Regional Collaborative Changing Systems for Adults in Northern California

Say “California,” and what usually comes to mind is beaches, redwood forests and L.A. glitz. But a huge swath of the Golden State may be more reminiscent of the Midwest. An expanse that lies between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it encompasses both the state capital of Sacramento and countless square miles of fertile farmland and small communities.

The chief driver of the economy in this vast Northern California region is agriculture in all its forms -- cattle ranches, fruit orchards, rice fields, vineyards, even cannabis-growing operations. In Sacramento proper and its suburbs, the economy is fueled by state government and related services, healthcare, financial services and other industries.

The education levels of Sacramento and other urban pockets stand in contrast to the lower educational attainment of the surrounding rural regions, in which completion is more the exception to the rule. Opportunities for higher education and the resulting higher-paying jobs vary widely. Historically underserved populations – including people of color – are disproportionately working low-wage jobs, with limited access to regular healthcare. On top of these existing problems, Covid-19 sickened thousands in Northern California and disrupted schooling, while destructive wildfires caused even more economic churn.

Confronting these problems is ProjectAttain!, a nonprofit collaborating with colleges, employers, community organizations and workforce boards to improve educational attainment among adults 24 to 65. The need is pressing: California has a set a goal of 70 percent attainment by 2030, and says Barbara Halsey, ProjectAttain’s Director of Networks, “we are nowhere near that.” She points to an inherent disconnect: While 29 percent of adults in the state’s far north say they want to go to college, only 5.1 percent actually do. Even in Sacramento, where there are many institutions of higher education, rates of college-going are low.

Many independent efforts have been made over the years to improve college access and success in the region, but Halsey says the efforts were too often unsustainable and misaligned. In the 25 counties served by ProjectAttain!’s Building Rural Community Learning Systems project, there are a multitude of systems – including state universities, community colleges and workforce boards -- and many of them overlap. “That has made it hard to collaborate and travel this journey together,” Halsey says.

"Everybody tends to focus on better careers, better opportunities, better advancement, and that’s all true, but the majority of comebackers are really looking to achieve their own goals."

ProjectAttain!, which began as an initiative in 2018, became an independent entity in 2020. It targets the thousands of individuals who have some college or skills training or high school credits, but who have not completed their certificates or degrees. In the six counties around Sacramento alone that amounts to more than 400,000 people.

To find these people and get them to the finish line, the organization participated in Degrees When Due, helping regional universities and community colleges understand the number and characteristics of students who leave before finishing a degree. Early impacts from this project have included colleges initiating projects to evaluate student transcripts to identify those who met graduation requirements but didn’t receive their degree or develop accelerated programs for those who stopped out within 15 units of graduation. They then guide them to and through completion. ProjectAttain! has also worked with InsideTrack and Sacramento State to offer in-depth college coaching to working-age adults and with the Latino Adult Student Success Academy – an initiative of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) – to improve outcomes for Hispanic students.

With CivicLab’s Building Rural Community Learning Systems, ProjectAttain! saw a distinct opportunity to target its far-flung rural population. (Within its 12 county service area, eight or nine qualify as rural.) “We thought this is a collective idea that we can get some traction around,” said Project Manager Allison Shaw, “and we knew that systems building in those workshops would be foundational in helping us solve our regional problems.”

In the CivicLab rural community cohort, ProjectAttain! saw both a chance to advance rural education in Northern California and a way for a relatively new organization to get valuable structural scaffolding as it approached systems change. “How are we going to tackle this regional initiative?” the partners asked themselves, Shaw said. “We saw an opportunity to help our audience but also to grow as an organization.”

Before joining the learning systems lab, the ProjectAttain! group had far broader goals. “We had a much bigger picture in mind,” said Shaw. “Our partnerships had 25 counties and 12 organizations on board. We realized we had aimed way too high. When we saw how CivicLab was going to map out systems change we realized our network and our goal were a little too big.”

After the initial process, ProjectAttain! narrowed its network to just the members on its guiding team: two four-year universities, two community college systems, a regional collective and a workforce board. The plan now is to take the work of this core team and spread it out to other partners later. “We said, ‘OK, if we can figure out how this system works together, then we can map that out to a greater system,’” Shaw said.

