New Territory

How two CDCs added school reform to their agendas.

Beyond Housing and Community HousingWorks may both be community organizations with the word “housing” in their names, but they view their charge as community development corporations through a very wide lens. And that’s how they both ended up taking on school reform.

In 2008, at a meeting about the foreclosure crisis, Beyond Housing’s Chris Krehmeyer got to talking with public officials about what was really needed to stabilize the inner-ring suburbs of St. Louis where his group had been developing affordable housing for over 30 years.

Beyond Housing’s staff and board had talked about the need to improve public education in the communities they served before, but that meeting and the arrival of a new school district superintendent that same year turned that talk into action. “That meeting with the city was the pivot point,” according to Krehmeyer. Four years and 52 community meetings later, Beyond Housing is the lead agency in a comprehensive effort to transform the Normandy School District, which covers 24 municipalities, and stabilize its families. The school district superintendent sits on the Beyond Housing board of directors, and the 24:1 Initiative has engaged over 400 residents and other stakeholders in creating a comprehensive agenda for change. “We have a historical culture of doing new and different things if we think it can make a difference to the families we serve,” explains Krehmeyer.

For Community HousingWorks of San Diego County, California, engagement in public school reform started with traditional community organizing. In 2006, residents of Crown Heights, a neighborhood in the city of Oceanside, in the north of the county, raised the lack of school transportation as one of their biggest grievances. School budgets had been cut, drastically limiting transportation services for students. Parents were paying $25 to $30 per week to have neighbors transport their children to school, and were desperate to find a more affordable alternative. They were tired of facing a weekly choice between buying groceries and sending their children to school safely. In classic community organizing fashion, CHW organizers followed the residents’ lead in identifying priorities and pressed them to not just identify the problem, but step up and take action.

While they each entered the world of public education through different doors, the two organizations agree that they cannot meet their missions of strengthening communities without somehow addressing academic improvement for the children living in those communities.

Making the Leap

Beyond Housing, working closely with the Normandy School District, has spent the last several years facilitating the creation of a community vision and plan, starting with community engagement and really asking people what they needed and believed possible. They used as a model some comprehensive community transformation work they had done in a single community, Pagedale, which helped them see the potential for transformation at the larger scale of a 24-town school district. In Pagedale, Beyond Housing had worked with residents to identify priorities. The organization was instrumental in bringing a sorely needed grocery store into the community. They opened a Family Center, and coordinated other development projects that, taken together, have turned the community around. While this work did not include school reform, it demonstrated how a comprehensive, resident-driven approach to development could have more of an effect than housing development alone.

According to Krehmeyer, the new superintendent was very supportive of the idea of linking community support to district turnaround, which was absolutely critical. “Once he saw everything Beyond Housing had done in Pagedale, and heard us say we were interested in expanding this work to the Normandy School District, he bit on the idea of what we were trying to do. We also had a 30-year track record, not just an idea. The superintendent is an integral part of our thinking and work in this space. The person at the top has to have complete buy-in. Without that, you will struggle to be successful.”

In 2011, the 24:1 Initiative began the shift from planning to implementation. The plan includes three key focus areas: strong communities, with a focus on community health, residential stability, and jobs; engaged families, including leadership training and financial literacy; and successful children.

The initiative has half a dozen working committees, which include residents and service providers and are staffed by Beyond Housing. Beyond Housing staff and committee members connect the school district to community resources, encourage increased parent involvement, and promote practices such as youth afterschool enrichment activities that work across the district.

The focus is largely on systems alignment with the vision and goals. As convener and facilitator, Beyond Housing brings together all of the organizations that work in each area of focus. According to Krehmeyer, “We literally have a long table where we bring everybody together. We look at collective impact. We assume that all individual programs have great outcomes and impacts, but collectively they are not reaching larger community goals. How can we get together to work towards shared goals and track progress? In early childhood, for example, the goal is school readiness. How do we get to a place where every child arrives at school prepared? That’s when we will know we have succeeded. Everybody gets the big idea that we have to all work together. Working individually is not getting the job done.” For example, prenatal service providers in the community felt they were competing with each other for clients. Beyond Housing was able to gather data on who was served by each program, then facilitate a conversation to help these agencies see that their qualifications for clients were very different, and that there was plenty of need for all of their programs.

The idea of the big table is what has attracted the funding to sustain this effort. In 2009, a local foundation made a $3 million commitment over five years. This funding has been critical to Beyond Housing’s ability to staff the work and keep it moving with a high level of ongoing community engagement. Krehmeyer is clear that “to lead such an effort takes resources. The reality is to do the work we’re talking about takes a tremendous amount of time.”

More recently, a large corporate civic group invited the 24:1 Initiative to present to its board of directors. This group represents the leaders of regional industry, a group that many nonprofits only dream of having access to. It was drawn to the 24:1 Initiative precisely because of the Initiative’s big picture thinking.

Starting Small

Community HousingWorks’ initial efforts around improving public schools did not start with a big vision, or the blessings of the local school board or superintendent. When CHW spurred Oceanside residents to organize around school transportation problems, the residents were wary. There had been school budget cuts in previous years and their protests at that time had fallen on deaf ears. CHW staff had to convince residents that a less confrontational approach might bring better results. It took a while, but organizing staff convinced parents to consider meeting school officials halfway, offering to contribute toward a sustainable solution.

