Not Just Another College-to-Career Initiative: Advancing Equity and Economic Prosperity Through California Regional Collaboratives
Despite alarming projections of an economic downturn and state budget shortfalls this year, there are reasons for optimism in California. Leaders in the state are starting to see progress stemming from pandemic-era investments focused on building and strengthening regional collaboration as a strategy for spurring an equitable economic recovery and addressing the longstanding economic and racial disparities between—and within—California’s diverse regions. The bet is that gaps in educational attainment and earnings can be tackled through initiatives that promote inclusive regional economic development—that is, through the creation of equitable and resilient economies that everyone can contribute to and benefit from.
Enter one such initiative that signals an important evolution of state investments in college and career pathways, the California Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program. Working at the intersection of education and economic recovery, the regional collaboratives participating in the program face unprecedented challenges and opportunities. These cross-sector groups are tasked with aligning education and career preparation with their region’s strategic agenda for developing sustainable industries and quality jobs, as well as advancing a shared set of equity-centered priorities for higher education. With the $250 million in grants now allocated across California, a critical question arises: How can regional leaders best leverage the Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program to ensure that these funds are deployed in ways that will truly lead to more equitable learner outcomes and improve regional economies?
Nasser Albaqqal, Student, San José State University
Student participation is a crucial ingredient for achieving all the goals of the collaborative.
To better understand the unique opportunity presented by the Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives investment, JFF brought together approximately 100 leaders from the regional collaboratives in January 2023 for the event Investing in Inclusion and Impact Across the Learner Journey. During the virtual session, panelists shared reflections on how they are working at the regional level to address entrenched equity gaps and promote long-term community resiliency by developing a pipeline to high-skill jobs in aligned markets. This discussion drew from over a decade of work that JFF has been doing with local, regional, and state partners to support and grow the leadership needed for sustainable regional cross-sector coalitions. Together with our partners, JFF has been reflecting on the tremendous evolution of regional efforts in California since our collaborative work with the California College and Career Pathways Trust as well as more recent initiatives, such as the Fresno K-16 Collaborative and the recently formed Silicon Valley hub of the Bay Area K-16 Regional Collaborative. We find ourselves at a critical moment in which California’s leaders have the opportunity to build on the lessons learned across the state to maximize the potential of equity-focused investments.
Early Insights From K-16 Collaborative Leaders
The January event’s featured panelists—representing both longstanding and newly formed K-16 collaboratives across vastly different rural, urban, and suburban contexts—shared reflections that demonstrate how this opportunity is inspiring leaders to think differently about community prosperity and inclusion. Provocative takeaways include the following:
- Career pathways are not the real North Star.
Although regional investments such as the Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program require participating school districts, community colleges, and four-year universities to build aligned college and career pathways, leaders spoke to a broader North Star vision: uplifting the economic and social well-being of their communities. Panelists described a sense of urgency compelling educators and employers to work together to improve the prospects for young people growing up in remote, rural areas. In California’s North State region, for instance, many of them face the challenges of limited job opportunities and poor health outcomes. Meanwhile, collaborative leaders in California’s globally competitive Silicon Valley are drawn together by the imperative of addressing the area’s staggering levels of inequality and improving the opportunities for local youth to remain in the communities where they grew up, despite the high cost of living.
- Inclusion of student voice is increasing, but there is more to be done to support authentic youth engagement.
Regional K-16 collaborative leaders aspire to involve learners as co-designers and key architects in a shared agenda for regional prosperity. San José State University student Nasser Albaqqal emphasized that “student participation is a crucial ingredient for achieving all the goals of the collaborative,” including crossing boundaries between siloed educational institutions to inform and drive strategies for impact. Learner surveys and focus groups ensured that the initial planning of the Silicon Valley K-16 Collaborative, a subregional hub within the broader Bay Area K-16 Regional Collaborative, was grounded in local students’ perspectives. However, including students and community members over the long term will require leaders to adopt new ways of working to continually incorporate feedback and engage in shared decision-making. As Albaqqal urged, “We want this to be part of a continued partnership with students—to meaningful contribute to the strategy throughout the planning stages.”
- Leaders have the hard job of working to dissolve jurisdictional boundaries to focus on impact for learners.
The K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program required collaborative regions to align their boundaries with the California Community Economic Resilience Fund (CERF) program’s regional designations. This spurred geographical alliances that, in some cases, required multiple partnerships that had previously operated separately to join forces under one umbrella. This expanded cooperation is creating new opportunities and challenges. Leaders are being asked to share expertise and resources, build governance models that allow for subregional distinctions, strengthen partnerships, and counter historical notions of district or institutional boundaries to maintain a unified focus on shared goals. The superintendent of the Milpitas Unified School District, Cheryl Jordan, urged the group to work at “breaking down that concept of territory and instead [think] about how we are maximizing opportunities for people.”
