Research

Somerville Case

This case documents the first 18 months of Somerville’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: Somerville has BAM’s longest serving mayor, is one of the nation’s most densely populated cities, and is one of three BAM cities to experience a changeover in consultant.

Background

Somerville, Massachusetts is a small, densely populated city just north of Boston. Bordered by three major universities—MIT, Harvard, and Tufts—Somerville is known for its vibrant population of young adults, its steady influx of immigrants, and its energetic and creative community. Twenty-five percent of its population was born in another country, and the median age is 32 years, the second-youngest in Massachusetts.1 The city has been addressing its rapid increase in housing prices and gentrification through an aggressive strategy of high-density, targeted development.

When Joe Curtatone, himself the son of immigrants, was elected Mayor of Somerville in 2004, he brought a data-driven approach to improving city government. Curtatone identified the city’s schools as his top priority from the outset, and he launched SomerPromise in 2009 as a collective action effort to improve outcomes for children through cross-sector collaboration. Along with SomerPromise, Somerville has several related initiatives that take a broad, data-driven approach to improving a range of departments. These include SomerStat, which is a city office that analyzes data across a range of domains to improve service provision, and Student Insights, an online data dashboard that provides teachers with individualized, disaggregated student data in areas such as weekly attendance, discipline, and test scores. During Mayor Curtatone’s tenure, student academic outcomes have improved steadily, and Somerville has been recognized by The Boston Globe Magazine as the Best Run City in the Commonwealth.

Joining By All Means

Mary Skipper became Superintendent of Somerville Public Schools (SPS) in July 2015. A month later, Mayor Curtatone and Superintendent Skipper brought together over 90 of Somerville’s city and school leaders to hold the city’s first Community Cabinet meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm solutions to issues that affect education but couldn’t be addressed by the school district alone. Such issues included access to out-of-school time learning, adult education as a means to reduce unemployment, and urban planning as a means to increase child safety and housing stability. By early 2016, the Community Cabinet evolved into a smaller group of approximately 20 representatives who met regularly to discuss opportunities for cross-agency collaboration on these topics.

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.

Reville reached out to Superintendent Skipper that fall to gauge Somerville’s potential interest in joining the consortium. Skipper, who had been working closely with Mayor Curtatone since coming to Somerville just a few months earlier, saw the synergy between BAM’s theory of action and her own efforts to work collaboratively with the city. Similarly, in the eyes of Mayor Curtatone, “By All Means is helping us share the story of a city as a complex ecosystem and helping us double down on our efforts to work the system toward a common mission. We're not siloed and we understand collectively how our work helps us achieve where we want to go.” Together, Skipper and Curtatone agreed that joining the initiative was an obvious choice.

Getting Started

Forming the Cabinet

Given the alignment between Somerville’s pre-existing Community Cabinet and the goals of the By All Means initiative, the city opted to use the Community Cabinet as its Children’s Cabinet. The cabinet included committed representatives from the school district, health and human services, early childhood, SomerPromise, the community hospital, and the city’s data department, in addition to the mayor and superintendent.

Stephanie Hirsch joined the Somerville team as its consultant in April 2016 with a long history of working in the city: she had helped found SomerStat and SomerPromise; had been instrumental in bringing Code for America to Somerville, creating the city’s innovative Student Insights platform; had worked with the Somerville Public Schools on data and other initiatives; and was instrumental in the creation of the Community Cabinet. As a part of her role, she managed the cabinet’s working groups, set agendas, and moved work forward between meetings. The cabinet met in August and October under her facilitation until, in November 2016, Hirsch stepped down from the cabinet to run for city alderman.

Hirsch was replaced by Jeff Curley, a student in Harvard’s doctoral program in Education Leadership with experience in nonprofit creation, management, and civic engagement. Thanks to a well-planned handover from Hirsch, Curley was able to embed himself in the work quickly and efficiently. With Curley on the team, the cabinet decided to begin meeting more frequently, and convened monthly beginning in January 2017.

Defining the Work

By the time Somerville joined the By All Means initiative, the Community Cabinet had tasked six subcommittees with working on each of the following issues between cabinet meetings: out-of-school time, enrollment/capital planning, communications and family engagement, early childhood education, whole child policy and practice for K-8 schools, and whole child policy and practice for high schools. As the cabinet’s involvement with BAM grew, it reorganized its working groups to focus explicitly on their developing BAM initiatives: early childhood education, out-of-school time programming, and integrated student health data.

