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Grand Leadership: Mayor Puts Youth First with a Ready by 21 Theme

Collective impact becomes a priority

“All children should be ready for college, work and life.” Sound familiar? It does now to the citizens of Grand Rapids, Mich., after Mayor George Heartwell used his State of the City address last month to turn that message into a communitywide mission.
Information Update
February 9, 2012

For leaders everywhere working to improve the quality of child and youth supports, an event like this marks a breakthrough in building public demand. “It’s huge when you have a mayor that uses his bully pulpit to really speak out about the needs of our children,” says Lynn D. Heemstra, executive director of Our Community’s Children, a public/private partnership that, among other things, oversees the Ready by 21 initiative there. “It’s nothing short of amazing.”

Add to that a new grant from the Wallace Foundation to improve the quality of out-of-school time (OST) programs, and you see a city that’s accelerating its movement to fundamentally change how it serves children and youth.

Ready for Change
Heartwell, starting his third four-year term, has long supported efforts to improve youth service quality. Nevertheless, his Jan. 28 speech vented a frustration shared by leaders in communities and states around the country:
“There is a body of innovation and creativity focused on outcomes for children that exceeds anything else I have ever seen. … In spite of all that work and all that creativity, many of the key measures of child well-being are declining. Declining! Rapidly declining!”

Heartwell promoted the concept of “collective impact,” saying that “too little of [the city’s youth work] is connected or aligned in ways that can drive sustainable change. …  Too many of us are investing our lives in work that is meaningful but cannot succeed because it is tied to the wrong alignment of systems.”

His prescriptions touched on key strategies of Ready by 21 and collective impact: strengthening partnerships, aligning resources, using the best information about what works, building on a master plan, and engaging youth and families (through, for example, a series of structured community conversations about young people).

The speech (which you can read here or watch here) was music to the ears of local leaders who have been trying to implement those strategies through the Ready by 21 Quality Counts initiative. As part of that work, the Forum and the National League of cities helped Our Community’s Children create The Grand Rapids Youth Master Plan in 2010 – which, three days after the mayor’s speech, got a boost from a major funder.

Improving Quality
On Feb. 1 the Wallace Foundation announced a $765,000 grant to the city, through Our Community’s Children, to strengthen its efforts to provide “high-quality after-school programs to produce better outcomes.” The Foundation said those efforts will include “more formally knitting together government, schools, nonprofit youth programs, United Way, and other institutions.”

Heemstra said the grant will be used to implement portions of the Youth Master Plan, such as aligning providers along quality standards and indicators, training staff and employing “a reliable database system so that we can look at how well we’re doing.”

Our Community’s Children plays the key role for the grant, as it did with Ready by 21, as an intermediary of government, school and community organizations. “With the help of our national leaders like the Forum, the National League of Cities and Wallace,” Heemstra says, “we’re able to move the needle.”