Monday June 18, 2012

PITTSFIELD

Communities from California to Massachusetts challenged by a wide range of complex issues -- education, environment, health, and others -- have demonstrated success through a methodology known as collective impact. At Berkshire United Way, we've embraced this approach because we believe that in today's environment, we can only achieve significant, sustainable improvements when we unlock the strengths of the entire community, rather than counting on a small number of individuals and non-profits to shoulder the burden.

Collective impact involves collaboration among community and business leaders. What makes it unique is a common agenda, shared measures, activities among groups that are coordinated and reinforce one another, continuous communication, and a centralized structure. Sound complicated? Not really, and in reality we've already been doing it.

The Pittsfield Prevention Partnership (PPP) is as an excellent example. The PPP is a county-wide collaborative effort that was formed in 2004 in response to a community-wide survey that identified youth alcohol and substance abuse as a common factor contributing to crime, violence, academic failures, increased unemployment, and poverty.

The PPP today includes mem bers from Berkshire Unit ed Way, the mayor's office, Pittsfield Public Schools, Berk shire Health Systems, the Pittsfield Police Department, the Berkshire County district attorney's office, the sheriff's department, the Brien Center, local media, the faith-based community, and youth-serving agencies.


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From 2006 to 2011 the PPP exceeded its goals of reducing 30-day substance use among 8th graders by 10 percent and actually worked with the community to decrease use of alcohol by 45 percent, cigarettes by 57 percent and marijuana by 34 percent. How did it do this? By using its collaborative structure to focus on shared goals and aligned activities. This year it reaffirmed the same goals and plans to build on previous gains by cutting usage another 10 percent by 2017.

Pittsfield Promise is another example. A city-wide coalition of 31 organizations, Pittsfield Promise's goal is to increase reading proficiency among third-graders from 60 percent to 90 percent by 2020. Improv ing reading proficiency is critical because research shows 74 percent of children who struggle with reading in third grade will continue to struggle in school.

Third graders who fail to read proficiently are less likely to attend school every day, more likely to fall behind their proficient classmates during the summer, and are six times more likely to fail to graduate from high school. High school dropouts limit their options and greatly reduce their chances to contribute to society. If students who dropped out of the class of 2007 had graduated successfully, the nation's economy would have benefited from an additional $329 billion in income over their lifetimes.

Launched in 2012, Pittsfield Promise has already gained momentum through its recognition as a finalist (32 among over 100 applicants) for "All-America City" status. An initiative sponsored by the National Civic League, the National League of Cities, and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the "All-America City" competition provides ac cess to a best-practices clearinghouse, an online help desk, peer-learning opportunities, meetings with national experts and policymakers, and a foundation registry to expand and replicate successful programs. Beyond the contest, Pittsfield's participation makes the city a charter member in a national movement of local leaders, nonprofits, and foundations putting a stake in the ground on third-grade reading.

Teen pregnancy represents one more example. From 1996 to 2009, the state teen birth rate declined 31 percent while the Berkshire County rate increased 18 percent. In Pitts field, the teen birth rate in creased 41 percent in the same time period. The data show teenage pregnancy and births carry high costs in terms of the social and economic health of teens, their children and the community.

Fully launched in 2011, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative comprises more than 30 community-based organizations, businesses, health providers, educators and concerned citizens who, with the help of Berkshire United Way and the MA Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, have formulated and begun to work on evidence-based strategies to reduce teen births by 10 percent among 15-19 year olds in Berkshire County by 2016.

While Berkshire United Way will continue to invest in individual agencies and programs that demonstrate progress toward addressing community goals for education and em ployment, we expect to increasingly lead and financially support the collective impact approach in order to more effectively improve the quality of life in Berkshire County.

For more information or to join these efforts, please visit berkshireunitedway.org.

Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way. Michael Barbieri is BUW board chair and vice president of Pittsfield Cooperative Bank.