Early Childhood Education
During early meetings, the cabinet chose to focus on early childhood education as its leading BAM initiative. Superintendent Skipper had included early childhood education as a central focus in her blueprint for Somerville Public Schools, but didn't know exactly how the district should frame it or approach it. The rationale, according to Skipper, was, “If we could stop the gaps from forming at the start, then we'd be that much further ahead instead of always chasing tails trying to close them.” Addressing early childhood needs would also allow the cabinet to tackle an issue touching multiple city organizations, since several agencies have a role in serving kids from birth until kindergarten entry.
 
To start their work, the cabinet focused on expanding access to high-quality preschool with two primary goals in mind: improving kindergarten readiness and better meeting the needs of working parents. The team articulated several strategies for accomplishing this, including expanding the number of high-quality preschool slots in Somerville; increasing the number of full-day slots available; and improving data articulation between the city’s early childhood and K-12 systems.
 
Because Somerville has a “mixed delivery” system of both public and private providers for preschool, expanding the number of high-quality slots required a multi-pronged approach. The cabinet approached the expansion of high-quality slots in two ways: they would look into expanding the number of high-quality public slots and also work to ensure that pre-existing private slots were high-quality by offering training to private providers.
 
As a result, Somerville has extended the number of hours per day of programming in all city preschools, with plans to serve 40 percent of preschoolers until 5:30 pm during the 2017-2018 school year—up from 7 percent in 2015-2016. In addition, Somerville’s early childhood department has expanded an existing Head Start partnership to increase the number of public preschool slots available in the city, adding two Head Start classrooms to public school buildings. To improve the quality of pre-existing private slots, Somerville has added a second early childhood instructional coach to its early education department; her role is to support curriculum development and improve instructional practices across the mixed-delivery landscape.
 
The cabinet’s early childhood working group also decided to introduce a new sliding fee scale for full-day preschool programming during the 2017-2018 school year to address the access and affordability issue for working families; the team anticipates that this will help them better understand what the unmet demand is for preschool in the city by seeing whether there is an increase in enrollment as a result of the lower cost for low-income families.
 
Out-of-School Time (OST) Learning

Another primary cabinet focus has been on expanding access to out-of-school time learning opportunities. At Somerville’s February 2017 cabinet meeting, the OST working group announced they had secured a new partnership with Citizen Schools, an afterschool provider focusing on enrichment and deeper learning in low-income communities. The partnership would expand afterschool programming in one of Somerville’s middle schools, thanks to funding from both the school department and a local business.2

At that time, the working group was also working with another provider, Breakthrough Greater Boston, to further expand afterschool programming for middle school students throughout the district. These conversations, begun in 2016, came to fruition with the public announcement of their new partnership in May 2017. Breakthrough Greater Boston planned to open its new Somerville offices in fall 2017, with programming scheduled to start for students in summer 2018. Somerville Public Schools committed to funding one-third of the cost of the program over the first three years, while Breakthrough Greater Boston would raise the remainder.

Finally, the cabinet formed a partnership with the Calculus Project to provide summer and afterschool math support to prepare African-American and Latino students for upper-level high school math. Together, these new partnerships will allow 165 more Somerville students access to free, high-quality afterschool programming.

Integrating Health and Human Services

A third area of focus for Somerville is improving the integration of health and human services into the city’s work on behalf of children. Throughout the first 18 months of the initiative, cabinet members from the Somerville Community Health Agenda and Department of Health and Human Services provided updates to the rest of the cabinet and solicited feedback on the forthcoming Wellbeing Report they were preparing for the city—the first that had been prepared in six years. The report was organized by life stage, and not by theme, which made the report uniquely valuable to the cabinet’s focus on children. While the cabinet felt this was a useful exercise, most members agreed that they wanted to take the engagement further.

In seeking a deeper connection between health and education, the team has been exploring the possibility of giving children in the city IDs at birth rather than at school entry, an innovative idea that would facilitate data sharing across multiple services and result in earlier identification of individual student needs. Due to the complexity of FRPA and HIPAA privacy laws, the team has encountered a number of barriers in exploring their idea to assign IDs at birth. Despite these obstacles, Somerville has been persistent and continues to identify solutions for each issue encountered.

