This case documents the first 18 months of Newton’s participation in By All Means and includes its activities through May 2017. We are hoping that city leaders and others will use this piece to understand how opportunities and obstacles unfold within specific contexts. Each city in the consortium is unique: Newton is BAM’s most affluent city, is the only city in the cohort to face the prospect of a mayoral transition, and is one of the three BAM cities to experience a changeover in consultant.
Newton, Massachusetts is not a place people generally think of when talking about the challenges of poverty: it is an affluent Boston suburb whose schools consistently rank among the best in the commonwealth. Despite this, there is substantial income inequality in Newton, and many residents struggle to afford housing, childcare, and other services. A 2016 report found that “11 percent of Newton school children are living below the poverty line, a 77 percent increase over the past five years.” The same report detailed that, in light of Newton’s affluence, “it is between 11 percent - 19 percent more expensive to live in Newton than in neighboring cities and towns.”1
As in the rest of Massachusetts, the achievement of Newton’s students diverges across categories, with low-income, African-American, and Latino students faring worse, on average, than others. For example, only 34 percent of economically disadvantaged students in Newton met or exceeded expectations in third grade reading, compared to 62 percent of their non-economically disadvantaged classmates. In eighth grade math, just 38 percent of African-American students met or exceeded expectations and 63 percent of Latino students met or exceeded expectations, compared to 72 percent of white students and 85 percent of Asian students.2
Prior to joining By All Means, the Newton Public Schools (NPS) already had a number of programs in place to provide opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds and needs. Newton is host to the commonwealth’s largest Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program, which enrolls students from Boston in suburban school districts. Every year, over 400 students from Boston are enrolled in Newton’s public schools. The schools also offer the Calculus Project to African-American and Latino students, a program that provides eligible students with summer and school year math tutoring and academic support to increase the number of minority students taking high-level math classes. For younger students, NPS offers inclusive preschool, which serves mixed groups of children with special needs and typically-developing children. Within the mayor’s office, Newton created a summer internship program to ensure all high school students have equal access to the benefits of substantive summer jobs.
Joining By All Means
In October 2015, Mayor Setti Warren—who was, at the time, chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Community Development and Housing Committee—convened a two-day meeting in Boston of mayors and leaders from different sectors on the topic of “Economic Growth for All.” Drawing on research from Brookings’ Center on Children and Families,3 Mayor Warren created the initiative as a means for cities to develop cross-sector approaches to ensure that everyone had a pathway to economic prosperity. Warren used the same event to launch Newton’s local Economic Growth for All initiative (EGA) in partnership with Boston College.
Around the same time, the Education Redesign Lab, headed by Paul Reville, was preparing to launch its By All Means initiative and was looking for partner cities to participate as “laboratories” of innovation to create a children’s opportunity agenda. These laboratories, Reville hoped, would work to reimagine and implement new, personalized systems of education and youth development, focusing on expanding access to out-of-school learning, integrating health and social services into schools, and individualizing education to suit the needs of every child.
Warren, who had heard about Reville’s work, invited him to share the By All Means initiative at the conference. Seeing BAM as an opportunity to advance the education components of Newton’s EGA agenda, Warren opted to pursue joining the initiative as well.
Forming the Cabinet
Newton’s EGA initiative established four working groups tackling education, health, wealth, and innovation. To avoid duplication of effort, Newton’s Children’s Cabinet—known locally as the Education Cabinet—was founded as EGA’s education working group. It is coordinated by Deb Youngblood, Newton’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services, who also coordinates the activities of the other EGA working groups. The cabinet held its first official meeting in April of 2016, with significant membership from the City of Newton, as well as Superintendent David Fleishman and other representatives from the school district, Boston College, and the YMCA. By the third meeting in late June 2016, the cabinet grew to include school board members, a child psychologist, and others. The Lab’s research director served as the cabinet’s consultant for the first stage of the work.
While the mayor and superintendent both initially attended the cabinet meetings, they subsequently each appointed surrogates to represent them. Brian Turner, Director of Professional Development and Assessment for the Newton Public Schools, became the school district’s representative to the cabinet in the fall of 2016. Soon after, Turner began working closely with Youngblood and the initial consultant to further the cabinet’s work between meetings, with the three operating as an informal executive working group.
