When faced with daunting social and economic challenges, those of us in and around public policy have a duty to respond using the best assets at our disposal.
Last Sunday, the Tribune used its best assets — powerful rhetoric, passionate commitment to reform and a bully pulpit — to lay out some serious issues our city faces. It argued for a holistic approach to Chicago's violence, education and financial challenges. And it called for fresh ideas from all of us.
The Joyce Foundation has many millions of dollars committed to this city and region, so we have a stake in the success of this effort. Our competitive advantage? We can afford to take a long view and apply patient capital to thorny, long-standing problems. But the risk is that we become complacent and lose the "fierce urgency of now" instead of pushing hard for rapid change.
We agree with the Tribune that the city's most pressing problems are interrelated and, therefore, require crosscutting solutions — just as they are in America's other big cities, including:
• Children who are poor start kindergarten already far behind and many never catch up.
• Early exposure to violence can cause social and economic obstacles to children.
• Most children who make it through high school graduate with only rudimentary skills. Many find it difficult to get jobs or to succeed in college.
• As a result of these trends, our workforce is not what it needs to be to attract and retain businesses in a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy.
As the Tribune and others would be quick to point out, public dollars are paying money, and lots of it, to keep individual systems afloat — public schools, public safety, post-secondary education, workforce training, business attraction and retention.
But the Tribune also acknowledges that there are some great examples of effective and innovative holistic programs happening in Chicago. We agree and hope the Trib will highlight some of these examples — not as an act of civic boosterism but to demonstrate what can be done when good ideas are partnered with inspired leadership across sectors and the money to get them started.
The Reinvention of Chicago's City Colleges is an example cited by the Tribune in its opening editorial inviting readers to submit a 2013 version of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago.
Not so long ago, the City Colleges' 7 percent graduation rate placed it among the worst-performing community colleges in the country. But without raising tuition or taxes, and with a balanced budget, in three years it has nearly doubled the graduation rate. The total number of degrees and certificates conferred annually has crossed 10,000 for the first time on record. Enrollment in credit courses — those that lead to jobs or a transfer to a university — is up 15 percent.
It took a fresh set of eyes to achieve this. Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, a graduate of City Colleges who went on to earn several degrees including an MBA, imported principles of accountability and transparency from her corporate career that have helped deliver degrees and certificates that hold true economic value. That means they can be parlayed into a good-paying job or a successful transfer to a four-year institution.
The recipe is simple, and it can be applied to any reform effort. It revolves around a word that's controversial in academia and government but shouldn't be: "customer." The "radical" idea is that users of a government service (in this case, students) are customers who are owed a return on their investment of time, energy and money.
City Colleges has two sets of customers. First are our students. Ask any of them why they are in school and you will hear: "to get a good job."
Taxpayers and businesses are our second set of customers. Whether start-ups or large, companies need skilled employees.
More than half a million jobs will come to Chicago in six fields over the next decade: health care; IT; business and professional services; advanced manufacturing; culinary and hospitality; transportation, distribution and logistics. That is why six City Colleges campuses have become the hub for one of these fields. This College to Careers initiative, launched by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hyman in 2011, has paired each school's academic departments with industry to ensure that what is taught in the classroom is relevant to employers. The effort is yielding a comprehensive overview of the curriculum, co-teaching with industry practitioners, internships, jobs and even industry input into the design of new college infrastructure.
Chicago needs approaches like this, where we look at solutions to long-standing and complex problems such as high unemployment through multiple lenses.
Job growth has returned to our city but is inhibited because of the tens of thousands of positions that are available yet remain vacant for lack of qualified applicants. We cannot be in a situation where job seekers struggle amid a plentiful supply of open positions or companies move in search of those who are qualified. This unacceptable juxtaposition will only be erased when we empower Chicagoans to get the skills to get those available jobs.
Institutions must truly serve the needs of their customers. When we can truly say that is happening, then we will know our transformation into a global powerhouse has been largely achieved.
Ellen Alberding is president of the Joyce Foundation and vice chair of the City Colleges of Chicago.
Paula Wolff is chair of the City Colleges of Chicago and a board member of the Joyce Foundation.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun