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Northern Kentucky: Building a Leadership Council
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case study

Northern Kentucky: Building a Leadership Council

March 31, 2011
This story shows how community leaders built an overarching leadership council to coordinate and improve youth services. Those leaders used Ready by 21 Strategies to expand the council’s scope to include organizations and agencies covering the full range of youth supports, and to get them working toward the same goals.
“It’s been a rallying point for a lot of initiatives in the region, to know there is some overarching group that is looking out for the total effort out there. Kind of rallying the troops toward a common goal.”

— Tammy Weidinger, chief operating officer, The Brighton Center

Raising and racing thoroughbreds is Kentucky’s most famous industry, but those trying to improve youth services here used to spend lots of time herding cats. That is, trying to bring together the dizzying array of government, educational, business and civic organizations that provide youth services and supports. To make these critical services more effective, Northern Kentucky needed a strong, uniform and regional approach. Standing in the way was an obstacle common to large geographic areas: a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities, and various definitions of which towns, cities, counties and school districts were included. Who could unify them?

“There’s a lot of discussion around working together, but because of all the districts, cities and counties, it’s difficult.” That’s what one local stakeholder said in 2010 during the Ready by 21 Leadership Capacity Audit, which assesses a community’s leadership capacities through such methods as surveys and interviews. Particularly telling: Asked to rank the importance of building an Overarching Leadership Council (one of the Ready by 21 standards), leaders and service providers gave it a 4.8 out of 5 – and ranked their success at 3.2. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and a group of civic, education and business leaders called Vision 2015, Northern Kentucky followed a framework for action – and today has a robust leadership council that drives changes in how the public and private sectors carry out youth services and supports.

Find a Leader
Like many communities, Northern Kentucky had a number of organizations that, as the audit said, “work together, have logical divisions of labor and complementary strengths, and could be organized to operate under one umbrella.”

What would be that umbrella? While communities typically form new coalitions for such a task, the Forum for Youth Investment suggests another option: When appropriate, expand the role of an existing collaboration that has the respect and connections with major stakeholders to take on the expanded mission.

Fitting that profile was the Northern Kentucky Education Council, a coalition of education, community and business leaders that has been around since the 1990s. In early 2010, the council – rejuvenated through the work of the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, school superintendents and Vision 2015 – embarked on an ambitious new mission to improve the region’s educational services through increased efficiency and collaboration. The council even established the specific jurisdictions that it defines as Northern Kentucky, covering six counties, 33 municipalities and 18 school districts. The council’s mission was in sync with the approach of Ready by 21 – which offered Northern Kentucky a strategy to carry out an even more ambitious plan.

Expand the Mission
“What Ready by 21 did was broaden our scope and expedite our work,” says the council’s executive director, Polly Lusk-Page. She says the Ready by 21 strategies guided the council to expand “beyond the academic day” and follow the “Insulated Pipeline” approach: wrapping coordinated, high-quality family and community supports, as well as basic services such as transportation and health, around the traditional education pipeline.

“It’s given them a roadmap,” says Rick Hulefeld, executive director of Children Inc., an education-focused nonprofit that’s long been involved in efforts to improve services across the region. Hulefeld recalls that as he sat in many collaborative meetings in years past, “I wasn’t always sure what we were getting done.”

Here was the challenge: While the Ready by 21 audit found that the council benefited from “active participation by business” and a “strong network of [school] superintendents,” its focus on education left it bereft of many people and organizations that serve youth and families. “Those systems notably absent … are child welfare, juvenile justice and parks and recreation,” the audit found. “None of the informal settings (family, communities) are represented. Absent also is any representation of young people themselves.” The council moved to add these missing voices.

Grow the Team
To take on its expanded role, the council recruited community stakeholders involved in such areas as health, social services and out-of-school time. That meant more than inviting them to meetings; the council established that its members would come not just from business and education, but also from “civic partners.” It even changed its bylaws to require equal representation from each field on its board.

“We’ve been very intentional about seeking members from each of those sectors,” Lusk-Page says.

Here are some ways that the council has carried out the mission of inclusion:

  • For the first time, the board of directors includes a member of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati (which covers Northern Kentucky) and a district court judge. “We never had anyone from the social service sector on our board,” Lusk-Page says.
  • The council’s six “action teams” also include representatives from business, education and civic groups. Each team focuses on a specific issue, conducts research and recommends priorities and strategies for the council and its members.
  • For example: The action team on Education Accessibility and Lifelong Learning is led by a community college vice president and the head of a public library. The team on Reducing Barriers to Student Learning includes representatives from early childhood development, mental health and dropout prevention — such as the Brighton Center, a nonprofit whose offerings include a homeless youth shelter, literacy services, a food bank and emergency housing.
  • The council works with youth more than ever. It coordinated a regional meeting about drug abuse that drew youths and parents from 35 high schools. Through the council’s work with the Forum, Northern Kentucky was chosen as the first site of the enhanced Gallup Student Poll, which surveyed thousands of youths about their hope, engagement and well-being. The enhanced data will help drive action to improve services and resources.

Move Forward Faster
Building an overarching leadership council has given Northern Kentucky leaders and service providers the foundation to move more quickly with a bolder plan than they once envisioned. “Ready by 21 has really been a mechanism for us, and offered us tools that we didn’t have before,” Lusk-Page says. “We might have gotten to some of these things, but I don’t think it would have been in the same time frame and with the level of expertise.” Boosting the council’s role, one community leader said, “was a great effort in a big way to eliminate duplication and focus on the main issues” – improving specific outcomes for youth in measureable ways.