CHW’s school transportation campaign with Oceanside residents was launched in August 2006. CHW worked with parents to create a proposal that allowed parents to donate a small weekly amount to CHW that was then offered as a match to the school department. The city was concerned that any special arrangements with these parents would trigger requests from parents in other neighborhoods and set a precedent that the school district could not afford to replicate. But CHW’s credibility allowed it to move forward. Eventually, the school board agreed to share the cost of transportation. In fact, they took it a step further and agreed to work with any neighborhood group that was organized and willing to match resources in the same way.

CHW’s activities are funded through a variety of revenue streams. The neighborhood-based organizing is supported through Community Development Block Grant funding provided by the city of Oceanside along with private grants. Other municipalities pay CHW a fee to deliver its eight-week leadership training program. The costs of its Learning Center academic enrichment and afterschool operations are covered through a combination of property revenue, grants, individual donations, and local partners that vary from site to site. Some of the Learning Centers are sponsored by financial institutions.

Making a Difference

Beyond Housing’s 24:1 Initiative is just moving into implementation. The structure continues to evolve to ensure broad and ongoing input, oversight, and feedback loops. 24:1 Initiative partners are being asked to execute memos of understanding saying they will share the data they collect.

It is too early to see hard data as far as academic gains, but leaders are hoping to see it in the next testing cycle. Krehmeyer understands that they may never be able to show a direct line between this massive effort and student achievement. But he is confident that because the Initiative works at a district-wide scale, incremental gains will, over time, lead to significant, measurable impact across the entire district. “We think we have the context of an opportunity to be successful,” says Krehmeyer. “Our geography is not very large. The school district is not very large. We have core competencies around key pieces. We know how to bring people together.”

Looking ahead, the biggest challenges Krehmeyer sees are ensuring that they get high quality, high impact partners to the table, and bringing the work to scale. He states boldly, “If we don’t get to scale in everything we touch, it will fail.” By example, Krehmeyer explains that there are currently 115 students out of 4,700 participating in their matched savings program for college. “If that’s all we can reach, it begs the ‘so what’ question. We think about 100 percent of kids being ready for kindergarten. We need to know that we are touching every kid. Can we get there, and to all the different points along the continuum in the plan?”

CHW’s impact can be seen in a number of ways in the communities in which it works. Oceanside residents who engaged in the transportation organizing campaign remain active and have successfully worked on other community improvement efforts. The Oceanside School District is now a key partner in CHW’s work with residents of that city.

CHW has also successfully engaged low-income residents in a wealthier community, Poway, on school issues. Building relationships between these residents and the Poway School District took time, but they now have the ear of the superintendent and school board members. CHW staff, parents, and the school district are currently working together to allow CHW to access student grade data to enable staff to better support the students in CHW’s afterschool programs. Carmen Amigon, vice president of classes and coaching at Community HousingWorks, is optimistic that this relationship will now encourage even higher levels of parent engagement.

CHW would like to improve its tracking of impact. According to Amigon, “We have names of all the children [in Oceanside] who use the transportation we helped organize. It would be great to analyze data to see if this has made a difference to their academic performance. …If we can demonstrate how the reliable and affordable transportation has made a difference, it might allow for others to replicate the model. … There are so many other school districts in San Diego that have cut transportation budgets. Our model could be a win-win.”

Lessons for Other CDCs

“Community developers have to get engaged in school improvement if they are serious about their communities becoming strong and healthy,” says Krehmeyer. “In most places, there is something occurring around improving public education. I would just urge [community groups] to seek out existing efforts that are underway and begin conversations. Seek out coalitions that are working toward collective action. The majority will say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, because we know there is also a need for affordable housing.’”

Krehmeyer advises that organizations need to understand what they bring to the table that can add value. They need to understand the whole picture and how they fit in to it. “All CDCs don’t need to serve in a lead role,” he says, “but somebody needs to lead.”

Lastly, Krehmeyer cautions that this work is not easy due to the bureaucracies in school systems. “But, at the end of the day, this is where we need to be and not be frightened about it because it’s going to be complicated and hard.”

Amigon of Community HousingWorks would like to remind other CDCs that “as parents, we want all of our kids to be successful. I don’t think any parent is dreaming at night that they want their son to be a dropout.” Given that, she says, “a large part of organizing is working with parents and youth to understand the school system and that it is going to take a little more than prayers to successfully send our kids to college.” That’s why CHW does financial literacy workshops that go over college requirements — to give parents “the information, the tools, and the support to help their kids be successful. If we understand how the system works, and begin to save money early enough, it’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’”

While Beyond Housing and Community HousingWorks engage in very different types of efforts in very different communities, their approaches to improved educational outcomes have much in common. Both work closely with residents, asking probing questions that encourage residents to analyze issues and go deeper than the problems that are first presented. Both organizations have credibility in the eyes of the communities they serve, and actively support residents to take on leadership roles. Both are honest about their core competencies, and know how to strategically broker partnerships. Perhaps most importantly, both organizations are absolutely committed to comprehensive approaches to community development that go beyond provision of affordable housing, start with vision, focus on impact, and have absolute faith in the possibility for change.

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