READ! by 4th is a collaborative effort of 50 different organizations, both private and public, that aims to dramatically increase the number of Philadelphia students entering the fourth grade at reading level by the year 2020.
In this world of coalition building, and at a time when moving agendas through coalition is so important, I think I've evolved in my approach.
In the beginning, when you're bringing people together, I think you can sometimes become torn between feeling the need to share everything with everyone in the group so they have a shared understanding of the issues and a shared vision, but also having to manage the fact that when you do this, you risk putting some of your partners in a precarious position—simply because as you continue discussions you can sometimes out some of their issues
For instance, when we first began our work, it was at a time when high school graduation rates across the country were being measured in a way that really masked the issue. The process was looking only at the number of students who were dropping out in a given year, which was a very small number—maybe 7 percent. But if you shifted the measurement to one looking at how many students who started in ninth grade were finishing the 12th grade on time, you found that the grad rates were actually significantly lower.
When we first made that change in Philly, the reality was that only about 50 percent of our students were graduating on time, and that really changed what people were thinking about the school district and what kind of success or lack of success they were having. We had to get everyone this information, but at the same time, early on I think I made the mistake of putting the people from the district in a difficult position. They may have been feeling attacked, and yet we were asking them to be an active player in our effort.
I like to describe my job by saying that I'm both the playwright and the director.
Over time I think I've been able to put processes into place—things that I think about before every single one of our meetings. I work to make sure that, for every organization sitting around the table, I know their particular agenda in a very intimate way, which allows me to at times either lift them up or protect them in sometimes difficult settings. When I'm putting together an agenda for a meeting, I think through who's going to be in the room and how they're going to react. It's not about making everyone happy, though. It's about helping them thrive in a space that can sometimes be a little bit difficult.
This discomfort has to be there. We have to have these discussions. But we also need to be sensitive, because we can't afford to have partners leave the collaborative. When you can get these issues out on the table and nobody is upset, it relieves the tension and you can then move forward.
It does involve a lot of work ahead of time. Sometimes I like to describe my job by saying that I'm both the playwright and the director. I know how I want our play to end, with our children succeeding, and I also know the key actors and the roles I need all of them to play and how I need to direct them to get comfortable playing in those roles. I have to help them play together with respect to the play, but also need to be flexible enough to change course and rewrite the script as things change.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Bogoni.