Is collective impact the answer for at-risk students?

November 19, 2015
Author: Morgan Jacobsen

SALT LAKE CITY — Ensuring a capable and confident workforce for Utah's economy first requires helping students see something in themselves they may not know exists.

It requires embracing cultural differences. It requires adopting an expectation of success for every student. It requires the combined efforts of teachers, policymakers and families.

All of it can be a difficult process, but community leaders say ensuring success for all of Utah's children, regardless of their circumstances, is doable.

"We all know what it takes. This is bigger than any of us as individuals," said Scott Ulbrich, chairman of United Way of Salt Lake's board of directors. "We need to embody the principles of collective impact, which is working together, sharing data, being responsible for the data, and acting in different ways to move the needle to help these kids."

That and other messages were shared at an education summit hosted Thursday by United Way of Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Chamber, Prosperity 2020 and the governor's office. As part of United Way's collective impact initiative, educators discussed ways to improve their students' academic outcomes by looking at what happens outside the classroom.

Jose Enriquez is executive director of Latinos in Action, an organization that helps young minorities develop leadership skills, support other students and prepare for college. He said it's important for educators to see ethnic diversity as an asset for the classroom, not a deficit.

"There's so much undiscovered character in our hallways, in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods," Enriquez said. "We need to narrate our stories more often so these youth that are incredible can feel comfortable to narrate theirs. If they could bring it to physics class and social studies, the dialogue in that classroom would burst with character, and people would learn a lot more."

Standardized tests have added to the controversy in education policy, especially as a result of No Child Left Behind, which requires states to administer tests and disaggregate the results by student ethnicity.

But those assessments provide educators with tools to identify achievement gaps among students, according to Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, assistant principal at Salt Lake City's Mountain View Elementary.

"No Child Left Behind is really what helped us to see that," said Mayer-Glenn, who is also chairwoman of the Utah Coalition of La Raza. "From my perspective, it was one of the best things that happened because for the first time, we were able to see that our kids weren't succeeding."

While data can help teachers tailor their instruction to individual students, Mayer-Glenn said educators should also use it to ask deeper questions about what keeps certain groups of students from succeeding.

"We need to continue having conversations about why the data looks the way it is," she said.

Teacher quality is one of several recent areas of emphasis for federal education policymakers. On the same day as the summit, the U.S. Department of Education approved Utah's education equity plan as part of a national Excellent Educators for All Initiative.

The initiative was announced last year, asking states to outline objectives in ensuring that all students have access to quality teachers. Utah's plan includes provisions for teacher preparation, professional learning, leadership training, cultural factors and other goals.

Utah's education leaders are calling for stronger collaboration between K-12 schools and college institutions, especially in helping low-income or at-risk student populations.

Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College, said teachers and parents should help their students understand that going to college doesn't necessarily mean four years reading textbooks, writing papers and sitting in a classroom. It could be a one-year certificate, a two-year associate degree, a four-year degree or more.

College leaders should continue reaching out to first-generation college students and others who may not have considered getting a postsecondary education, she said.

"Our message is that if you ever want to get to a 66 percent by 2020 goal, you have to invest in students who have never considered college in their life and their parents have never had an opportunity to go to college," Huftalin said, citing the state goal of having 66 percent of its workforce with a college education of some kind by the end of the decade.

"Everybody can redefine how they define and think about college," she said.

Ulbrich said United Way is working to strengthen partnerships between educators and nonprofit groups to address other needs of low-income and minority students, such as medical and dental care. A Harvard report recently highlighted Salt Lake City and United Way as the "poster child" of such partnerships.

Ulbrich said he hopes lawmakers during the 2016 Legislature will grant greater flexibility to teachers and administrators in meeting the unique needs of their students through local innovation and community partnerships.

"We don't need more bills," he said. "What we need are more people who work together to make sure our kids are educated in the appropriate way."