New regional effort to boost student success

Educators, businesses and nonprofits come together

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

A new effort is underway to unite education, community and business groups to improve students’ graduation rates and career success across Central Oregon.

Better Together has been at work for just over a year, but officially launched this month with an event at the Redmond Public Library. The undertaking was spurred by a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, which brought together the six Central Oregon school districts, the High Desert Education Service District, Central Oregon Community College, OSU-Cascades, local nonprofits and businesses. The aim of Better Together is not to start new programs but instead to coordinate toward promoting a set of outcomes that encourage graduation and employment, with the recognition that a student’s success depends on much more than what happens at school.

“The message to schools is, ‘You’re not in this alone,’” said Anna Higgins, the organization’s coordinator of student success. “It’s not just about academic success, it’s about the whole child, within the family and community contexts. To do this, we have a collection of some unlikely partners, and working on these outcomes matters for different reasons to each group.”

Besides the education partners, some of Better Together’s members include representatives from Economic Development for Central Oregon, St. Charles Health System and the Latino Community Organization.

Better Together has identified 23 outcomes spread across the “cradle to career” timeline, including assuring elementary children have basic food and housing needs met and that local organizations are actively hosting interns. The organization has divided the timeline into four progressive age categories — early learning and wellness, supporting families, bridges, and education and training for career.

While each category has five or six target areas, Better Together has selected a few in each to focus on during its early stages. For example, the organization is beginning to coordinate efforts to ensure students make a successful transition from eighth to ninth grade, a goal from the bridges category.

In this area, Higgins said Better Together is helping to connect school districts with mentoring groups. The idea is for schools to identify students who could benefit from additional guidance and whom Better Together can help match with mentoring opportunities already in place, such as through the Boys & Girls Club.

“We’re not creating any program, but saying who already does this, and how can we coordinate it,” Higgins said. “One nonprofit shouldn’t be responsible for every new ninth-grader.”

For older students, Better Together is working to pair more high schoolers with internships and to encourage more businesses to accept them.

“For businesses, it’s an opportunity to be matched with students who are interested in their field, instead of just having someone dumped on your doorstep,” said Roger Lee, executive director of EDCO. “I think employers want to get involved because it gives them a chance to shape what the emerging workforce will look like. Today, employers are finding they have to re-educate new hires.”

Higgins emphasized Better Together is just starting, and the group will be expanding the areas it targets over the years. Right now, one focus is to do a baseline study that examines where Central Oregon is in each of the 23 focus areas .

“In the nonprofit sector, there’s historically been the fear of competition,” Higgins said. “We’re not afraid of that, as we’re asking groups to get involved and wrap themselves around these shared outcomes. We call it mutually reinforcing efforts.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com