Two stories from the bestselling book “Upstream” are particularly compelling because they are case studies in dealing with the root causes of dysfunction.
In one, author Dan Heath tells how a city virtually ended underage drinking and its consequences. In another story, Heath recounts how a community reduced the incidence of sometimes deadly conflict in an inner-city neighborhood.
The message is clear. It’s not about band-aids. It’s about systems change.
School-age children spend less than 20% of their time in the classroom. For those from families with the means and time to help them learn — and who are raised in well-resourced neighborhoods — success is virtually a foregone conclusion. Without those advantages, however, failure is statistically predictable.
Heath compares the disadvantages to a losing bet. “No child should have to hit the green zeros on a roulette wheel to succeed in life,” he writes.
Local civic and business leaders heard a parallel opinion in 2015 as part of a presentation to the Forward Sioux Falls planning task force. Consultant Mac Holladay, CEO of Market Street Services of Atlanta, discussed how to ensure Sioux Falls’ future workforce remained regionally competitive. Based on Market Street’s analysis, betting on hitting the green zeroes is not an effective workforce development strategy. Here’s why.
Prior to the 2008 recession, Market Street reported that Sioux Falls’ population growth came from neighboring counties and states. After the recession, the data was different. Post-recession population growth had come from international migration.
Must Do: Cradle-to-Career Coalition
Citing an increasingly low-income population and a growing percentage of K-12 students with limited-English proficiency, Holladay urged civic and philanthropic leaders to create a cradle to career coalition. The new organization would unite business, government, nonprofit, and faith-based sectors in removing systemic barriers to student success.
As Evan Nolte, then CEO of the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce recalls, “Mac’s message was clear. With rural populations declining, if we expected to sustain a competitive workforce, Sioux Falls needed to grow our own.” Growing our own is a long-term workforce development strategy that begins with school-age children, Nolte says.
His exact recollection of Holladay’s recommendation to task force members was, “It (a cradle to career coalition) is not something you should do, it is something you must do.”
The result was Sioux Falls Thrive, which harnesses a full spectrum of community leadership to realign existing resources, remove obstacles to student success, and foster opportunity for all children, from cradle to career.
Nearly 200 community volunteers now serve on Thrive-facilitated teams working to improve access to disadvantaged children’s most pressing needs — housing, out-of-school enrichment, and food security.
But five years after Holladay made his report, one-third of our students still face systemic opportunity gaps that threaten their ability to succeed in school and in future careers.
Low-income school-age children hold steady
Dr. Suzanne Smith, Assistant Vice President for Enterprise Data Analytics and Augustana Research Institute, tracks demographic and student achievement data for Thrive.
“Despite the economic recovery that took place over the past several years, the proportion of low-income students in the school district has held fairly steady,” Dr. Smith reports. “This last school year, like five years ago, more than 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals ― and that was before the pandemic.”
Dr. Suzanne Smith
Educators continue to be challenged to meet the academic needs of students with limited English proficiency. Since 2014-15, the number of Sioux Falls elementary students enrolled as English Language Learners (ELL) has grown more than 20%.
“Last fall, seven elementary schools had at least one in four students enrolled in ELL,” Dr. Smith says. “Four of those schools and one middle school have seen at least a 10-percentage point increase in the proportion of students enrolled in ELL.”
Thrive’s volunteers work as much on preventing system failure as they do on creating opportunity. As Heath says, “With some forethought, we can prevent problems before they happen, and even when we can’t stop them entirely, we can often blunt their impact.”
The recent pandemic and resulting school closures will place even more stress on the children and families Thrive’s teams work to help. But Thrive’s volunteers are in it for the long haul.
As Nolte puts it, “This is not a sprint but a long-term race that will continue to change over the years. The crisis we’re experiencing in our country and world today is an unprecedented example of the challenge of change.”