Regional innovations – Sonoma: How a region can rally around closing the achievement gap

150 150 Justin Ewers

(Photo Credit: Franco Folini)

For Oscar Chavez, it was a moment of clarity. When regional leaders in Sonoma gathered in 2007 to develop a 10-year economic strategy for the county, they found an unlikely obstacle standing in the way of the region’s economic growth. Nearly one in two Latino students in the county—one of the fastest-growing segments of Sonoma’s population and the foundation of the region’s future workforce—don’t graduate from high school.

“We don’t always like to acknowledge this in Sonoma, this beautiful place where people come to play and go on vacation,” says Chavez, executive director of Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit devoted to helping low-income families overcome poverty, health problems, and the many other issues that so often result from dropping out of school. “But to solve this problem, we really needed to peel back the veneer and say, ‘We’re great, but we have to do better for the people of our county.’”

To their credit, says Chavez, this is exactly what many other county leaders concluded, as well—and Sonoma made closing the achievement gap a top regional priority in its 2009 Strategic Economic Plan. It also made the economic case quite clearly, showing closing the achievement gap would result in nearly $800 million of increased economic output in the next ten years, thousands of jobs, and $53 million in new revenue. “The fact is, people here have bought into the idea that the most significant thing we can do to improve our workforce and attract more businesses is to close this gap,” says Chavez.

Sonoma first steps toward achieving this goal—through a new initiative called Cradle to Career—are featured in a recent Stewardship Network report. The report highlights how a historic partnership has come together in Sonoma to take on the task of aligning all segments of the county’s educational continuum—from early childhood programs to college-preparation and workforce training—in an effort to improve outcomes for Sonoma County youth.

Together with groups like Community Action Partnership, the California Economic Summit is working to scale up similarly innovative regional efforts, joining with dozens of regional organizations across the state to pursue a shared agenda that will create jobs, keep California competitive, and help regions like Sonoma rebuild their workforce pipeline.

Moving the needle

“Observing the dynamics here have really led me to believe that while the issues we face are difficult, we can move the needle in a very significant way,” says Chavez. “Even the board of supervisors is unique: They’re not afraid to venture into areas where traditional government hasn’t ventured, and there is a genuine spirit of engagement and collaboration here that has a lot of community support.”

Perhaps what’s most unique about Sonoma’s approach is just that—the level of collaboration and leadership provided by the county government. While the Cradle to Career initiative has brought together stakeholders from school officials and nonprofits to industry and health advocates, the effort is managed by a county department—the Department of Health Services—which serves as the initiative’s “backbone,” says Chavez.

“The county department heads have been really visionary about how to address problems,” he says. The health department has its own goal of trying to make Sonoma the healthiest county in California by 2020—a task county leaders realized could only be accomplished by dramatically improving the region’s educational outcomes and income levels, the two key determinants of health and well-being.

“Economic policy is health policy and education policy is economic policy—they’re all interrelated,” says Chavez. “The interplay of those problems is what we need to be focused on, and we’ve all bought into this notion that if we really want to get serious about education in our community, we have to disrupt these systems that are no longer working for young people.”

So where to begin? While Sonoma County may manage the effort, Cradle to Career is built on the premise that complex social issues can’t be solved only by one organization or one sector. This fall, the initiative’s growing list of partners agreed on a detailed set of goals to ensure youth in the county are provided they support they need “across the educational continuum,” as Chavez puts it.

What the continuum looks like

The CSN report details the initiative’s approach, outlining the goals it has set for itself as well as its first implementation steps:                             

Every child enters kindergarten ready to succeed – Cradle to Career aims to connect young children with health services and provide caregivers with the support they need to create positive learning environments for their children, particularly in low-income communities.

Every child succeeds academically– By supporting more relevant and engaging learning opportunities, giving students additional support during key transitions, and developing a mechanism to collect and share common data to help at-risk students, the Cradle to Career Initiative is helping all Sonoma Youth succeed academically.

Every child is supported in and out of school– By aligning and integrating support services with schools, students can access programs that help prepare them for successful transitions to adulthood, while families can also access the resources and support services they need.

Every young adult is prepared to achieve life and career goals – Cradle to Career aims to connect employers with school systems to better align curriculum with real-world opportunities.

Every young adult thrives and becomes a contributing member of the community – Creating pathways for young people to get involved with civic life and to develop leadership skills helps to ensure that young adults are contributing, civically-engaged members of the community.

Cradle to Career is now rolling out a series of “launch actions” in different parts of the Sonoma region, with Chavez’s group focusing on the part of the county with the greatest educational disparities—Southwest Santa Rosa. With the support of the County Office of Education, Community Action Partnership is partnering with the Santa Rosa School District to take the first step toward making Cradle to Career a reality by transforming a low-performing middle school into a full-service community school.

“We’ve set out to really illustrate the whole Cradle to Career movement in one segment of our community,” says Chavez. On one school campus, his group plans to build preschool facilities for more than 200 children, a large family resources center for students and their parents, and a career and technical education programs for those seeking work. The group announced in March that it has received its first $1.4 million grant.

“We’re aiming to realize the whole continuum,” says Chavez. “Cradle to Career may be a recent phenomenon, but what’s exciting is how fast it’s been embraced by our community and how fast we’ve been able to bring people together.”

The work ahead may be challenging, but together, Sonoma leaders are preparing to take it on.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers