Eight-month-old Calvin Boggs Jr., grinned when social worker Heidi Sullivan pulled a cardboard book emblazoned with the face of the character Thomas the Tank Engine out of her bag.
"What is that? It's a book! Go get it!" Calvin’s mother, Maressa Wagner, said. Calvin grabbed the book and stuffed its corner into his mouth.
"I know you look at it and you're like, ‘Oh, he's going to ruin this book,’ because he's licking on it and gumming on it,” Sullivan told Wagner and Calvin’s father, Calvin Boggs Sr. “But it's OK! Because it's actually kind of the earliest of early literacy skills: to get him familiar with it, and feel the texture and look at the pictures up close.”
Building a hearty appetite for reading at an early age is just one part of a “cradle to career pipeline” intended to guide and support every child in the city from the moment they are born, though college and, ultimately, into a job. It’s a network that has been a decade in the making, thanks to the strong support of community leaders, educators, businesses, nonprofits, social-services and health-care workers and volunteers.
Calvin is one of its youngest beneficiaries. Sullivan, who works for the nonprofit social services agency Every Child Succeeds, has regularly visited Wagner at her home since before Calvin was born, and continues to see the family twice a month. Her goal is to help Wagner, Boggs and other first-time, at-risk parents raise their babies in a stimulating, nurturing environment.
There are indications that the early intervention and sustained support are working: The percentage of children deemed ready for kindergarten, while still just over 50 percent, has increased 9 percent since 2005. Eighth-grade math scores for Cincinnati public school students have increased 24 percent over the same period. Officials with Strive Partnership, which provides an organizational backbone to the collaboration, estimate that around 100,000 children and students participate in the partnership in some fashion.
Attracting national interest
The Cincinnati model has attracted national interest. The Obama administration has dedicated $40 million to a “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative that encourages community groups to form similar partnerships.
Many cities have loose networks of educational, social service and philanthropic agencies. But it’s rare for a network to be focused on the singular goal of raising student achievement. Also key is getting agreement on a common method of tracking their work, said Greg Landsman, the executive director of Strive.
“Can you get them to agree on a common set of goals and shared outcomes?” Landsman said. “We did many, many years ago, and now we've been working toward those shared goals.”
If the pipeline works the way Cincinnati community leaders hope it will, Calvin and his family will continue to work with Sullivan for the next two years. When Calvin is 3, Sullivan will help his parents place him in a preschool program, which will continue to work with him to develop the basic vocabulary and literacy skills he’ll need to become a strong reader.
And when Calvin finishes preschool and enters kindergarten, he may come under the watchful eye of someone like Kimberly Mack.
Mack is the principal of John P. Parker School, one of Cincinnati Public School’s “community learning centers.” The schools offer not just regular classes, but also tutoring and after-school programs, health-care services and outreach for parents and other community members, all under the same roof.
Mack has a spreadsheet of incoming kindergartners that shows how each student has fared by various measures of school readiness, including how many days of preschool they missed the previous year. One student, she said, had missed 53 days and was late an additional 28 days.
“So we know by having that type of attendance in preschool, in kindergarten they’re going to need a lot of extra help,” Mack said. “So this is a child that we know, number one, our social worker needs to go talk to that parent. ...Then, from there, we know this child probably needs tutoring.”
As the students progress through the school, Mack and her tutoring coordinator, Patsy Holmes, can use a database developed by the school system and Strive to see exactly where students are struggling academically and assign and track tutors accordingly.
Computers and sticky notes
Holmes also uses color-coded sticky notes on a large whiteboard to track which students are working with tutors supplied by a half-dozen community organizations. If a student moves away — which happens frequently at this high-poverty, high-mobility school — Holmes can quickly reassign the sticky note representing a tutor to another student.
The ability to link social service, tutoring and mentoring to activities in the classroom is proving key to pushing students to success, said Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan.
When the district launched the Community Learning Center Initiative in 2001, Ronan said, the resource coordinators were immediately able to bring social services into the schools. But academic outcomes in the schools remained low.
“So it wasn't until we figured out that we needed to align all of those partners in the building, so they're all moving in the same direction,” Ronan said. “That's what I believe really contributed to the huge jump in academic achievement in the district.”
Linda Stover, who has volunteered as a tutor at Parker through the organization Whiz Kids since 2004 — working with the same student the whole time — said that the shared commitment to the students’ success is the glue that holds the partnership together.
“There is that community, like we’re sort of all in this together, working for the good of this child, educating this child,” Stover said. “And it’s a very impactful time, not just for the student, but also for the tutor. One of the sayings that we have at Whiz Kids is that one hour a week produces two changed lives, and that’s exactly what occurs.”