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Evaluating Integration in Elev8

Elev8 is a program designed to transform the educational achievement and life outcomes of disadvantaged middle-school students in five Chicago schools. Key components of this comprehensive approach include an extended school day with afternoon, weekend and summer programs; an on-site adolescent-focused health center in each school; social supports, including public benefits screening for families; and engagement of parent and community leaders.

To accomplish these goals, the Elev8 program requires coordination between many stakeholders, including the principal, teachers, parents, representatives from local nonprofits, an Elev8 director and others. This paper is excerpted from an annual evaluation of the implementation of the Elev8 initiative by researchers from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. It describes the factors that supported or limited successful integration of Elev8 programs, goals and personnel. It also provides a model that conceptualizes integration as a problem-solving process rather than as a specific set of quantifiable indicators.

The Elev8 initiative is a model initiative of integrated services in schools being implemented in four locations throughout the United States: Chicago, Oakland, Baltimore and multiple sites in the state of New Mexico. The intent of the funder, Atlantic Philanthropies, is for Elev8 to bring together “schools, nonprofits, philanthropy, parents and members of the community to ensure that students have the resources they need to succeed in school and in life.” The initiative is “designed to improve the educational, social and economic outcomes for middle school students and their families.”

In Chicago, the Elev8 effort has been underway in five schools in five different neighborhoods with five different lead agencies, each a partner in the LISC/Chicago New Communities Program (LISC serves as the program administrator and a resource for Elev8). All Elev8 sites share four common “pillars” of activity.

  • Academic Day/Extended Day: Learning time in schools is extended through after-school, Saturday and summer programs.
  • Health Care: Preventive, youth friendly and confidential health care is provided on-site and prioritized for middle-school students, and those health services are embedded in broader programming that covers nutrition, fitness, prevention and reproductive education.
  • Family Economic and Social Supports: Improved access to public benefits and social supports are made available to parents of middle school students to help provide a stable base for their children, as well as behavioral health services and mentoring for students.
  • Student, Parent and Community Engagement: Parents, community members, local organizations, school faculty and students are sought as integral participants in planning, implementing and monitoring the transformation of the school; the program also works to build their capacity as leaders and organizers for community development and replication of the model in other schools.

The Elev8 initiative is intended, most centrally, to be a model of integrated services that multiplies the effects of its four individual pillars in order to improve student and family outcomes. Extended day activities are to be integrated with those in the academic day, for instance, and health services are to be embedded in a larger effort to educate students about such things as nutrition, fitness and reproductive health. By working in concert, the hope is that programs in each pillar can be more effective, reinforce goals and messages, and provide better services to students.

When fully operational, an Elev8 program includes teachers, medical providers, representatives from organizations that provide extended day programs, data analysts, parent organizers and others. These stakeholders come from a variety of organizations that each have their own mission, culture and goals.

The Elev8 director at each site is hired by the lead agency and supervised and advised by staff there. As part of his or her duties, each site director is responsible for supervising one or more staff members. For example, at one site, the site director supervises the program manager (who oversees afterschool programming), the parent coordinator, the Chicago Health Corps worker, a Public Allies member and a data analyst hired to input participation data.

An effective Elev8 director must be able to reconcile the priorities of the lead agency, the Elev8 model and the interests of other Elev8 partners. Among stakeholders who offered an opinion, the site director position was consistently acknowledged as very difficult. In addition to negotiating an effective role within the school that serves as the primary host for Elev8 activities, the Elev8 director is also expected to work effectively with a range of other partners with widely divergent expertise, practices and priorities. Furthermore, because site directors often do not have direct supervisory roles over partners, they must often find other ways to lead.

The principal of the school also plays a key role in the initiative, whether or not he or she is actively involved in its day-to-day governance. In particular, the principal influences the extent to which external partners are integrated into the school. For instance, as the ultimate authority with respect to activities that occur within the school, the principal’s duty includes ensuring the security of students, a concern that can compete with efforts to welcome and meaningfully integrate parents and external partners into the school.

Evaluating Integration within the Elev8 Program

At the beginning of Elev8 implementation, relatively little was specified about how the pillars might best be integrated amongst themselves and into the school. The governance of all Elev8 activities is expected to be conducted by a broad range of stakeholders, but the Elev8 model did not include specific guidance about what should be integrated or how activities could be integrated most effectively. Elev8 implementation during its earliest phase was understood as an opportunity to identify, in large part through thoughtful trial and error, what integration looked like and how it might work.

During the summer leading into the 2009-2010 year reviewed in this report, there was a deliberate transition at community sites toward relabeling the core of the work as “integration” and some effort to bring greater definition to this idea. At the request of the funder, a supportive consultant to Elev8 (Public/Private Ventures) created an integration rubric, a set of 63 indicators to suggest boundaries for what should be considered integration, grouped in five categories: 1) management and governance, 2) programs and services, 3) family and community engagement/involvement, 4) evaluation and 5) sustainability.

The sites that tried to use this document to begin productive discussions about integration, however, had limited success. From our perspective, the rubric succeeds as a detailed description of what integration looks like—for example, providing cross-agency professional development for providers. However, it does not (and couldn’t be expected to) link these measures to the specific priorities or problems that Elev8 partners were trying to solve. If a site did not have a compelling reason to do cross-agency professional development, it didn’t make sense to prioritize such activities simply because they were listed as a measurement of integration.

Without a common vision of integration based in its value for the program’s success and linked to challenges and opportunities in their day-to-day work, site partners continued to navigate with a diffuse and expansive vision of integration, including cross-agency professional development, co-location of services, services referrals, joint meetings, information sharing, referrals and the increased presence of partners. In some instances, the partners focused their efforts on integrating services for an individual student.