In February 2017, the initial consultant transitioned out of her role and was replaced by a Harvard doctoral student. The cabinet held its first meeting with their new consultant the following month. In November 2016, Mayor Warren announced that he would not run for reelection and later declared his candidacy for governor in May 2017.
Defining the Work
The cabinet identified two priorities at the outset of the initiative: connecting middle school students with out-of-school time (OST) programming and expanding access to preschool opportunities. It saw each of these as having the potential to reduce achievement gaps by providing supports for children at important developmental stages in which there were income-based disparities in access to services. Newton had already begun to focus on equal access to preschool and commissioned a study on the topic from Northeastern University. This study, which was intended to highlight the extent of Newton families not participating in preschool and their barriers to doing so, was due for completion in November 2016. With that work underway, the cabinet opted to wait for the report’s results before further exploring preschool access and turned its attention to middle school OST as its first focus. The cabinet later folded an existing mayoral initiative, the summer internship program for high school students, into the BAM work as well.
Early cabinet meetings involved discussions of the multiple goals of expanding access to afterschool activities—including helping students discover their passions, increasing their exposure to a range of enrichment activities, and improving academic achievement and attitudes about school—as well as examinations of data on participation in school-sponsored afterschool activities. A smaller group of members interested in OST met outside of the cabinet meetings to consider the range of options, as well as whether any additional programming and support should be universal or target just those students identified as being at risk of low achievement or disengagement.
In late 2016, the cabinet explored two potential options for expanding access to OST opportunities and supports for middle school students: adding an entirely new afterschool program that would focus on enrichment as well as academic support, or hiring coordinators in each of the middle schools to connect children with existing OST programs and—for children with greater needs—additional services.
Concurrently, the cabinet decided to learn more about any potential relationship between “school connectedness” (how connected middle school students felt to their schools) and participation in OST activities. Because of the logistical and regulatory challenges of implementing a new district-wide OST survey in a short time, cabinet members initially explored creating and implementing an OST survey to a subset of Newton middle school students. This drew concerns about unbalanced student representation, given the differences in student populations across schools and even across student teams within schools. Ultimately, the cabinet chose to capitalize on the new school connectedness survey that Newton was about to administer for the first time, adding several questions specific to students’ participation in afterschool activities. While this decision reduced the level of detail about students’ OST activities, it ensured representation of all students rather than just a subset. This collaborative approach to collecting and using data between the city and schools reflected a new cross-agency strategy in Newton.
Informed by the survey’s results and recommendations, the cabinet agreed upon an initial project in December of 2016: they would pursue the possibility of creating an OST coordinator position in each of the middle schools, who would be responsible for connecting children with risk factors for low achievement with after-school and summer opportunities, as an initial step. The cabinet also agreed to keep open the possibility of expanding programming at a later date if there proved to be a shortage of opportunities. Various cabinet members highlighted the ways such a proposal would affect different populations of students, and worked to ensure the individual needs of subgroups would be incorporated into the design of this new position. Such groups included METCO students (transportation), English language learners (multilingual support), students with special needs (specialized support), and student athletes (relationship between sports and academics). The cabinet also discussed funding: both where it would come from and how it would be used.
At the adjournment of the December cabinet meeting, Youngblood shared that she would investigate potential funding options for the OST coordinator proposal. In the months that followed, the smaller executive working group investigated potential sources of funding for the role. The resulting possibilities, however, comprised opportunities for which an affluent community such as Newton would not be a realistic candidate.
With the funding search stalled, the cabinet revisited the underlying question of why some students were not participating in afterschool activities. Since cabinet members still felt they did not fully understand the connection between participation in afterschool programming and students’ feelings of connectedness, they decided to conduct focus groups to hear directly from the students. The focus groups yielded a number of interesting insights, but nothing that suggested a clear policy direction. The cabinet’s other effort to increase participation in afterschool activities, which had begun earlier in the school year, was to create and publicize a comprehensive listing of the opportunities already available for middle school students in Newton, since that information had previously been fragmented and difficult to access.
