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As Former State Superintendent Delaine Eastin stood before the packed room of principals, superintendants, teachers, and community leaders from across San Diego County, the mood of the audience began to shift from expectation to inspiration. By the end of the day at the P3SD Conference – San Diego’s first-ever conference focused entirely on improving prenatal to third grade education – participants laid the groundwork for a regional plan to improve the county’s early education system while sharing expertise and experience with one another.
Two years ago, an event like this would have been unlikely. But through the efforts of San Diego’s Education Synergy Alliance (ESA), a community innovation launched in 2013 by 25 local leaders convened by San Diego Grantmakers, San Diego County has been making strides in improving the excellence of public education through large-scale, evidence-based education initiatives.
Missing a Regional Voice
In 2011, a group of philanthropic individuals and organizations came together with one question in mind: What could education stakeholders do to support schools and school districts to produce appreciable change in outcomes for students across the county?
Many hours of collaboration, research, and discussion revealed where San Diego County was falling short. While most other major metropolitan areas boast at least one community-based organization that supports public education, San Diego had none. As a result, there was no regional platform for education issues, little capacity for acting on ideas for innovation, and fewer fundraising opportunities.
“We were seeing many cases where superintendents were identifying things that they needed … but didn’t necessarily have the resources to implement,” said David Lynn, ESA board chair, San Diego Grantmakers board member, and a partner with San Diego Social Venture Partners.
The group recommended the creation of a new nonprofit organization to lead large-scale, evidence-based education initiatives, and developed the business, branding, and fundraising plans needed to move from the “project” phase to a staffed 501(c)3 nonprofit that could hit the ground running – what would become ESA in 2013.
One of the first initiatives undertaken by ESA was the implementation of “Linked Learning” in local high schools, where students choose career themes that are woven through core classes, spicing up their courses with interdisciplinary learning and real-world interactions with employers.
Five local school districts (Carlsbad, Escondido, Grossmont, Oceanside and San Diego) committed to putting Linked Learning into practice in their high schools, thanks to advocacy from ESA and partners like San Diego Workforce Partnership, ConnectEd California, University of San Diego, UCSD Extension, and the San Diego County Office of Education, as well as $1 million in funding from The James Irvine Foundation, Moxie Foundation, and others.
Linked Learning expanded from three career pathways in the 2013-2014 school year to 19 the following year. Additional growth is planned for 2015-2016, including a Linked Learning lab school at Clairemont High School, and the reinvigorated IDEA School at Grossmont High School.
“ESA was an organization that kept us moving forward in a time when state dollars weren’t coming in to help us out,” said Ralf Swenson, the superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District and an ESA board member.
Now those state funds have begun to flow. The San Diego County Office of Education was awarded a $13 million grant from the California Department of Education to support the expansion of Linked Learning pathways, and districts are in a favorable position to compete for the state’s new Career and Technical Education Innovation Grants.
ESA’s newest frontier, known as “P-3,” is an approach to early education that ensures each and every child has high-quality learning opportunities from birth (or prenatal—“P”) to third grade (“3”). The plan is to close the achievement gap before it opens and lay a strong foundation for future learning.
“It just gets harder and harder as children grow to catch them up,” said Devin Vodicka, Vista Unified School District’s superintendent and an ESA partner.
Dr. Vodicka’s sentiments echo conversations that have been going on around San Diego County for years. In response to these concerns, ESA launched a P-3 initiative in 2014 that is driven by the P-3 Salon, which is comprised of 25 representatives from school districts, higher education, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders.
Based on the feedback from the sold-out P3SD Conference and elsewhere, the P-3 Salon and ESA will formulate an action plan to build on the region’s existing assets, improve local P-3 policies, and launch new early education efforts.
What’s Next/Get Involved
ESA’s charge is to be responsive to the needs of San Diego’s education community and, primarily, its students. While Linked Learning and P3SD remain the organization’s focuses for the time being, ESA’s Executive Director, Laura Kohn, fully expects ESA to evolve and take on more initiatives.
“Whatever the next priority is, it needs to emerge from the community; it can’t emerge from our perspective,” Kohn said.
To track the progress of ESA’s work and learn about ways to participate in the emerging Linked Learning and P3SD movements, visit www.sdedsynergy.org.
San Diego Grantmakers is a network of engaged philanthropic organizations and individuals who give significantly and strategically to multiple nonprofits each year. To learn more about San Diego Grantmakers’ facilitation of funder and cross-sector collaboration, visit www.sdgrantmakers.org or call (858) 875-3333.