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As the majority of the estimated 3.5 million high school seniors nationwide prepare to enroll in college or other postsecondary programs next fall, the country’s educational system is bracing for fundamental policy changes from the Trump administration and Congress.
Ideally, these will include changes that enable communities to improve their students’ chances of achieving a college degree or career credential.
More than half of graduating students typically rely on financial assistance to continue their education. Experience and data make clear that their success aligns with the quality of preparation and consistency of support they received in the 13 prior years.
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Over the past decades the federal government has developed many programs to serve social needs that are fundamental to educational success. Regardless of one’s political leanings, seeing these costs as investments with measurable returns will be essential to the health and vitality of our nation as we move forward.
Honest reflection at the community level on what works and what does not will be essential, as will a commitment to more transparency and the effective use of all public resources that benefit individuals, families and communities.
Regrettably, these programs have come with restrictions that often prevent communities from mobilizing these resources to serve those with the greatest needs.
For example, permitting money earmarked for school counseling to be spent on an entire family and not just one student, or for that service to be provided in a range of settings, as the community sees fit, as opposed to in a particular, hard-to-reach building.
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Health clinics, as another example, need to serve families and be in or near schools, not a bus ride or two away.
In many instances, those restrictions – embedded in programs like Title 1, for the benefit of students living below the poverty level – are well intended. In exchange for easing ways that communities might spend that money, the Federal government could simply require greater levels of transparency from communities, including around the collection and sharing of data pegged to desired outcomes.
Or, in other words, we as a nation might take a long overdue step back to ask how well, or even if, such programs and policies actually work, including in concert with one another. Government at all levels needs to commit to bulldoze the barriers that have long prevented one local agency from working with another, or local government from working hand-in-hand with the private sector.
The new administration has signaled that a core component of its efforts – not just in education, but in infrastructure and other areas – will be an increasing role for public-private partnerships.
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These collaborations must bring together the leadership of a range of government entities (such as city, county and school district) with businesses, foundations, faith-based organizations, social service providers and other nonprofits, to marshal the expertise and broad constituencies they represent, as well as their financial resources, in support of a common goal.
In many communities – Buffalo, Syracuse, Cincinnati, among others — such partnerships already play a vital role in helping more elementary and secondary school students to access the comprehensive supports that are crucial to overcoming predictable barriers to academic achievement.
Communities need a common goal, and assuring the attainment of a college degree or career credential as a beacon for all of their young people is a goal around which all can rally. With that comes establishing a financial incentive for students and families to assure that goal is actually attainable.
One vital step is to draw on the resources of the community – businesses, philanthropy, leaders and nonprofits – to create a scholarship fund sufficiently endowed to benefit generations of young people, regardless of family income, who enroll in a college or other postsecondary program. Five dozen or so communities – including Kalamazoo, New Haven and Pittsburgh – are among those that have established so-called Promise funds along these lines.
But that is not enough. Communities need to go a step further and identify critical milestones on the road to college and career readiness – such as the ability to read by third grade or master Algebra II by 11th grade – and align academic supports, such as tutoring and mentoring, as well as counseling, medical care and legal assistance to keep students on the path to meeting those benchmarks.
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In seeking to sustain and broaden the availability of comprehensive supports, communities may be surprised to learn that they already have many of the programs and resources for success – if only the various agencies responsible could be brought to a common table to agree on a coordinated plan of attack.
Rather than solutions dictated from Washington, investments from the Federal and state level should instead empower communities to identify programs that work, based on a body of local and objective evidence, in keeping students moving toward a meaningful common goal.
There are examples from communities that have successfully adopted a private-public collaboration. In Buffalo, a five-year-old community partnership established to boost readiness, affordability and completion for all public and charter school students has raised more than $35 million. Additionally, the community has expanded and taken responsibility for funding school-based medical and mental health clinics, extended day and year enrichment programs, as well as college counseling services and legal clinics intended to ensure students are ready to access that financial aid.
The high school graduation rate in Buffalo has jumped by 14 percentage points from 2012 to 2015, and the percentage of recent high school graduates going to college (and other postsecondary options) has risen by 10 points in the same period.
Initiatives like these not only hold out the promise of a better future for a community’s children, but also have the collateral benefit of strengthening the social fabric of a community. And in the bargain, such efforts can serve as the rough draft of a new playbook for unity from which Washington and our state governments might choose to steal a page.
Christopher T. Cross is chairman of Cross & Joftus, an education consulting firm. He formerly served as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and as president of the Maryland State Board of Education.
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey is the president of Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit that partners with communities to make available postsecondary scholarships, as well as academic and non-academic support services.
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