Elements Affecting Success
Delegation of Leadership
While mayors and superintendents were regular cabinet attendees in other By All Means cities, Newton’s mayor and superintendent delegated attendance to senior members of their staffs. While these representatives had a certain level of decision-making power, the absence of the top leadership did affect the level of discussion and decision-making at cabinet meetings as well as the level of coordination between the mayor’s office and the superintendent’s office.
A Mayoral Transition
In November 2016 Mayor Warren announced that he would not be seeking reelection in 2017, and announced his bid for Massachusetts governor just six months later. With mayoral leadership central to BAM’s theory of action, it was unclear how this transition would affect the momentum of the planned work. The reflections of cabinet members following this announcement were optimistic. As one participant shared: “Even though it's the mayor, you would hope that no one person or position is irreplaceable. If any one person’s absence was going to have a big splash or impact, it's probably him. He was, from what I've been told, instrumental in getting Newton involved with By All Means and now [his departure means] the rest of the group has to carry on. And feel compelled to do so.” Likewise, Superintendent Fleishman reflected that “that's the downside of these kinds of projects. But I think this work would continue…. I guess the advantage is because our projects are more internal—rather than dependent on outside entities—our preschool project or summer middle school work could go on regardless of who the mayor is.” However, it became clear by the May 2017 convening that Warren’s imminent departure was having an impact on the urgency of the work, with the mayor attending only a small portion of that convening and the team time resulting in a decision to re-evaluate the cabinet’s priorities for the work.
In Newton, the primary staffer and organizer of the cabinet is also the city’s top health official: Deb Youngblood, Commissioner of Health and Human Services. Often, she coordinated the work herself, while in other cities scheduling and other logistical items have been handled by the BAM-sponsored consultant or a local supporting staff member. As has been found in other BAM cities, some support staff time is crucial to keeping the work moving. Consequently, by the spring of 2017, Youngblood had recruited one of her permanent staff members to help support the logistical aspects of Newton’s BAM work.
In many cities, school districts tend to work in isolation from other elements of city government. In Newton, this tendency has been magnified by the relatively low level of need in its community, which has enabled the school system to work independently of the service providers that play an integral role in high-poverty school systems across the country. As Superintendent Fleishman shared: “I think that in general, [Newton] school people aren't necessarily used to working with nonprofit organizations and service providers. There's not a lot of history of working together, and they’re not deeply embedded here the way they would be in other places.”
The convenings have played a transformative role in breaking down these historical silos between Newton’s city government and its public school system. After the second convening, Mayor Warren shared that “the city team time—where we had to hash out short- and long-term goals after hearing about what works or doesn’t work—that accelerated our work. It forced city and school officials to sit down and listen to policy experts who talked about the need for this architecture to be built.”
Brian Turner’s involvement on the cabinet evinced a change in thinking about the school’s relationship with outside providers and other city agencies. Turner, who sees his role on the cabinet as being the liaison to the school system and its data, noted that “hearing about what other cities are doing in terms of having platforms for communicating and sharing data about kids across the agencies has been interesting…. It's created some food for thought in terms of what data do we want to share with others within Newton…. Part of this is the school system needing to realize that the partners who also work with kids have got the same goals we do…. We might learn, at what point is the school system just not enough?”
This shifting orientation is a welcome development for city leadership. As one city official explained, “For Newton, the major difficulty is that we have not developed a great way to collaborate with schools. One of the major themes of the first convening for me was that the schools should not be the ones solely responsible for this work.” By All Means, the official said, had also been instrumental in increasing data sharing between the schools and the city. This new sense of openness extends beyond the school system: after the May 2017 convening, 63 percent of the Newton team reported that they collaborate more with other agencies and organizations in their cities after having joined By All Means (the remaining 38 percent reported that their interactions were “about the same”).
Alignment with Pre-Existing Initiatives
The cabinet’s work has been greatly enhanced by its alignment with Newton’s broader Economic Growth for All initiative. This collaboration with Boston College has brought research, financial resources, and thought partnership to the work. By All Means has also given additional impetus to the city’s pre-existing interest in expanding access to preschool to ensure greater equity.
Many attendees noted that the convenings have been helpful in introducing a sense of accountability and positive pressure to Newton’s By All Means work. For the superintendent, the conversations that took place at one convening moved expanding preschool access to the top of his priority list; this pressure, he said, is a helpful way to prioritize the work amidst competing demands.
