United Way aims to spur ‘collective impact’

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Children with economic disadvantages graduate from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at a much lower rate than other children.

With children overall spending only 20 percent of their time in school, United Way of Central Carolinas sees the time that at-risk, low-performing children spend outside the classroom as a great opportunity to work with them in ways designed to increase the chances they will graduate.

As part of a larger “collective impact” strategy it has undertaken to bring together community partners to address urgent health-and-human-service needs, United Way is teaming with 15 of its partner agencies to help at-risk kids perform better in school.

Central to that effort, which is supported by a $200,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation, will be a system to share data on the children’s academic performance, using those metrics to better understand the role the 15 agencies’ programs play in the children’s progress.

“We need a collective data system to show we’re having impact,” says Dennis Marstall, vice president of community investment and impact at United Way. “And then we need a collective reporting system to demonstrate how we’re having the impact.”

Those 15 agencies serve nearly 32,000 children in Mecklenburg County, with 84 percent of them living in households with annual income below $25,000.

United Way also is partnering on the data-sharing project with the Institute for Social Capital, an arm of the Urban Institute at UNC-Charlotte, which will work with the agencies and United Way do a better job collecting and analyzing data from the school system and other government agencies on students served by the 15 partner agencies.

Another partner, the Larry King Center at the Council for Children’s Rights, is helping to coordinate the work of the participating agencies and help them develop metrics to help predict whether students will drop out.

The project also will track student performance against “benchmark” goals.

A goal for pre-school children, for example, is to be ready to enter kindergarten, while a goal for students is to read at grade level by third, fifth and eighth grade.

The idea is to create a “pipeline” of progress from birth to age 18, and “create early success that builds on success,” says Jerri Haigler, vice president of education, engagement and communications at United Way.

In the past, she says, the 15 participating United Way agencies have lacked access to comprehensive data and analysis needed to help show the full impact of their programs on the school performance of the children they serve.

The date-sharing project will change that, says Jane McIntyre, executive director at United Way.

“All the programs do good work, but we don’t know how good and they don’t know how good unless they can really measure the results they’re getting with children,” she says.

By giving all partners access to all the data, she says, individual agencies can see what is working and what can be improved so they can begin to make changes.

Volunteers also will be key to the initiative, Haigler says.

United Way has launched a drive to recruit, place and train 1,000 mentors, tutors and readers to work with children at the 15 partner agencies.

While it will begin in Mecklenburg County, tracking results over 10 years, United Way plans to expand the data-sharing project throughout the five-county region it serves.

United Way also plans to launch collaboratie initiatives to address the issues of housing and homelessness, and health care, the two other priority needs that are the focus of its new overarching strategy of raising awareness and making a bigger impact on the region’s priority needs.

By sharpening its focus and trying to have a greater impact, McIntyre says, United Way can “make a greater difference with the dollars” it raises in the community.

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