Likewise, the group’s guiding question has gone through several iterations, with language changing to better reflect the organization’s intent.

The question centers on giving rural adults equitable access to higher education completion so they can pursue family-sustaining wages. But although the team wanted to reflect the importance of postsecondary attainment to the area economy, they also knew that most students who return to school do so for themselves.

ProjectAttain!'s Guiding Team completed several iterations of stakeholder mapping to focus their system redesign efforts.

“We all have an understanding that attainment has a direct correlation to economic viability for our region, but sometimes when you talk too much about the economic outcome you lose the student impact,” said Shaw. “Everybody tends to focus on better careers, better opportunities, better advancement, and that’s all true, but the majority of comebackers are really looking to achieve their own goals. So most of our guiding-question wrestling and nuance has been around how we capture the value to the individual that also has a ripple effect as a value for our region.”

Participating in a systems-mapping exercise at the April workshop, the team was particularly inspired by the example (in a presentation by CivicLab Executive Director Jack Hess) of the city of Somerville, Mass., which had successfully tackled a significant childhood obesity problem. With its “Shape Up Somerville” campaign, city leaders took on the challenge collaboratively, finding ways to help students eat healthier and exercise not just in school but throughout the day.

The key was that the initiative looked at people in the context of the system. Similarly, the California team used the mapping exercise to look at the contexts in which they were engaging the students they are targeting.

They started with five contexts (and within those, specific touch points) in which students could be supported: through outreach, advising, enrolling, persisting and completing. But during the mapping process, the team realized they needed to look at two more contexts, one on the front end, another on the back. On the front end, they added awareness. “We started mapping out a series of touchpoints to say: “How aware is your institution of rural adult learners? Are they even on the radar?” said Shaw. On the back end of the system, they added employ. “We wanted to have an opportunity to evaluate, if a student comes back as an adult and does succeed, whether the education we gave them actually matched them to the opportunities in our rural communities,” said Shaw. “I mean, we could train 100 HR directors, but if [businesses] are only going to hire six, we have failed.”

Even before the workshop, one of the team members, a collective of community colleges, had been mapping curriculum, determining how well the certifications and credentials now being awarded at the region’s rural schools match in-demand jobs. Moving forward, Shaw said, the team intends to bring the region’s four-year institutions into the same model.

“The CivicLab team gives you so much good stuff in such a short time that it really takes your brain a couple of days to think it all through,” Shaw said. Now that the team members have absorbed the many lessons, they have been building out a template for working through those seven contexts, assessing one context a week. They started by surveying member institutions on how aware they are of adult learners, having them score themselves, document activities and list stakeholders engaged in the work. The team has learned, among other things, that no one defines adult learners the same way. A question that all answered the same way, meanwhile, helpfully revealed a key need.

“We are learning all kinds of things about how we have to operate and function as we are building out our work plan,” says Shaw. “The germ of that was planted in the workshops, and it has blossomed into an actual assessment. We saw how we could take the [CivicLab] system-building approach with our unique problem, and with what we know about adult learners, and build our own tool and work plan.”

The ProjectAttain! guiding team members are also sharing helpful information with other participants in the rural network, particularly the Texas Coastal Bend team, a far smaller region that Shaw says is a leader when it comes to sustainable funding and has a well-functioning adult learner network. On the other hand, Coastal Bend lacks a systems-builder, Shaw says, and has taken lessons from California’s processes and plans. “We share materials back and forth,” says Shaw. “We are also learning from other groups and seeing who they are pulling in to their collective. Seeing who other communities are bringing to the table was definitely inspiring.”

Overall, Shaw says, “The learning has been invaluable for us. We plugged our own things into the blanks in CivicLab’s templates to show people here how it works. We have sort of hybridized the [CivicLab] model. It’s all their principles, and we are definitely on board with this approach to change.”

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This piece was produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Headden. Susan is a contributing author to CivicLab, a former senior editor at “U.S. News & World Report” magazine, and a freelance education writer based in Washington, D.C.

Banner photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash