Achieve Hartford!: Reborn as a Startup

After working for 10 years to close the achievement gap between Hartford Public Schools’ students and their peers in surrounding districts, Achieve Hartford! has reorganized and shifted its approach away from advocacy and driving accountability and towards solving problems. While retaining its goal to increase high school and college graduation rates, Achieve Hartford! has taken its stakeholder engagement role to a whole new level and also constrained our focus for the next three years on the piece of the talent pipeline that spans high school to post-secondary degree completion.

The slimmed-down organization will continue to pull together leaders from business, higher education, nonprofits, philanthropy and government to strengthen public education, but with an even stronger focus on workforce and economic development.

Hartford is a small city, plentiful in talent, leadership, expertise and people committed to preparing today’s children for college and the local workforce. Hartford doesn’t have a resource problem; it has a coordination problem, says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director, and that’s where the new Achieve Hartford! is directing our efforts: “Going right to the intersection of all the different players working on college and career readiness with all the different agendas and personalities and bringing them together,” he says.

“I think of the new Achieve Hartford! as a startup, not just in spirit, but I also think in our approach to selling our business model, our theory of change to every leader we come into contact with. We are making a bet on the desire and ability of private sector leaders to step up and into roles outside their everyday job to take real ownership over solutions in ways Hartford hasn’t seen before. We know that this might not work, but when we look at everything else that’s in play, and compared to what we were trying to do, we feel like we have a much higher chance of success than any other efforts, including traditional approaches, that are siloed or beholden to a lack of public resources.”

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote a great piece about Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he argues that if anyone wants real change, it’s got to be from the bottom up or it won’t happen, Holzer says.

Coordinating private sector leaders to work together will “either be done by us or it won’t get done, period. For us, the private sector is the bedrock of our community; the corporate and philanthropic sectors continues to support all of the programming and invest directly into the public sector too; the higher education communities continue to educate everyone here; and the nonprofits themselves, have been here forever providing services and getting to know the community.

“Organizing the private sector, to me, is the best untapped opportunity we have to really find solutions to the problems that Hartford is facing, without the politics. Without the worry of changes in leadership from one mayor or one governor or one board or one council or one superintendent to another,” Holzer says. And now more than ever, corporate and higher education incentives are aligned to the bold goals we have set for high school graduation, college matriculation and college completion.  Their bottom lines are heavily impacted right now, and even more so in the near future.

Tim Goodwin

To reflect this realignment towards organizing the private sector, Achieve Hartford! eliminated three staff positions – deputy director, development director and operations manager. After our previous lead organizer Daiana moved back to Texas, we hired Tim Goodwin, a former Weaver High School principal and community leader, as lead organizer.

“There are limitations that urban public schools have to navigate,” Goodwin says. “Achieve Hartford! is working with community-based organizations and the corporate entities to provide support that will allow the entire city to overcome those challenges. So instead of one urban school district taking on these challenges alone, we are one entire group working to overcome those challenges”

We’re working with nonprofits that are already feeling the pressure to be more strategic and collaborative than they’ve been in the past. Increasingly, foundations favor giving to nonprofits that can demonstrate collaboration with others. Their incentives are aligned as well.

Goodwin’s role is to support the two major coalitions listed below and specifically recruit and coach local private sector talent to work toward improving educational outcomes for Hartford students:

  • All IN! – a public-private-business coalition with a goal-oriented agenda to support Hartford youth on their pathway to future success;
  • Weaver 2019 – a committed coalition of people from education, business, philanthropy and nonprofits working together to create a 21st century, high-quality learning environment.

Goodwin is already supporting the Weaver High School redesign recommendation process, which involves preparing the final review, so the recommendations can be presented in one plan document to the superintendent and the board of education. He is also helping bring partners together to implement the approved recommendations.

Those interested in working toward these initiatives need not be educators, Goodwin says.

“If you are someone who believes in Weaver High School or progressive reforms for urban education, there’s probably going to be a way to plug you in,” he says.

Those both inside and outside of education say the challenges facing the Hartford schools can’t be solved in a vacuum.

“They’re problems that require a whole set of expertises and you have to find people from everywhere,” Holzer says. “So, if I do need an educator, then guess what, there’s an educator working on that, but the educator is no longer expected to solve problems that relate to resource constraints or politics or good process or program evaluation or communicating something. There is room for everyone, but not from a sense of, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ but from a sense of ‘We desperately need different expertises to come around one table to solve any of these problems.’

Hartford needs people like Ethan Reid, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, who recently sat on Weaver’s school culture and climate work group after years of serving on High School Inc.’s industry advisory board. Reid, who grew up in Hartford and attended its public schools, joined that group because he was interested in culture and climate and could specifically bring expertise around how to drive good process, how to ask the right questions around these changes that need to be made, Holzer says.

“He’s just a really smart guy from the corporate sector who wants to bring a sense of accountability and sophistication to a work group,” he adds, “with a real commitment to Hartford kids.”

Achieve Hartford! is also changing how we focus our communications efforts. With Ed Matters, we have shifted away from informing and updating readers on how the school district is performing, says Nyesha McCauley, story teller & communications lead. We are no longer reporting on school board meetings or other District developments.

“This is aligned to our new model where our focus is now on private sector partnerships,” she says. “Achieve Hartford! organizes, coaches and inspires individuals to solve pressing problems in education and change how leaders work together. Our articles will focus on this approach to improving educational outcomes,” McCauley says. “We hope our stories that highlight the impact of our new approach will inspire and motivate individuals who want to help to find ways to connect with each other and commit to getting involved.”

Ed Matters readers can expect frequent updates on the progress made within the All IN! coalition and Weaver 2019. We plan to highlight people committed to doing this work, including providing one-on-one personal narrative videos highlighting education champions telling their stories. We will share stories from other communities where cross-sector coalitions are impacting and improving educational outcomes for urban students.

McCauley adds, “We want our readers to know and understand what’s possible when private sector leaders come together with each other — and with public sector leaders to solve problems.”

 

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