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Collective Impact

When a town unites, their children thrive

At first glance, the graduation rate looked average—70 percent. But when the town of Geneva, New York, looked closer, the numbers were upsetting. Learning disabled children were graduating at 37 percent, children of color at 42 percent. That’s when Dr. Mark Gearan, then-president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, went to Washington. He came back with lessons about collective impact, an approach to community change that involves, well, just about every stakeholder in sight.

“It sounds easy in theory,” notes Katie Flowers, director of the Center for Community Engagement & Service Learning at the colleges. “But it was messy.” One hundred and forty people—including leaders from a local bank, the regional newspaper, the Boys & Girls Club, the local community college, and a furniture store—packed the local Ramada. Together participants realized that what was messy was their traditional aquarium approach to civic action, with one organization tutoring reading, another providing after-school activities. “Every fish was swimming in a different direction,” notes Flowers. With collective action, Geneva, population 13,000, could turn its education around.

Since launching Geneva 2020 in 2011, Geneva has made its mark. In 2015, it won an All-American City designation (competing against towns like Tallahassee, population 181,000). The win sparked another win, $10 million from the State of New York. But the biggest win is the way the community contributes, developing regular programs connecting college students with second, sixth, and ninth graders; offering free college classes to high school seniors; and developing science stations for students.

Graduation rates rose from 70.7 percent in 2010 to 84.9 percent in 2016, and the number of high school students taking AP exams has tripled. With support from McGowan, Geneva 2020 now has a full-time coordinator, which could help extend its vision well beyond 2020, says Flowers.

Inspirer-in-chief Mark Gearan is now at Harvard, but he knows the future is bright. “The genius of collective impact is that it gave direction,” he says. HWS’s current president, Greg Vincent, has affirmed the direction. Watching HWS students tutor children at the Boys & Girls Club, he told them, “Sitting side by side with these kids [is] where some of your most important lessons will be learned.” And one of them will be: Work together.