Through this work alongside leaders who are navigating the complex, intersectional factors affecting youth in their communities, we identified a few key opportunities for those within regional collaboratives, and for policymakers, to continue to leverage investments to achieve regional economic prosperity. Insights gained through our partnerships and from our January event have reinforced that inclusive design and decision-making must be at the forefront of developing college and career pathways if they are truly going to meet the needs of students facing historic barriers to economic mobility.
Yolanda Valdez, Superintendent, Cutler-Orosi Unified School District
We are better together.
Recommendations for the Field
- Start with the vision.
The inclusive design principles that equity-centered collaboratives have baked into their missions and visions provide a foundation for partners to return to as challenges inevitably emerge. The Silicon Valley K-16 Collaborative, for instance, dedicated initial leadership meetings to crafting a mission statement that asserts a commitment to “dismantling systemic barriers and achieving equitable representation of the region’s learners and workers across race, gender, English language learner status, socioeconomic status, and ZIP codes.”
- Reallocate resources and power.
Inclusive youth leadership and decision-making requires reallocating resources and authority in ways that may be uncomfortable for long-time collaborators and partners. Adults need to make real space for young people. In order to meaningfully affect outcomes, youth need information and the ability to participate in decision-making, such as in roles that have voting power on executive or steering committees. “[We are] learning a lot about what inclusion looks like for us,” said Heather Lattimer, dean of the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San José State University, referring to the strategies applied by the Silicon Valley K-16 Collaborative. The group is experimenting with providing stipends to staff, faculty, and students to compensate them for their time in the planning process, and enhancing student-centered communication.
- Mobilize community assets.
Maximizing recent youth-focused investments will require robust college and career pathways combined with inclusive practices that support wraparound, community-based student supports and youth leadership. Regional K-16 collaboratives are exploring ways to integrate a holistic set of partners, including nonprofits providing experiential learning, mentorship, and college preparation programs; city and county government agencies providing internship and employment opportunities; and resources in tribal communities focused on health and mental health. “We are better together,” noted Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District superintendent Yolanda Valdez, pointing to the importance of partnerships, trust, and coordination across regional assets to support learners.
Recommendations for State Leaders
- Invest in the infrastructure needed to support real-time, shared learning from new initiatives.
As demonstrated through our event, collaborative leaders are hungry for opportunities to share lessons learned to spur equity-centered innovations. Looking ahead, we would like to see more opportunities for youth and adult leaders to come together across regions for peer learning and strategy sharing.
- Focus learning on the levers for advancing equity and inclusion in the implementation of investments.
State leaders made the decision to incorporate priorities identified by the Recovery with Equity Taskforce as requirements for receiving Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives funding. We heard from regional leaders that these priorities have helped center the investment in equity through tangible strategies. State leaders should closely observe the impact of this type of equity lever and incorporate similar guidelines in other initiatives while balancing the need for strong local control and flexibility across regions.
- Strengthen coherence across investments.
The Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program alone cannot address the full range of regional challenges affecting youth outcomes. Leaders are eager to leverage and braid funding to support their long-term goals and promote sustainability, but they often face challenges in navigating the requirements of similar but separate funding streams and initiatives. Greater coherence across key state priorities and investments in youth-serving systems is needed to maximize their combined impact.
Toward Inclusive Regional Economies
The Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program offers a unique opportunity to expand on California’s strong history of regional college and career pathway innovations in service of a broader set of priorities for equitable economic recovery, but this investment is time limited. We urge leaders not to downplay the program’s connections with the goals of other regional investments, including CERF, the Strong Workforce Program, Golden State Pathways, and dual-enrollment programs, and to seize the chance to be intentional about the inclusive processes needed to produce real equitable outcomes.
The investment’s combination of state-level direction and regional flexibility is already spurring innovative approaches to prioritizing the inclusion of student and community voices as a way to create more inclusive economies. This type of work—building sustainable systems—is complex, and leaders are eager to learn and apply best practices and gain opportunities for field-building as they confront similar challenges across the state. Authentic inclusion ultimately requires trust, and with shifting collaborative dynamics and geographical boundaries, regions will need to rapidly determine the who, what, and how as inclusive design is advanced through new collaborative structures.
We are eager to continue these types of peer learning exchanges, where participants can spotlight emerging innovations and share cross-cutting lessons. Working through tough questions ensures that these investments are not Band-Aid solutions and that they address the core systems change that is needed. Critically, through these learning spaces, state leadership can reflect alongside practitioner leaders to ensure that investments and policies are keeping pace with local innovations. The regional innovations afforded through investments such as the Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program will help all of us reduce regional disparities and create more inclusive and prosperous economies. That is the promise of real change, from cradle to career.