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The start of something (really) big

Posted: November 21, 2014 2:33 p.m.
Updated: November 24, 2014 1:00 a.m.

As a part of writing this column, I go to lots of meetings, community events and conferences all across the state in my never ending search to find out about the people, businesses and community groups that are doing good and important things to make our state better.

Last week, I went to a conference on education in North Charleston. At the outset, it looked and sounded like lots of others that I’ve been to but after a while, it was clear that this one was different. The conference was sponsored by the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative and was titled “Early Childhood Symposium -- Mobilizing to Move the Dial on Early Childhood Indicators.”

I came away convinced that this conference was the start of something big -- really big -- for all of South Carolina. Here’s why.

Over many months and many miles of going to events such as this, I’ve learned to ask two fundamental questions: 1) Are they doing something new and different, or is this just more of the same? 2) Do the people behind this effort have the ability to implement what they are trying to do? The answer to these questions for this event was a resounding yes and yes.

First the idea. The Tri-county Cradle to Career is part of a growing national network of community education projects called StriveTogether -- Cradle to Career Network. It is a national network of 53 community partnerships in 28 states working to improve education success for every child by bringing together cross-sector partners around a common vision. Together, the Network impacts over 5.5 million students nationwide.

Each of the local affiliates operates with essentially the same four-part strategy:

1. Engage the community -- Work with a broad array of community voices to create unified education strategies and solutions.

2. Focus on eliminating locally defined disparities -- Use local data to identify inequalities in student achievement and prioritize efforts to improve student outcomes.

3. Develop a culture of continuous improvement -- Use local data, community expertise and national research to identify areas for constant, disciplined improvement.

4. Leverage existing assets -- Build on and align existing community resources to maximize impact of the work.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, especially for folks in the Upstate, it should. In 2008, people in Spartanburg County began to seriously look at developing a new initiative to deal with their education challenges as well. It began with a Chamber of Commerce Task Force, and among the recommendations was the 40/30 Challenge -- to double the number of adult bachelor’s degree holders to 40 percent by 2030. This was indeed a bold and audacious goal and it led to the development of the College Hub, a new non-profit organization with a goal of achieving this single benchmark goal.

Another initiative growing out of the Chamber Task Force was the Children’s Services Alliance, which established a network of pre-K services providers and agencies to try and better coordinate services for children. These two efforts were then combined into the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) that adopted the Strive model.

SAM’s goal is simple: “No excuses. Every child must be ready to learn to read when they enter school. They must be reading to learn by 3rd grade. They must succeed in 8th grade math to manage the rigors of high school math and science. They must graduate high school prepared to achieve a post-secondary credential enabled to fulfill career ambitions involving vocational certification or college graduation.”

Initially, there were only a few school districts, notably in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky using this Strive model, but in their first six years, they showed remarkable results: 9 percent increase in kindergarten readiness, an 11 percent increase in high school graduation rates and a 10 percent increase in college enrollment.

Now that the model has been tested and improved, the results of many of the projects around the country are several times these levels. As a part of participating in the program, all Strive programs in each of the 75 communities have to report their performance every year and they can be found on the website, www.StiveTogether.org.

All of this brings us to my second question: Do the people behind this effort have the ability to implement what they are trying to do?

In both Spartanburg and the Tri-county area the answer is clearly yes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in Spartanburg has signed up for The Movement. They call their agreement the “All In Partnership” and it means just what it says. In addition to their board of the premier movers and shakers in the community, several hundred groups and organizations have signed on -- literally, they have all signed a Partnership Pledge of what they will do to help make the Movement a Success. See www.LearnwithSam.org

Even at this early stage, it is clear that the Tri-County group is just as serious and just as committed to seeing their Cradle to Careers program work. The Lowcountry effort is being led by Anita Zucker, chairwoman of InterTech Group. In addition to running a globally successful business, she has a long career of effective philanthropy and she has enlisted a group of leaders every bit as able and effective as their Spartanburg counterparts.

These two projects are stunning in their breadth and depth and also in the level of community commitment and involvement they have been able generate. Will they succeed? I’m betting they will -- scratch that, I know they will.

We in this state have long been suffering from the “poor ole us” syndrome. We have lost sight of the fundamental truth of one of my favorite quotes from President John Kennedy: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

It’s time for us in South Carolina to be big … and these extraordinary leaders at either end of the state are showing us the way.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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