Starting in spring 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services has teamed with Somerville Public Schools (SPS) to pilot SomerBaby, an education- and health-focused welcome baby visit program that is currently run out of SPS’ Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, and is funded and supported by SomerPromise. Relationships developed among cabinet members have enabled other new forms of collaboration between the district and health department: for example, the Department of Health and Human Services is lending a seldom-used bus to Somerville Public Schools to benefit the district’s increased OST programming.

Elements Affecting Success

Leadership

The mayor and superintendent strongly support the work and attend most cabinet meetings; this clear signaling from both the city government and the school district has consistently brought other leaders to the table, while also enabling the work to move forward quickly. The mayor and superintendent have also each committed staff time and funding to carrying forward the cabinet’s work.

A Mayoral Priority

Since taking office in 2004, Mayor Curtatone has identified children’s wellbeing as a top priority, and he has built a data-driven approach and cross-sector integration into all aspects of this goal. Through his focus on improving Somerville schools, the city has become the highest growth urban district in the state during his nearly 15-year tenure as mayor. Beyond schools, Curtatone prioritizes and promotes child health through city-sponsored programs such as Shape Up Somerville, a city-wide collective impact campaign to reduce obesity and promote healthy behaviors. This focus from the mayor has greatly benefited the work of the Somerville cabinet, particularly in terms of identifying and leveraging financial resources.

Alignment with Superintendent

The mayor and superintendent are aligned in their mission to work collaboratively and had already begun engaging in cross-sector work prior to joining By All Means. As Curley shared, “The mayor and superintendent have signaled a strong commitment to this work, are open to it, and themselves have good personal relationships and shared goals. That sets a tone that I think is clearly reflected: that this is important.”

Cabinet

Somerville’s cabinet is engaged and efficient, with the consistent attendance of the mayor, superintendent, and key agency heads and stakeholders. The cabinet meets monthly and has focused, action-oriented agendas. While they initially met less frequently, the switch to monthly meetings has facilitated rapid rollout and regular opportunities for agency heads to collaborate. The cabinet has several working groups that develop plans and funding strategies between larger cabinet meetings, reflecting a substantial investment of human capital in this work. As a result of this concerted effort, Somerville has been particularly successful in rapidly expanding child-facing services.

When asked what factors have contributed to the cabinet’s success, several people identified the commitment of the people at the table. As Skipper shared, “In Somerville people are committed to the work. They know what By All Means is and they believe in it. They believe that city and schools working together is the right way to do it.” A top city official echoed her sentiment, explaining that “we knew that we needed to build a better bridge between city and schools, but it was unclear how that was going to happen.” Because all cabinet members came to the table understanding their common goals and vision for Somerville children, their work unfolded smoothly.

Partnerships and Relationships

Cross-Sector Relationships

After the May 2017 convening, 84 percent of the Somerville team reported that they collaborate more with other agencies and organizations in their cities after having joined By All Means. These stronger relationships have been key to enabling the work to push forward in spite of challenges and have allowed for more unexpected collaboration between agencies. The shuttle bus loaned to SPS by the Department of Health and Human Services is but one small example of the benefits of growing relationships between cross-sector colleagues. While the collaboration is poised to grow, one district official commented: “I don't think our district has ever worked as closely with health services as we have in the last year and a half.”

The Mayor/Superintendent Relationship

Both the mayor and superintendent are deeply engaged in the cabinet’s work: they consistently attend the cabinet meetings, participate in policy and programmatic decisions, and are actively engaged in fundraising for different components of the initiative. When asked if their deepening partnership has impacted the nature of Somerville’s collaborative work, one early childhood leader responded, “100 percent. My work has completely shifted because of their participation in these initiatives and their growing awareness of not just what is needed in early childhood or in our department, but how it links to the out-of-school time, how it links to health and human services, and how it links to data.”

Creating and Leveraging Partnerships

Somerville has been particularly effective in creating and leveraging partnerships. The cabinet’s leading focus to establish universal access to high-quality early childhood learning has made great progress thanks in part to the expansion of an existing partnership between SPS and Head Start; the team also leveraged a pre-existing project to expand trainings around early childhood care. For the cabinet’s OST focus, the team has brought several new afterschool and summer learning partners to the city by securing funding from local and regional sources.

