Northfield Healthy Community Initiative

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The strong level of community buy-in has been critical to the early success of Northfield Promise. In launching the effort, we intentionally took the approach of “go slow to go fast.” The planning process took 18+ months and involved soliciting feedback from more than 500 community members and 50 groups from a broad cross-section of the community. Entering these discussions without a pre-established agenda and being open to the themes and ideas that emerged helped this develop as a community-owned, grassroots initiative.

This openness has continued as the effort has further developed. Making the Greenvale Park Community School a flagship initiative was not part of the original blueprint, but emerged as a result of community interest, studies of research-based strategies, and the availability of resources. The enthusiasm and energy around the community school model has been a major rallying point for Northfield Promise and has had a significant positive impact on Northfield Promise’s early momentum.
The commitment of the project to being data-driven has also been instrumental. Utilizing data to help evaluate efforts and guide future decisions has helped ensure a level of credibility for the Northfield Promise initiative and its resulting work. The project’s effective utilization of data experts in the community (who are largely volunteering their time to the project) has helped introduce data to new sectors of the community. It has also been key in helping to inspire important community conversations – such as about why so many of our children aren’t yet reading at grade level or don’t feel connected to their school/community.
Data has also forced us to challenge hypotheses. When the Ready for Kindergarten Action Team began meeting, they reviewed recently collected data that showed 16% of incoming kindergarteners had not been involved in any form of early childhood program prior to kindergarten. Many on the team wondered if a significant portion of these were children who had stay-at-home parents who decided they had the resources they needed and, thus, didn’t feel they would benefit from such programs. Additional analysis, however, showed that 85% of these children were ones from low-income homes. Subsequent focus groups with families in this 16% found that they wanted their children in these programs but barriers existed; many did not know about the programs, feared they would cost too much, or noted the programs were not conducive to parents who work (particularly those whose work 2nd or 3rd shifts). The resulting set of recommendations that has emerged from this team was starkly different than would have been the case if this data had not been so closely studied and peeled back – and then complemented with intentional, in-depth reflection opportunities at multiple levels.

Key lessons learned

Be prepared for the energy. None of the leading partners in Northfield Promise were prepared for the level of excitement that it quickly generated – at the leadership table, among those on the action teams or with community groups where it was presented. One of the challenges during the early stages was finding places to direct those who were interested in getting involved, particularly if they were not wishing to serve on an action team or another committee. Similarly, Northfield Promise has had to juggle the competing push of the need to be thoughtful in developing a course of action for the work with the energy and excitement of members to “get going.” Recognizing and monitoring this balance has been a key lesson this year.

Although not planned at the outset, the adoption of the Greenvale Park Community School as a flagship initiative was also very helpful in this regard, as it provided a tangible, easy-to-engage option for community members who wanted to be active in a more direct service way. It also provided a concrete example of what Northfield Promise (and the collective impact concept) hoped to achieve.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

In truth, all three elements have been critical to the progress and Northfield Promise partners see all three as inter-related. However, at the heart of NP remains the collaborative spirit – the commitment of community members, leaders, and groups to come together around a set of shared goals for young people in the community – and their willingness to look collectively at problems, solutions, and their roles in helping to achieve the shared aims.
Unexpectedly and importantly, this has even played out at the staff level. Originally, NP planned to concentrate the staffing roles into a coordinator, data specialist, and communications specialist. However, it quickly became clear that concentrating the staffing into single individuals was limiting in its reach and did not fit with the collaborative approach of the NP model. Instead, NP has broken the coordination staffing across three people and contracted with a communications firm to lead that work. While there is a data specialist, she is supported by a highly engaged Data Team. Thus, the leadership and work is shared across many levels. This has been vital to the growth of the project.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

A key element of the process has been the balance of looking, as a community, both internally and externally for solutions. An important component of the Northfield Promise model has been to tap local expertise and energy. The passion, ideas, and commitment that have emerged have been inspiring – and have led to possibilities that never would have been imagined at the start. Coupled with this, however, has been an important commitment to also looking outside of the community, recognizing that one can learn from those who have gone before you and that the wheel does not need to be reinvented over and over. Northfield Promise has benefitted greatly from its acceptance into the Strive Together national network, allowing the project to learn from the other 54 communities across the country doing this cradle-to-career collective impact work. In particular, Northfield has found incredible benefit from the partnerships formed with the other outstate Minnesota Strive efforts (in particular Red Wing, Austin, and the Itasca region). Being able to learn from each other and share ideas (and mistakes!) has led to a much stronger Northfield effort.

Understanding the problem

The commitment of the initiative to inclusiveness has subsequently helped bring new members into the conversations and has provided a platform for them to share their experience, concerns, and ideas. Consequently, the resulting dialogue and recommendations are notably different than if the ideas had been generated solely by the same traditional partners or leaders. The Ready for Kindergarten team has included several Latino, Spanish-speaking parents, including ones who had not previously participated on a local group like this before. While initially understandably quiet at meetings, these parents ultimately became among the most important voices in the group. They highlighted issues around the access to early childhood programs and the need for more cultural inclusiveness among existing programs. As a direct result of their brave responses, the subsequent action plan includes priority areas around increasing the cultural and language diversity of the local early childhood workforce, exploring the availability of 2nd/3rd shift childcare options, and supplying resources and support to friends/family/neighbors providing early childhood care outside the traditional early programs

If you could do it all over again...

As this report hopefully shows, the learnings throughout this first year have been voluminous. One additional piece of advice would have been to continually stress from the start that this is a process that will stretch over many years, perhaps decades, in fact. Working in a smaller community likely lends itself to the potential for faster change due to the size/scale/resources needed to address issues. Nevertheless, issues like the achievement gap, kindergarten readiness or high school graduation rates are not ones that are solved overnight. The work of Northfield Promise will require a sustained commitment over many, many years. We live in a society where we expect fast solutions and we often tie our efforts into 1- or 2-year project timelines. While it is definitely important to look for early progress and “wins”, big change requires a commitment for the long haul. Communicating this far and wide from the outset is really important to this work.