vision with specific, measurable goals that are truly "owned" by a broad cross-section of leaders. Second is a collaborative action plan, created by the same leaders, that includes evidence-based solutions and a system of continual communication and improvement. Third is a shared measurement system so the leaders know when something is working and whether they're achieving their goals.

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To develop these shared goals and action plan for the Cradle to Career Initiative, the foundation convened a series of roundtable meetings with more than 100 community leaders, 60 to 70 of whom met monthly for 19 months to craft a comprehensive plan for youth success. These were nonprofit executive directors, school officials, health and human services agency leaders, college officers, Latino leaders and others. The action plan contains more than 70 strategies, programs and actions ranging from prenatal care to college counseling.

Today, three years into the Cradle to Career Initiative, these community leaders continue working collaboratively to implement the action plan, scaling the solutions to meet the needs of children and families in our region. I've written about many of these innovative programs in this column before; many others are only starting to unfold.

Here are a couple of examples: The midvalley from Basalt to Carbondale has long had a dearth of child care spaces, and this lack of access means that numerous 5-year-olds aren't prepared socially or cognitively to enter kindergarten. Today, with Cradle to Career acting as a convener, officials from the town of Basalt and Pitkin and Eagle counties are talking with preschool operators, business leaders and the Roaring Fork School District about how to solve this problem. The outcome isn't clear at this stage, but the discussions themselves are a sign of progress.

Similarly, the business roundtable has united various employers in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs around the idea of both early-childhood education and creating internships and apprenticeships for high school students.

This is the power of collective impact: By aligning individuals and organizations, both public and private, in the interest of kids, we can accomplish far more than we would by working independently.

But there's even more to collective impact. Collective impact is about changed mindset; it's a new way of working together as a community. It's about new connections forming between leaders who've never met. And it's about creating a culture of learning and success.

As community organizations forge new partnerships to help our youth succeed, they build trust and cooperation between organizations and parent, family and community confidence in teachers and schools. And they build hope in children. That may be the most important part of all this.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.