Owning the Challenge: Summit Helps Community-wide Teams Strengthen Collaboration to Boost College Completion

Q: What do Camden, Denver, Spartanburg and Minneapolishave in common with Albany, New York; Baltimore; Kansas City, Missouri; Providence, Rhode Island; the Rio Grande Valley and McAllen, Texas; and Riverside County, California?

A: On July 31, leadership teams from each of these communities took part in a lively, constructive workshop hosted by the White House and the Department of Education. The teams came together to catalyze and expand collaboration across the K-12 and higher education sectors, as well as with community, business, and philanthropic partners, to significantly increase college access and completion.

The goal of the workshop was to support and accelerate these partnerships’ efforts by highlighting lessons learned from successful efforts for sharing effective policies and practices, connecting teams with experts and resources, and building relationships within communities.

Secretary Arne Duncan kicked off the day by saying, “This for me is very personal work. We never had an opportunity quite like this when I was in Chicago… having people come together, work together, and understand the goal of college completion as a national priority. It’s so exciting that you are stepping up to this challenge.”

Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a SUNY System educator and Albany team member, said, “This is about all of us owning the challenge.” That spirit of shared investment for shared success propelled discussions throughout the day. She also challenged communities to think about how they could shift from being “program rich, system poor” to real cohesiveness and systemic change.

Participants eagerly dived into discussions of effective data sharing and looping across K-12 and higher education, along with strategies for college advising and counseling, developmental education, and accelerating college level work.

Several attendees said the workshop was the first time that leaders of their key education sectors had gathered at the same table. One participant called it “an historic occasion” because of the new links forged among her community’s players.

President Robert Templin of Northern Virginia Community College put his finger on a critical element of community collaboration: “jointly owning a common outcome.” Another participant picked up that theme when she said that her community tracked significant sets of data, but had never established ambitious shared goals for student achievement. Jeff Edmondson of Strive Together added an important factor when he said, to many nods, “Partnerships move at the speed of trust.”

The Partnership Workshop is part of the White House College Opportunity Initiative, a call to action by the President and First Lady to accelerate college completion through a set of targeted commitments by colleges and universities, non-profit groups, states and cities, philanthropy and other allies.

At the first White House Summit in January, many organizations recognized that the success of their efforts to increase academic preparation and broaden the pipeline to college would depend in part on building an even stronger foundation of early and K-12 education. These groups urged the White House and Department of Education to reach out to K-12 leaders and community organizations, and this new wave of city-based partnerships reflects an enthusiastic response to that suggestion to broaden the universe of players who can help promote real progress toward achieving local, state and national college completion goals.

With the White House College Opportunity Initiative continuing and a second Summit planned for December, more partners have a chance to “own the challenge” and build powerful momentum for even greater progress in 2015.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education.