Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 7:14 pm

We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far. - Ronald Edmonds

That quote encapsulates the challenge and the commitment of RGV Focus--to ensure all students in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) of Texas earn a degree or credential that leads to a meaningful career. RGV Focus is a collective impact initiative spanning the four southmost counties in Texas. Leaders from K-12, colleges/university, community based organizations, workforce organizations, and philanthropy come together regularly to develop and monitor strategies to--through education and employment--transform a 4,300 square mile region, which is 90% Hispanic, with a median household income of $12,500 (half the state average), and a median age of 30 (compared to 34 for Texas and 37 for the US). The population in the RGV is the population traditionally served the least--low income and ethnic minority (though the Hispanic population is now the majority population in Texas public schools).

In its fourth year (from planning to implementation), there could have been factors that interrupted or ended the work. To the contrary, leaders have remained committed--more than 100 people from 40 organizations are engaged. A few things come to mind that are key to sustaining the momentum of RGV Focus (and perhaps other collective impact initiatives).

We have a critical mass of students.

Sixty percent of the RGV’s 400,000 K-12 students are represented by their superintendent at the leadership table; more than 70% are represented in the action groups, and more than 80% have been included in regional strategies. One hundred percent of the RGV’s 70,000 postsecondary students are represented at the leadership table. Critical mass is important because we’ve demonstrated you can collaborate over a four county region; because hundreds of thousands of students are involved in the four county collaborative effort; and because it is a profound transformative effort in the region, leaders want to be part of it. For the superintendents and presidents, RGV Focus provides “top cover” for challenging the system with bold innovation and change, meaning there is more political safety for doing something very different--even daring--because they are working as a group. There is typically safety in the average...in doing what everyone else does. What everyone else does is usually the status quo. In the RGV, though, what everyone else does is systemic transformation.

We have a structure that mitigates leadership turnover and gives new leaders something to plug into.

Leadership changes are expected. The RGV has experienced changes among superintendents, but what we couldn’t have anticipated in 2012 was the dissolution of two legacy state regional universities and the creation of a new state regional university. Another higher education partner, the Harlingen campus of the Texas State Technical College System, also experienced local leadership change as well as a change from being an autonomous campus to becoming part of a singularly accredited statewide system. The backbone staff, though, coordinates an intentional onboarding process for new leaders who join the work. The onboarding includes the RGV Focus history, key decisions and inflection points, a review of the current status, and future plans. Peer leaders often participate in the onboarding to provide a view from a counterpart. We want new members to be able to contribute immediately at their first meeting.

We had several early, but not necessarily easy, wins.

One of the wins involved sweeping changes to high school graduation requirements. The legislation required school districts to work with a higher education partner to develop a course for high school seniors who tested as “not college ready” at the end of their junior year. Students who successfully complete the course are to be placed into credit bearing courses upon enrollment in higher education. The legislation, though, did not define successful completion nor did it require the courses to be portable to higher education institutions beyond the partner that helped develop the course. Texas has approximately 1,200 districts and 1,600 high schools. Theoretically, there could have been that many versions of the college readiness course. Because key decision makers are at the table in the Rio Grande Valley as part of RGV Focus, however, the superintendents and presidents decided there would be one English language arts class and one mathematics class that would be fully portable across the region. The backbone staff worked with the regional education service center, which is a partner in the initiative, to convene regional faculty design teams. The courses were developed and piloted, and high school faculty received professional development to teach the courses and assess students’ work. The same courses are now taught in 33 of the RGV’s 39 school districts, making it possible for students to receive credit for the course regardless of which of the region’s higher ed institutions they attend. This approach wasn’t taken in any other region of the state, but it has now been adopted by the neighboring education service center region meaning the course is fully portable across the larger south Texas area.

A second early win was realized when the first RGV Focus regional scorecard was published. In a region often associated with deficits, we learned that the RGV matched or exceeded the state average on six of nine key education measures we chose to benchmark our progress (e.g., high school graduation rate, FAFSA completion rate, direct enrollment into higher education, higher education completion rates). On our second scorecard, the RGV matched or exceeded on seven of nine measures. We’re not satisfied with meeting the state average, though. At the outset, our backbone staff lead us through a process to establish goals that would transform the region--goals that would take us beyond typical incremental increases.

Collective impact is hard, different work. In light of organizational changes or sweeping state policy changes, it would have been a typical reaction to pull back and focus on members’ “home” organizations. Because of explicit, intentional choices, though, leaders remain engaged, and the work continues. We are focused on all RGV students, and one of our leaders reminds us that all means each, which means 100%. That’s our challenge and commitment.

What do you think?

The field is fortunate to have many varied collective impact initiatives. It would be great to hear from you. What is your experience moving from initiating to sustaining this work? Do you have good examples of what it takes to sustain collective impact?