Where Are the Bridges to Opportunity?

All kids come into the world with pretty much the same raw material. Each has a body, a brain, and is hard-wired to learn and develop. And let's not exclude kids with disabilities -- they have these assets as well. So on what dimension do kids differ?


The Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which is associated with the Annie E. Casey Foundation as well as many other foundations and over a hundred local communities, has a clever video on how an achievement gap develops and grows between two children who start out pretty much the same. Why the gap? Opportunity; in this case, access to learning and enrichment activities. One child was born into a family that had awareness of and access to camps and programs that sustained learning beyond the school day and school year. The other was born into a family that lacked access to opportunity, chiefly because they lived in a low-income area without access to resources many of us take for granted. The Campaign calls it "The Zip Code Lottery." Not a very thoughtful approach to developing our future citizens and workers.

I had the privilege of joining a couple of hundred people in Indianapolis recently to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a resource called Bridges to Success. There were teachers, principals, parents, students, people from local health, social service and youth agencies, public officials, the media, and others. It was a celebration of opportunity -- the opportunity for students at selected Indianapolis Public Schools to get their physical, emotional and developmental needs met through programs provided by "outside" agencies so that the students -- and the schools -- can focus on learning.

Bridges to Success (BTS) is a part of a movement called "community schools," i.e., schools that partner with their communities to make "non-academic" resources needed by the students of a particular school available to those students (see this link for more on community schools). BTS is pretty unique because it began as a partnership between the local United Way (United Way of Central Indiana) and the city's largest school district, Indianapolis Public Schools. It began in six schools, is now in twenty, and the new superintendent, Dr. Lewis Ferebee, has announced that BTS will be expanded into another forty schools.

Truth in advertising: I was the head of that United Way at the time and my United Way colleague, Ellen Annala, and I partnered with the then-superintendent, Dr. Shirl Gilbert, II, to create BTS. To know that BTS is working and valued after twenty years is gratifying, but what I came away with was that many in that community know that opportunity is a necessary ingredient for success in school and life and that tinkering -- a program here, a program there -- is not the way to do it.

"Scaling" (a relatively new buzzword in social enterprise circles) BTS demonstrates that Indianapolis leaders understand that lots of kids in lower-income Zip Codes are opportunity-starved and that there are ways of structuring relationships between the education and health and human service sectors to bridge the opportunity gap. Whether it is through a community schools approach, a Promise Neighborhood, or a community-wide mobilization for youth (Ready by 21® and Strive Together are among the models communities employ to mobilize for the benefit of youth), there are these essential elements necessary to achieve impact and aim for taking an initiative for youth to scale:

1) The opportunity gap affecting youth in the specific geographic area is understood and documented.
2) The opportunities and resources to be drawn in correspond directly to the gaps identified.
3) The gaps and the opportunities and resources to support them are held by and have the support of those most directly involved--youth, parents, teachers, youth agency personnel.
4) The approach to filling the opportunity gap is systematic, not programmatic.

The first and second elements are clearly tied together: First, understand what the need is and, second, match resources to that specific need. Otherwise, the old adage about having a hammer comes to mind -- if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So, if kids are losing ground in reading because of lack of opportunity, nothing but programs and activities which provide opportunities to build and reinforce reading skills will do. Similarly, if access to counseling and emotional support are lacking for youth who need them, nothing but those services can suffice. Understanding the gaps and aligning resources with them is imperative.

Number 3 -- engagement -- speaks to the fact that people must be a part of change to embrace it. The Search Institute has a model of assessing the assets and strengths youth have (the survey is administered though schools). There are other means of engaging the voice of young people and their parents, including youth and parents in decision-making and solution-building. Teachers, social workers, youth agency leaders, and others in health and human services interact with young people at all levels. They are confided in. They achieve unique insights into the lives and joys and concerns of youth. They, too, must be a part of community efforts to understand and fill the opportunity gap.

And with number 4 -- inclusiveness of approach -- specific programs may be a part of the solution but a lasting solution brings to the fore the range of opportunities and resources that corresponds to the opportunity gap(s) in a particular locale. Developing and thriving as a person is not a set of discreet activities but an arc of related opportunities, developmental tasks, and resources at every stage in the life cycle. Related is the operative word. A constructive approach to helping kids overcome an opportunity deficit -- one that corresponds to the realities of human existence -- is one where a youth and his or her family are engaged in their totality as they feel they need to be engaged. And a lasting and sustainable approach to delivering on an opportunity strategy -- one that has any hope of achieving scale -- is one where institutions change and adapt and commit to working with one another, and with kids and their families, for the long haul.