External Factors: Lab Support

Consultant

All cabinet members interviewed agreed that having a consultant was a vital factor in moving their work forward. According to Superintendent Skipper, “One of the huge things that By All Means recognized is that having a coach and having somebody that can help make sure the agenda continues to move forward, document, etc.—that's really pivotal to the success of this work.”

Although Somerville experienced a changeover in consultant during the first 18 months of the initiative, the team found that bringing in someone from outside the system provided a new perspective on their work. While the initial consultant’s departure meant a loss of deep expertise in Somerville, there were also advantages to having a more distanced view of the city’s needs and policy opportunities. Curley found success by deeply embedding himself into many aspects of the work.

Convenings

Cohort Model

Somerville is among the many BAM cities that have noted the value of the convenings—particularly as part of a cohort—as a motivator for progress. Curley shared that “knowing that there are peer districts around us that are doing great work is helpful, and I think sometimes there's a competitiveness to it, like ‘Oh, Salem just did this, we want to move this forward. The convening’s coming up, where are we moving, and what's our narrative going to be?’ I think some of those motivations and ingredients are really helpful.”

For Somerville’s leaders, the convenings are also an important way to learn more about what the other cities are doing. Both Mayor Curtatone and Superintendent Skipper have emphasized the value in hearing about the success and struggles of the other cities. As Skipper shared, “The ability to be able to see what other cities like us are working on, be able to exchange ideas, seed innovation.... You don't often get to do that. Their challenges help us to be smarter about how we do things, help us to look down the road, and say, ‘What could be potential pitfalls?’”

Being Together

The Somerville team has also found value in simply convening their team for two days—even though Harvard is just down the road from their offices. As the mayor’s Chief of Staff Skye Stewart shared, “The team time is really important because of everybody's busy schedules. It is hard to get everybody in a room for a certain period of time.”

Superintendent Skipper also pointed out that the convenings’ team time has been important in building cross-sector relationships: “The convenings have created sort of a platform for us to build a relationship with city agencies that then allows us to be able to kind of take things to the next level.” Lisa Kuh, Director of Early Education for SPS, echoed these sentiments: “I think it's good for us to get out of our building and silos every once in awhile, to go hear from some people who are doing interesting work, and then be able to come together and have conversations about it. That's been a very powerful piece.”

Access to Expertise

Another major draw of the convenings is the access to expertise, which has informed the city’s work even beyond the scope of Somerville’s cabinet. Hearing Paul Reville, Ron Heifetz, and other Harvard experts discuss the issues specific to their efforts allows the work to move forward using knowledge and best practices from neutral third parties.

Other Supports

Just after the first BAM convening, Superintendent Skipper reached out to Lab Director Paul Reville for advice on bringing professional development to Somerville; specifically, Skipper wanted to take steps to put Somerville ahead nationally on its student support model. This request ultimately led to a two-hour professional development training for Somerville counselors facilitated by Harvard’s Jacqueline Zeller in December 2016. The Lab also played a role in connecting Somerville with Citizen Schools, which ultimately led to their partnership. Finally, Reville periodically schedules calls with the mayors to serve as thought partner on their education strategy.

Data

Somerville has a long history of using data as an integral part of its planning and policy process. This starts with the mayor, who makes constant use of data to understand the state of the city and identify his goals from year to year. As Mayor Curtatone shared, “We have people who are looking at data in real time collaboratively and cooperatively in a way they’ve never done before. The city has led—not just with the community, but in a very national effort—to understand how we utilize data on a real-time basis to not just improve performance and effectiveness of management but to identify where we are going to put policy to have a real impact on community. And the community cabinet allows us to do it collectively.”

Data-driven decision making permeates the cabinet, which includes among its members the district’s data analyst; the city’s Chief of Staff, Skye Stewart, who formerly directed SomerStat; and Doug Kress, whose position as Director of the Department of Health and Human Services is deeply data-oriented. Yet another cabinet member is the director of SomerPromise, an organization that “mines data from [Somerville] schools and identifies areas that need to be improved and challenges that need to be met so that every child in Somerville has a full opportunity to flourish.”3

This elevation of the role of data is reflected in the city’s approach to all aspects of the BAM work, and puts Somerville at the forefront of cities in innovative data collection and use. The city has a number of data-focused initiatives, including an innovative student data platform, Student Insights, developed through Code For America by Stephanie Hirsch several years prior. Since joining the initiative, the cabinet has been exploring providing children with ID numbers at birth as well as linking early education assessments with kindergarten readiness assessments.

