Impact of Community Collaborations on Youth Unclear But Promising, Report Says

collaboration: Braided ropes on color background, top view.

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Can communities improve educational equity by collaborating across agencies?

The idea of cross-sector collaboration caught fire in 2011 after an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review championed it and popularized the term “collective impact.”

That year, in Buffalo, N.Y., the public school district, the teachers’ union, the city and county joined forces with businesses, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations to partner with the national organization Say Yes to Education. 

Their collaboration, called Say Yes Buffalo, set the goal of every student graduating from high school and college. The collaboration mobilized college scholarships, family supports, social services including legal aid and health care, after-school and summer programming, and mentoring.

At the time, the high school graduation rate in Buffalo was only 49%, said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. 

“Collective impact is a really specific way to approach what are often viewed as intractable problems,” he said. Any one organization on its own would not be successful, he said.

In 2011, an initiative within the Greater Milwaukee Foundation pulled together business, philanthropy and education to make sure children were kindergarten-ready, successful academically, became career-ready and developed socially and emotionally.  Milwaukee Succeeds was formed.

In Portland, Ore., two existing partnerships joined with seven school districts to improve educational outcomes, particularly among students of color. All Hands Raised develops school-based teams in the Portland area to reduce disproportionate discipline and address a number of markers of youth well-being.

How successful have these collaborations been?

They show promise but haven’t yet made impressive gains, according to a recent report prepared at Columbia University Teachers College for the Wallace Foundation.

The report, which also looked at five other collaborations, concluded it will take time to determine actual impact.

“It’s a fair assessment,” Rust said. “It’s hard to move systems-level outcomes in a short amount of time. This is meant to be a long-term systems change,” 

Moving away from polarized thinking

The collaborations examined in the report were all formed to address inequality in student achievement. They were responding to the fact that school systems have not met some basic goals. 

The report said that while efforts to support the school system may be necessary, they may not be enough to achieve academic improvement, particularly if schools remain underfunded. 

The report said that for real impact, collaborations may need to:

  • not just support the school system, but strengthen it
  • gain stakeholders beyond the elites
  • rely less on philanthropic support
  • make adjustments as the national political environment changes.

Most cities sought change by taking a “cradle-to-career” approach, trying to involve education systems from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. Multiple funders were involved, as were social services ranging from health care to legal aid.

The idea of developmental pathways was often present, according to the report — the notion that kids need to hit certain milestones at various ages in order to move forward.

Some collaborations were clear in focusing on racial equity, the report said. Others sought equity without explicit references to race or class.

The collaborations come out of a desire to move away from the polarized thinking about whether schools or nonschool approaches are the proper way to achieve educational goals and equity, according to the report.

The efforts appear to have calmed the controversies around education and allowed a collective move forward, the report said.

It said a major benefit is that school system leaders are interacting  and strategizing

with civic leaders, nonprofits and agencies that offer services that can help schoolchildren. They have taken on goals that “go beyond the narrow math and reading scores that have dominated the K-12 scene,” according to the report.


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