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An Evaluation Partnership to Foster College Access and Success

The Postsecondary Success Collaborative (PSC), funded by the Citi Foundation, and conceived of and managed by FHI 360, began in 2008 as a five-year, place-based effort to increase postsecondary access and success, particularly for underserved students of color in high need communities. The initiative focused on 10 pilot public high schools in Miami-Dade County, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.  Over the course of the initiative, PSC reached more than 12,000 students, with a 12% overall increase in college enrollment. In five of the schools with strong implementation of core program strategies, there was a 26% increase in enrollment for all students, and a 39% increase for African American and Latino students.  Each of these districts has continued, and in some cases expanded, key pieces of the work through commitments from local funders (some from the pool that helped provide the required match) and from other partners (including the district and higher education institutions).

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Postsecondary attainment is a complicated issue, requiring a multi-pronged approach that engages key stakeholders from many sectors, including the school district, higher education institutions, and community organizations. The lead local intermediaries were local education funds (LEFs) –The Education Fund in Miami-Dade County, Philadelphia Education Fund, and San Francisco Education Fund. Each LEF organized representatives of these sectors into multi-level partnerships designed to strengthen shared accountability for results and sustainability in each community. This proverbial “table” was composed of many constituencies, and the diversity of partners, along with their genuine buy-in and commitment, was critical to success.

In any place-based community partnership of this nature, the work is fluid, and each phase – planning, implementation, program refinement, institutionalization, and sustainability – should build off the other. This is only possible by using data to assess progress, inform improvements (often in real time), gauge success at each stage, and set priorities for moving forward.

Over the course of the first five years of PSC, the LEFs, their community partners, and the pilot schools regularly sought guidance on the most effective approaches to analyzing and interpreting data. Our evaluation partner, the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning, helped the partnerships focus on important indicators informed by the local context, and produced annually for each site two invaluable resources:

  • A snapshot quantitative data report on graduation, college enrollment, and persistence rates of the district, pilot PSC schools, and a set of comparison schools
  • A feedback report based on data gleaned from in-depth interviews with key stakeholders in each community

This mixed-method evaluation deepened the partnerships’ understanding of progress outcomes. It also gave the LEFs and partners strong examples of effective ways to present data, which FHI 360 built upon by emphasizing how to share the data to help shape necessary program changes and priorities.

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The OMG evaluation also demonstrated the value of data in assessing the impact of the PSC in each community, and across the initiative as a whole – producing a dynamic cycle of learning. Working closely with FHI 360 and the partnerships, OMG sought to address PSC’s impact on:

  • Students – by tracking college enrollment and retention patterns in the pilot schools
  • Pilot schools – by documenting changes that occurred in the schools
  • LEFs – by documenting changes in the way LEFs did their work
  • Partners – by documenting  changes in the way partners worked as distinct organizations and collaborators
  • Field – by identifying lessons from PSC for the larger field

In addition, OMG’s evaluation was essential to forging a productive and accountable dynamic with the project’s national team, composed of Citi Foundation, FHI 360, and the former Public Education Network. Through collaborative work, such as co-developing cross-site learning communities and national presentations, the data and thought-partnership provided by OMG contributed to the climate of trust, and enabled the team to identify and address implementation issues as they arose and share lessons learned with the broader field.

The premise behind the PSC was simple. Every young person should have the opportunity to attend college, or pursue a career of their choice.  Furthermore, every young person should have access to an academic experience – including a rigorous college and career-ready curriculum, and a clear and supported pathway to pursuing postsecondary options. Clearly, OMG’s role as an evaluation and thought-partner placed the PSC in a better position to understand what it would take to shift the culture of schools, districts, higher education institutions, and non-profit organizations in the three communities, so that students could realize their postsecondary goals.

Author: Rochelle Nichols-Solomon

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