Advance College Success Through Effective Cross-Section Collaborations

Tina Fernandez, Executive Director of Achieve Atlanta

CampusLogic’s inaugural higher ed leadership conference, Shift Summit, featured dozens of innovative organizations, forward-thinking leaders and inspiring changemakers, all dedicated to moving the needle on degree completion. Achieve Atlanta’s Shift Summit session was one of the event’s most popular sessions, where it highlighted the organization’s innovative model. Tina Fernandez, Achieve Atlanta’s Executive Director explains the success behind this model and outlines the critical features other organizations, institutions and individuals should take to build a similar infrastructure in other cities. 
 
Economic mobility, racial equity and access to jobs that pay a living wage remain elusive social justice goals. The COVID-19 pandemic further illuminated the systemic factors that keep these goals elusive:  The need for reform has never been clearer. 
 
To achieve impact at the scale this country needs – and at the scale all of us working for social justice want to see – collaboration is vital. Widespread success cannot be achieved without multiple organizations and institutions working together. 
 
At Achieve Atlanta, our mission is to help low-income and first-generation students graduating from Atlanta Public Schools achieve postsecondary success. This is work that many organizations and educational institutions are doing, and we’ve seen gains in postsecondary success in discrete communities. However, the system remains largely fragmented and uncoordinated.
 
Funders, college success organizations and higher-education institutions agree that broadly addressing college degree-attainment gaps requires collaboration. That is why, at Achieve Atlanta, we have adopted a framework to lead cross-sector collaborations with multiple partners – including colleges, nonprofits, our local school districts and others. Our work has shown that effective cross-sector collaboration can help communities achieve social justice goals. 
 
What does effective cross-sector collaboration look like? 
Our framework, which is largely influenced by Amy Edmondson’s work on “Extreme Teaming” has four fundamental elements: 
 
1. Build an engaging common vision
2. Cultivate psychological safety so those involved feel comfortable sharing knowledge and experimenting
3. Develop shared mental models so participants can share their expertise
4. Empower agile execution to explore options and rapidly accumulate knowledge
The Importance of a Strong Facilitator
 
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Extreme Teaming relies on one organization taking a leadership role in facilitating the collaborative process. In social-sector collaborations, the concept of a strong leader can feel contrary to our commitment to promoting equal seats at the table. But a leader trained in cross-sector facilitation can help build the conditions that enable informal and formal teamwork among people from different sectors. An effective leader also enables members to collaborate across organizations, disciplines, power structures and even physical distance.
 
This is where an intermediary can be helpful. In the nonprofit sector, intermediaries are mission-driven organizations that aim to effectively link multiple organizations. Intermediaries can help provide the operational backbone, strategic capacity, expert guidance and “connective tissue” to facilitate coordination of multiple organizations and sectors. 
 Specifically, an intermediary can help assemble and lead a cross-section of organizations by:
  • Setting common tangible, trackable performance measures
  • Encouraging partners to set aside organizational agendas for the benefit of collective outcomes
  • Facilitating negotiation and communication among partners. 
Often, as an independent organization, an intermediary can also be nimble and responsive to the needs of the group. Achieve Atlanta aims to facilitate this type of cross-sector collaboration to increase the number of first-generation, low-income and BIPOC postsecondary students who move into strong jobs after college graduation.
 
In the college success sector, we have the shared goals of educational equity and social mobility, but we often struggle to bridge organizational boundaries and achieve our collective goals. Organizations positioned to lead these types of collaboratives in their own communities must understand the framework and leadership competencies involved in facilitating them. 
 
Lead an Extreme Team
Postsecondary success is a critical lever for achieving social and racial equity. A college degree remains the most important factor in driving economic mobility and access to well-paying jobs. Only by successfully collaborating across organizations will we increase college success for traditionally marginalized populations. Such collaborations require a framework like that of Extreme Teaming, which includes a single organization to lead the work.
 
Are you putting together your Extreme Team?
 
Achieve Atlanta’s vision is that Atlanta is a city where race and income no longer predict postsecondary success and upward mobility. Through cross-sector collaborations with organizations including the College Advising Corps, OneGoal, 11 colleges and universities, Edu-Tech Enterprises, The College Board, The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, APS, and others, Achieve Atlanta helps students access, afford, and earn postsecondary credentials. In the six years since its founding, Achieve Atlanta has created a powerful cross-sector collaboration model that improves postsecondary outcomes for roughly 800 Achieve Atlanta Scholars annually; it has impacted more than 4,000 postsecondary students in total.
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