The direction of integration often moved toward the schools. The general trend was that the school set hard requirements and others were expected to change practices in order to integrate themselves to the interests of the school. And so much of the work of intentional integration in the past year involved non-school partners trying to adjust to and accommodate school practices. Some partners were not able to do this and left the partnership. And in some instances, non-school partners resisted letting the school set the standard against which to conform.

An Alternative View of Integration

In one site in particular, a dramatic increase in integration did happen when the orientation of the integration meeting moved away from listing integration benchmarks or exhorting partners to work together and toward trying to solve existing pressing problems. In short, integration became more likely when it was not seen as an end unto itself but when it was seen by program participants as a necessary and powerful means to resolve a crisis.

Naturally, waiting for a crisis is not strategically advisable. However, using integration as a problem-solving tool is not limited to a crisis moment. The underlying dynamics we observed when integration was woven into reacting to a dire situation can be harnessed to ensure that Elev8 (and similar) programs reap the benefits of integration.

The three smaller triangles at the corners of Figure 1 identify some of the actual tensions initially observed in one site as implementation and integration were attempted in practice. “Integration” can be understood as the glue that can bind together these otherwise disparate parts of the Elev8 initiative.

At the top of the pyramid is a triangle labeled “Elev8 ideas.” Elev8 has several “big picture” ideas, including social justice, community engagement, parent empowerment and integration itself. Elev8 encourages participants to think expansively about reform and change, at times in an idealized way. In addition to these larger ideas, Elev8 also encourages local sites to learn from other sites in the national Elev8 network and consider transplanting or adapting programs, and to identify new ideas and programs.

The lower left triangle, labeled “Partner capacity, rules, standard procedures, priorities” is more mundane. Operating in the “real world,” the Elev8 program is made up of partners that have—as a few specific examples—their own:

  • Publicly explicit and less-known implicit priorities for their organization
  • Capacity and expertise in some areas, but not others
  • Rules that restrict what they can do, whether the health center, the school or any partner
  • Ways of planning, making decisions, allocating resources and conducting assessment

These real-world limitations, structures and constraints affect both what any of the partners can do and how quickly they can act.

The lower right triangle, labeled “Specific Elev8 performance measures” refers to the metrics that all the stakeholders ?in the program are cognizant of and often being held accountable for. For Elev8, this includes the number of students with updated immunization forms and physicals, the number of consent forms signed for the P/PV ETO database and the number of students participating in extended day programs or coming to the health center. These measures stand apart from but are connected to both the idealized version of what is possible under Elev8 and the day-to-day realities of the partner capacity, rules, standard procedures and priorities.

Figure 1: Integration as a tool for reconciling key tensions within the Elev8 project

Integration is represented in this diagram as the space in the middle of each of these three key aspects of Elev8. In this conceptualization, integration is how these distinct areas can be related to each other, rather than merely exist as separate and competing. This diagram suggests that effective integration may be most likely to occur when these divergent aspects of Elev8 can be acknowledged in a matter-of-fact way and connected with appropriate structures and supporting processes. New ideas are important, for instance, but in Elev8 partnerships they typically require shared understanding, patience, planning, time and hard work to implement. Partners that emphasize one aspect of Elev8 without acknowledging the others risk lower levels of integration and less productive work for the project overall.

Integration practices may be supported by formal structures (e.g., shared meeting times, shared planning, established opportunities for social interactions among partners) and processes (e.g., leadership styles, interpersonal skills). In Elev8 partnerships, the site director occupies the key integrating role, but that rarely means having directive leadership authority. Instead, the site director must often rely upon forms of shared leadership to make progress on Elev8’s goals. Furthermore, other stakeholders such as the school principal and the nurse practitioner are paid and evaluated on running the school and the health center, respectively, not on how well integration works. The director must be able to show the long-term benefits of integration.

Consider, for example, the challenges of reconciling new ideas with the concrete realities of constituent partner organizations. Several partners commented on this tension and frustrations when partners felt that another partner—often a school—didn’t seem to understand the Elev8 ideas or resisted them. Conversely, one critique of Elev8 staff seeking to implement new ideas was that they weren’t always thoughtful enough about the actual resources, capacity, and existing responsibilities and priorities of the partners being asked to put these ideas into practice.

Integration is not only helpful in reconciling tensions among these three corners of the pyramid, but within them as well. The triangle labeled “partner capacity and procedures” represents the capacities of individual partners, and these can be understood in relation to each other; integration is also important among partners. Similarly, the “Elev8 ideas” inspiring Elev8 may not all be compatible and may themselves need to be integrated. The idea of collaboration and cooperation among partners and the idea of advocating for schools to change how they work with parents and students, for example, may be competing ideas that require reconciliation.

Using this model as a framework for understanding how integration happens means understanding that, for example, integration is not any one partner claiming that big ideas are what matter, exclusively, and should be pushed forward quickly. At the same time, integration is not partners defending inaction by referring to a set way of doing things, and claiming inoculation against the ideas that inspire Elev8. Integration is acknowledging that ideas, established procedures and measures of success are all legitimate aspects of Elev8, and that they must be reconciled in intentional ways.

Stephen Baker is a researcher at Chapin Hall. His work concentrates on community-based and systemic service responses in areas as diverse as child abuse and neglect, youth education and youth development. His most recent work has focused on youth and community development centered at schools and systemic quality improvement systems for afterschool programs.

Lauren Rich is a senior researcher at Chapin Hall. Her primary interest is in conducting mixed-methods research that will contribute to improving the life chances of children living in poverty, particularly through the realm of education. In addition to the Elev8 study, she is currently working on a longitudinal study of patterns of service utilization among low-income families and examining the relationship of service use to family functioning, child development and school readiness.

 

 

Posted in Journal Volume 2, Number 1 -- July, 2011, Evaluating, Education & Early Learning

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