In early 2020, Nashville boasted unprecedented job growth and low unemployment—good news for residents of Tennessee’s largest city. Fueled by an influx of new immigrants, the emerging technology industry, and upskilling opportunities from local educational institutions, Nashville’s economy was booming. Service industries like restaurants, hospitality, and skilled construction offered rewarding job opportunities for residents.
But not everyone has reaped the benefits of Nashville’s economic growth equally, particularly among the approximately 55,000 adults without high school degrees. Barriers such as limited English proficiency, unreliable care for children or elders, and lack of access to transportation have prevented many adults from accessing vital education and skills training to engage in the thriving economy and secure gainful employment.
Demand for better access to upskilling opportunities is what initially sparked a group of adult education literacy providers, workforce development agencies, and small businesses to come together and address this challenge as a collective. The COVID-19 outbreak has only increased the urgency and need for this type of partnership.
What started as a learning group of local adult literacy providers convened by the Nashville Public Library has since become the Adult Education Collective Impact (AECI), a collaborative of about 20 partner organizations including the Nashville Public Library, YWCA of Nashville, Nashville Adult Literacy Council, Nashville Chamber of Commerce, Nashville State Community College, and local education and career service providers. Committed to improving adult education and literacy rates within Nashville, the AECI has taken strides to identify opportunities, understand barriers, and make data-driven decisions to meet adult learner needs across their community.
The AECI’s mission is clear: to “triple the number of adults achieving their educational goals by 2025 and create a network able to better serve more people.” With a systematic approach and learner-centered solution, the AECI is working to create an efficient, cohesive system with resources for both agencies and learners alike.
While providers had long understood the need to work together, they lacked “a central place for connection and information to discuss the work,” according to Kelly Blenkenship, adult education project manager for the Nashville Public Library Foundation. In 2014, the Nashville Public Library Foundation approached local adult education providers to form a learning group that could collectively envision strategies to improve services for learners.
The Adult Literacy department at the Nashville Public Library served as the space for providers across the city to convene and share resources. Megan Godbey, adult education systems manager at the Nashville Public Library and co-leader of the AECI, shared, “Over the years, our annual conferences sparked conversations about the need to improve services for learners, and how to work more effectively. It felt like we were all just ‘serving the learner in front of us,’ but worried about the long line of learners behind them that we did not have capacity to serve.”
For the next few years, the learning group served that vital role for providers as they shared knowledge from conferences and hosted monthly workshops from policy to programming. But even after years of knowledge sharing, the learning group still felt that they weren’t moving the needle to improve services for adult learners.
To address the question of how to make progress in improving services, the learning group spent six months learning about collective impact, a systems model that can be applied to address social sector issues. Godbey said of the process, “We hired an outside facilitator from our local nonprofit resource group, Center for Nonprofit Management. This neutral party was essential to achieve full group consensus and clarify whether to use collective impact as a framework for our work together.” With their new knowledge of collective impact, the partners unanimously agreed to adopt the approach as the AECI’s framework.
In reflecting on their journey, Godbey and her AECI colleagues now understand the value of starting with the learners’ perspectives and experiences to best understand their specific needs. As Godbey shared, “One thing we [could have] done differently is to include and center learner voices from the beginning. We would have been informed differently if we had talked to learners first. What we are finding now as we create a learner engagement strategy, is that organizations often don’t have the time to gather feedback from learners in the process of direct service delivery. We need to spend time listening to people who live the experience before designing a system for them.”
“Our challenges are that most partners are direct service providers and it’s hard for them to switch from direct service to systems change thinking.”
Within the first year of adopting the collective impact framework, the AECI focused on building trusting relationships, creating governance, aligning resources, and ensuring all organization representatives understood strengths and core competencies. In 2019, they pursued and received multiple funding opportunities from Vanderbilt University, the Joe C. Davis Foundation, United Way, the Frist Foundation, the Memorial Foundation, the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, and the Center for Nonprofit Management to support their collective impact effort for another year.
As the collective evolved, partners recognized the importance of using a shared language, especially in light of staff turnover at participating organizations. The AECI works with a marketing consultant to craft meaningful and relevant language that can be visualized. Cade Fleming, senior manager of family education at the YWCA of Nashville, noted, “We have a glossary of terms, FAQs, elevator pitches, and norms and expectations of how you show up in this space. Those same resources we’re refining are used for onboarding partners. It’s an iterative process.”
For the next phase of their collective impact work, the AECI is systematizing their efforts using a shared data system. “Right now, we collect rudimentary data. Each month, providers tell us the number of new students they have, the number of students that completed the program, how many were turned away or are waitlisted,” explained Godbey. With the goal of improving data tracking and referral processes, they intend to address opportunities and protocols for data sharing. Once they identify and build their system, they plan to work through two phases for roll-out: (1) recommend program improvements for scalable growth with quality services, and (2) sustain and continue long-term growth. Each phase, especially the latter, requires long-term funding and more relevant partners committed to supporting adult learners in achieving their goals.
By mid-April 2020, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development had already distributed 110,000 unemployment payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of people affected by the pandemic is likely to rise. In response, the AECI is assessing needs and expects to complete the following activities to support learners, families, and providers:
In addition, the AECI agencies have been leading myriad efforts to support Nashvillians during the COVID-19 outbreak, including opening their classes to both students and teachers from other agencies, sharing advice on software that works, helping each other with CARE Act applications, and consolidating questions to develop a shared survey tool for volunteers and learners. Further, the Nashville Public Library hosts a virtual “Teachers’ Lounge” where teachers and volunteers can talk to each other, and provides online meeting protocols to support agencies new to remote instruction.
As part of this case study, we identified a set of actionable strategies that Nashville and other communities have used to build networks and solve workforce needs in their region.
Visit Digital Promise’s Building Networks for Frontline Talent Development report to learn more about similar regional efforts to build learner-centered solutions to advance frontline worker talent development.