Eastside Pathways tackles education reform in Bellevue

With a focus on data and a commitment to collectivism, the Bellevue nonprofit is mobilizing the city to "support every child, step by step, from cradle to career.”
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Eastside Pathways engineered a successful campaign to boost third-grade reading levels.

With a focus on data and a commitment to collectivism, the Bellevue nonprofit is mobilizing the city to "support every child, step by step, from cradle to career.”

When the late Bill Henningsgaard saw a presentation about student demographics in his city, one number lodged in his head: 70 percent of the students at Lake Hills Elementary in south Bellevue qualified for free or reduced lunch in the 2011 to 2012 school year. Henningsgaard, a former Microsoft executive, was always one to spot the potential in a situation or a person. He set out to lower that number.

The idea of needy students seems incongruous in a place like Bellevue, home to glass skyscrapers and Louis Vuitton storefronts, tech giants like T-Mobile and high schools that rank among the top 160 in the nation for college prep. But says Stephanie Cherrington, executive director of Eastside Pathways, “Bellevue is a community of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.”

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That extreme dichotomy is what struck — and drove — Bill Henningsgaard (above). “He was shocked he lived in this community for so long and didn’t know about it,” says Cherrington. “If a community like Bellevue, with its resources and potential and power can’t close this gap, what chance do other communities have?”

In 2011, Henningsgaard founded the not-for-profit Eastside Pathways (EP), which “mobilizes the community to support every child, step by step, from cradle to career.” EP connects the resources of different organizations and programs to advance kids’ educational experience. Henningsgaard rooted his organization in a philosophy of collective impact; the idea that social change, to be effective, requires coordinating across sectors; that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Henningsgaard also put an emphasis on data-driven decision-making.

As the “backbone” for more than 45 Bellevue-based community organizations and nonprofits, EP works to fill gaps by helping the city’s various service providers find synergies among their seemingly different missions and programs. Its partners range from the Bellevue School District and YMCA to business leaders, politicians, mental health counselors and students. “It’s finding a shared vision,” says Bellevue Family YMCA executive director Paul Lwali, who has first hand experience with the benefits of that approach.

The Bellevue YMCA is just down the street from the Highland Community Center in downtown Bellevue. The Center, run by the City of Bellevue, is one of the few Eastside facilities with equipment and programming for people with disabilities. What began as a series of coffee dates between the Lwali and Dan Lassiter, Highland Community Center’s services supervisor, grew into an unexpected resource share. Lwali has opened the YMCA pool for the Community Center’s use and last summer, the two organizations co-hosted a movie night that brought out 500 youngsters and their families. 

“We thought, I’m running my little program and you’re running your little program,” says Lwali. “How about we do one big program that caters to more people.”

EP’s “cradle to career” success is a lofty goal — and a moving target. This is where the group’s focus on data and measurement helps. The empirical bent reflects the business mindset and boardroom experience of some of EP’s founding members. Roxanne Shepherd, executive director of the Bellevue Schools Foundation — and one of those founding members — says the Pathway’s key to success is deciding how best to measure its progress and then revising its strategies and goals around that report card. 

Pathways’ members started by identifying 70 indicators of progress, including the percentage of kids who read at grade level and the number of students on the subsidized lunch program. In the 2011-12 school year, reading proficiency among Bellevue’s third graders sat at just 83.1 percent. So Henningsgaard and his colleagues decided to focus first on what they saw as a key predictor of future success.

They set a goal for themselves: 100 percent grade-level proficiency for third graders by 2016. Rather than trying to reform the educational system, or even find additional sources of revenue for literacy training, Eastside Pathways looked for the opportunity inherent in its community.

Henningsgaard recognized that the common altruism of EP’s 40-plus members made them natural partners in philanthropy and that there was strength in that collaboration. Shepherd points to the success of this collective impact approach in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, where a nonprofit called Strive rallied more than 300 leaders of local organizations around the student achievement crisis.

Thirty-four of Strive’s 53 success indicators — things like high school graduation rates, fourth grade reading and math scores and the number of preschool students prepared for kindergarten — trended upward over four years, even as budget cuts and a recession battered school districts across the country.

Research shows that one in six children who aren’t reading proficiently by third grade won’t graduate from high school on time. Reading levels also reveal discouraging disparities between racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Nationally, 55 percent of white fourth graders read below proficiency last year, compared to 83 percent of black students.

If you unpack that 83 percent number, says Shepherd, there are many contributing factors. The first step to understanding them is recognizing the changing face of Bellevue.

Eighty-four different languages are spoken in the Bellevue school district, and one out of three residents is foreign born. In some cases, families don’t see the value of early childhood education. In others, cultural differences lead to disparate views about tardiness or the value of parental participation. Homeless families face a whole different set of challenges when it comes to schooling their kids.

Crosscut archive image.“It’s like a Jenga game,” says Shepherd (at left) about identifying each child’s needs. “You’re always looking for that one piece that will cause everything else to fall into place ... to enable somebody to find their best self.”

EP developed three areas of focus for its reading proficiency initiative: school readiness, attendance rates and summer and extended learning.

Last year, the Bellevue School District identified 250 students who could benefit from but otherwise didn’t qualify for summer school. Pathways coordinated meals and transportation for the families, then divided them between programs at the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA’s existing Reading Rangers curriculum. 

Members also distributed postcards in seven different languages at food banks and summer programs that read: “Right place. Right time. Ready to learn.” By papering service organizations with their tardiness campaign, they hoped to fight the chronic absence and lateness that can hurt academic performance.

When Eastside Pathways combined the recreational programming and 160 years-plus of community outreach experience of organizations like the YMCA with the knowledge and data of the Bellevue School District, it began to tap families previously left out of the social service loop. “Instead of trying these random acts of kindness, we wanted to make sure our investments in nonprofits [were] really helping,” says Shepherd. “We believe the culture and the nature of this community effort ... could make a bigger difference together.”

Eastside Pathways has only been at it for three years, but it has already seen notable successes. In just one school year, for example, third grade reading levels jumped from 83 percent (2011-2012) to 85.6 percent (2012-2013) in the Bellevue School District.

In August 2013, Bill Henningsgaard died in a plane crash. His generosity and ability to strike a balance between business smarts and compassion still animate the mission and ethos of the organization he created. His fellow Pathways founders recognize that their organization will have to evolve if it wants to maintain its own good report card. They were a small and plucky team starting out, says Shepherd. But to succeed, they will need to shift from the mindset many nonprofits adopt in their early stages — that hard work and dedication will make up for any shortcomings — and begin assigning goals and accountability.

“When we look at the report card and all those factors we believe are essential for a person to have a successful life, somebody has to own it,” says Shepherd. “Is that the person at [Youth Eastside Services]? Alright, meet the third Thursday of every month. That can’t be [accomplished] by the backbone staff.”

Eastside Pathways is still a ways from this milestone. But Shepherd and her colleagues believe that if any place is capable of building the necessary infrastructure of support, it is Bellevue.

“Show the country,” urged Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in the Eastside Pathways 2013 Summary Report. “Show us all — that Bellevue can and should lead the way.”

Photos courtesy of Eastside Pathways.


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