While the cabinet’s initial preschool efforts focused on expanding the number of slots, the team quickly reoriented when it found that the real need concerned expanded longer-day slots. The cabinet is addressing this data issue by moving school registration online. Moving this process online will allow the city to capture information about family needs in real time and enable them to respond accordingly. Even while working to improve the data, Somerville moved forward on a new afterschool sliding fee structure to increase access to preschool OST immediately. The team recognized that the retrospective data would be helpful in guiding their iterative work.

Funding

External

Of the BAM cohort, Somerville has been particularly effective in obtaining outside funding from grant making organizations to finance aspects of their work. These efforts have been enabled by the commitment of leadership as well as by the internal capacity of grant-writing staff. One member of the cabinet, Director of Communications and Grants for Somerville Public Schools, has coordinated ongoing fundraising efforts for OST programming and expanding Somerville’s innovative Student Insights platform, and the Boston Foundation has made a commitment to support Somerville’s efforts to create an integrated data system.

Similarly, Citizen Schools’ expansion into Somerville is supported by a $200,000 grant from the Biogen Foundation, a long-time partner of the Somerville Public Schools and Citizen Schools. This partnership leverages the support of Google’s Cambridge office as well, since Google supports Citizen Schools’ STEM work through funding and employee volunteer time.

Internal

Thanks to a strong relationship between the city government and the school district—bolstered by the success of SPS in significantly raising student achievement from year to year—children in Somerville have benefited from annual budget increases to education for the last five years. The high level of trust between Mayor Curtatone and Superintendent Skipper amplifies this: if Skipper says SPS is ready to take on a new project, Curtatone provides the resources needed.

In May 2017, the school district submitted a proposed budget to the city for fiscal year 2018. This budget included requests for paying a full-time OST coordinator, bringing Breakthrough Greater Boston and the Calculus Project to Somerville middle schools, and continuing a three-year rollout of Universal Kindergarten Readiness through expanded public preschool slots and a new Early Learning Instructional Coach.4 The full city budget also proposed funding for expanding public health services related to By All Means. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services requested an expansion of the role of their Public Health Nurse to increase support to daycare centers on child health concerns.

Conclusions

Somerville has benefited from a history of collaborative work and had already begun developing a collective impact mindset prior to joining By All Means. As one senior SPS official described, “This cross-agency work is more or less in the DNA of how we operate here.” This mindset, coupled with the leadership’s strong commitment to By All Means, provided a strong foundation that has allowed the cabinet’s work to move forward quickly. Through a data-driven culture, frequent cabinet meetings, and a focus on deliverables, the team has made substantial progress on a number of fronts. The cabinet’s most notable achievements to date include increasing the number of high-quality, longer-day preschool slots available in Somerville, expanding summer and afterschool programming, and releasing a community health report whose recommendations are being incorporated into the work of the cabinet.

Where Are They Now?

In the time since our research concluded in May 2017, Somerville’s work has evolved in the following ways:

  • Somerville experienced its second changeover in consultant in July 2017, when Curley transitioned out of his role to work for the Somerville superintendent and lead the OST expansion in partnership. Curley was replaced by another doctoral student, Alison Welcher, a former principal and expert in school turnaround and leveraging partnerships to increase student achievement.
  • In early September 2017, Somerville announced a grant from The Boston Foundation to expand the Student Insights data platform, and in October, the Somerville team learned they had received a two-year planning grant from the Barr Foundation to fund the development of a learning redesign project focused on personalized learning, meaningful experiential learning, and college readiness at Somerville High School in cooperation with the Center for Collaborative Education.
  • Somerville released its comprehensive Wellbeing of Somerville Report in November 2017, which includes Prenatal/Early Childhood and School Age/Adolescence chapters.
  • In early 2018, Somerville received $100,000 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support new messaging work after a connection made by the Lab between Somerville officials and representatives from the foundation.

City Takeaways

  • Regular use of data facilitates the accurate identification of needs, evidence-based decision-making, and accountability at all stages of collective impact work.

  • Utilizing multiple streams of funding from the city, schools, and external sources can accelerate the work.

  • Frequent cabinet meetings strengthen relationships and solidify a shared vision.

 

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