Some of this accountability also stems from BAM’s cohort model, which provides a way for cities to imagine new possibilities based on the work of others. As one participant shared, “I think the convenings and hearing what other cities do and sharing best practices has helped to inform what we're doing greatly…. But there's also that little, you know, you don't want them to be able to report a lot of progress and we haven't found any. So I think there's a little bit of a kickstart to be sure that we're not going to fall behind the other cities that are participating.” Newton is driven by a curiosity about both how the other cities are doing, and what other cities are doing.
In Newton, the initial consultant worked closely with Youngblood and Turner to keep the initiative moving forward between meetings. According to Susan Swick, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, “[Without the consultant], I feel like the work could otherwise feel very circular, and instead it feels a little more linear, like we're building some consensus to head towards a destination and attempt something.” The consultant helped to develop meeting agendas and shared the meeting facilitation responsibilities with Youngblood. When the initial consultant left this role in February 2017, the new consultant filled a less central role in the BAM work. On top of this smaller role for the consultant, the transition came at a time when locating funding for the middle school initiative had stalled, which presented an additional challenge to the progress of Newton’s work.
Education Redesign Lab Director Paul Reville periodically schedules calls with the mayors to serve as a thought partner on their education strategy. The Lab has additionally supported Newton in seeking sources of funding and connected the team with a fundraising expert at the November 2016 convening.
As in all other BAM cities, data has played a substantial role in the early work of the cabinet. And like many districts across the country, Newton Public Schools is data-rich with limited capacity to analyze its data. Recently, the district was fortunate enough to expand its capacity in this arena, adding a new full-time central office staff member to analyze data. This capacity was instrumental in supporting the cabinet’s work to understand the scope of the OST and preschool problem in Newton—though there is still plenty of data left to analyze.
Newton’s relative affluence presents challenges to locating outside funding sources, even for addressing the needs of under-resourced children, since most foundation funding is targeted to higher-need communities. The challenge finding funding for new middle school OST coordinator positions led to a scaling back of that plan to provide more direct supports to children. Mayor Warren’s plan to introduce a new citywide tax or fee to provide sustainable funding reflected bold thinking about how to address this issue; the fact that the mayor did not actually accomplish this before the end of his tenure suggests the political challenges of this kind of approach.
Newton’s experience has been informative in helping the Lab understand what this work might look like in more affluent cities. While many willing partners came to the table to work together on behalf of children, challenges with creating momentum for BAM initiatives and identifying external funding stymied progress. While other BAM cities had success raising external funds for new initiatives, this was not the case in Newton, suggesting that in more affluent cities, coordinated efforts on behalf of children might necessitate internal funding through a reorganization of existing funds or the introduction of new taxes or fees. In the latter scenario, success would entail broad buy-in from the larger community. However, without a sense of urgency to rally the community, it can be difficult to generate buy-in or even prioritize this work among competing issues. Finally, the transition of the consultant at a pivotal time for the cabinet’s first initiative stalled progress even further, suggesting that there is a critical degree of buy-in a community must achieve before the successful transition of a key player. Overall, the Lab’s partnership with Newton demonstrates that affluence does not guarantee the will or the resources to build systems of opportunity and support for low-income children.
In the time since our research concluded in May 2017, Newton’s work has evolved in the following ways:
- Newton elected a new mayor in November 2017. Ruthanne Fuller was inaugurated as the city’s first female mayor in January 2018.
- Newton concluded its participation in By All Means in early 2018. Mayor-Elect Fuller attended part of the By All Means’ November 2017 convening, but ultimately decided in February 2018 that Newton would not continue to participate in the initiative.
- Expanding access to preschool remains a priority. Under the new mayor, Newton is continuing to explore ways to ensure cost is not a barrier to preschool access for low- and moderate-income Newton families. The city hosted two convenings of approximately 30 preschool providers to discuss interests and concerns around expanded enrollment strategies.
Affluent communities face challenges in creating a strong demand for change and in securing outside resources to fund the work.
Creating new taxes or fees offers a sustainable source of funding for new initiatives.
Consistent, activist leadership matters, and close alignment of priorities between the mayor and superintendent is critical to making progress.