Joining Forces to Zap Barriers

March 15, 2016

Photo by on Unsplash

What Makes the Best Superhero Leagues?

Have you ever wondered what makes the magnetism of superhero leagues strong enough to incite moviegoers worldwide to congregate in anticipation of watching the films? For example, what drives people to show up in droves to see movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, which grossed over $1.4 billion worldwide, making it the seventh-highest-grossing film in history?

Well, it could be the cool uniforms or the action-packed scenes…the intimidating villains or the suspenseful score. It could be because of an interesting story line or the element of surprise…the climactic battle scenes or even genuine humor from the characters.

It could be all of those things, but two existential, societal truths are that this concept of superhero leagues is not new and the concept does not exist solely in films or fantasy.

Superhero leagues consist of individuals, each with their own distinct and extraordinary strengths and talents, who unite for a particular purpose. They pool their resources together to take on a challenge for a larger, quite significant purpose—usually on behalf of others.

This concept is visible in the youthCONNECT network partnership at Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The Challenge: Zapping Barriers to Bright Futures

For decades, Prince George’s County in Maryland has been plagued by high rates of poverty, which has produced social ills that have placed it near the bottom of regional comparisons. It can be assumed that these difficulties created barriers in the lives of the young people in the County.

In recent years and since the election of County Executive Rushern Baker, conditions have improved, and the County has started to experience an explosion of economic development.

Venture Philanthropy Partners worked with Prince George’s County to bring youthCONNECT as a response to the challenges facing youth in the County. Most of the challenges were far too complex to attempt to solve alone. It would take a combined effort to effectively address the critical challenges. The mission would be to build a supportive and enduring community that prepares students at Suitland to seize college and career opportunities and create a legacy of success. For example, it would support youth in attaining a postsecondary credential or gainful employment and help sustain healthy behaviors.

With this goal in mind for youth in the County, youthCONNECT at Suitland High School was born!

youthCONNECT at Suitland High School is a cross-sector initiative that empowers several organizations to work together to improve the lives of vulnerable young people in Prince George’s County.

In other words, this is a league of champions, each with their own extraordinary strengths, who have joined forces to zap the barriers that often prevent young people from successfully transitioning to college and career after high school.

The Partnership: Assembling the League of Champions

youthCONNECT at Suitland High School combines five high-performing nonprofits in one location as a place-based opportunity to knock out barriers for students. And as an added one-two punch, the collaboration also includes Prince George’s County Public Schools, philanthropic investors and businesses to form a circle of support.

Natika Cromer, an advisor for College Summit, talks about the importance of this collaboration. “I really think partnership and collaboration is important because another point of view, another set of hands, another set of ears helps to alleviate the pressure on one person, said Cromer. “Sometimes there are things that I may not see that someone else may be able to see a little more clearly and give suggestions on how things can be done more efficiently.”

The five high-performing organizations that make up youthCONNECT at Suitland High School are College Summit-NCR, Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, Maryland Multicultural Youth Center, Urban Alliance, and Year Up NCR.

College Summit-NCR builds the capacity of schools to increase college enrollment rates by creating a path for all students to college and career.

Tim Spicer, the school partnership manager for College Summit, gives one perspective of how College Summit and youthCONNECT are impacting students. “I have seen [the students’] excitement about doing the work, not solely subject-specific, but also goal- and life-specific,” said Spicer. “It seems like they really reap the benefits of discussing those goals and thinking about what their futures look like. That’s how I know we are making an impact in their futures.”

Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection helps at-risk youth living in poverty to stay in school and progress to postsecondary education and/or employment. The organization also addresses chronically low graduation rates and job readiness among urban youth.

Candra Jackson, a youth advocate at Hillside, says this about her fellow champions in youthCONNECT: “Once we get to sit down with them and have a conversation, they are amazed that someone who doesn’t even know them on a personal level yet cares about them.”

Maryland Multicultural Youth Center uses an intensive case-management model for “reconnecting” youth to educational and social supports that enable students to regain control of their lives and achieve their academic, career and personal goals.

Tarketa Williams, a Promotor for the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center, talks about integrating Hillside’s services into Suitland High School. “Recently, we have started networking ourselves and talking to principals and the counseling office. Hillside has been a major support in helping us network.”

Urban Alliance prepares  Career Academy students for their internship experience. The Urban Alliance curriculum provides a variety of work-readiness foundational skills trainings such as communication in the workplace, conflict resolution, time management and other important interpersonal skills.

Najmah Amad, the former director of curriculum outreach for Urban Alliances, gives her perspective on youthCONNECT. “We are working to create a culture of career and college readiness, and we need the partnership from youthCONNECT to help create that culture. It is the all-around support that we get from our partners and the staff at Suitland that reinforces the importance of that culture,” said Amad.

Year Up NCR provides high school graduates up to age 24 with technical and professional skills training, college credits, an education stipend and corporate internship. Year Up also partners with youthCONNECT to streamline the application process for graduating seniors.

Guylaine Saint Juste, executive director of Year Up National Capital Region, expresses her enthusiasm about being a partner in youthCONNECT. “We are thankful to Venture Philanthropy Partners for creating this powerful network, and it has truly been an honor to be a part of it, said Sainte Juste. “It’s exciting for us to have an additional opportunity to provide youth with multiple pathways to success.”

Each of the five organizations contribute their individual strengths to youthCONNECT; combining these organizations creates a mighty force working on behalf of youth—a “league of champions.”

The Future: Building a Foundation for Greater Impact

Taryn Washington, the vice principal at Suitland High School, discusses why partnership and collaboration through youthCONNECT is so important. “The impact is twofold, for us and for the students. It is good for students to see all the partners and what they do. All the partners come in with their different ideas, suggestions and goals to change the lives of others,” said Washington.

“Hopefully, it will make such an impact on the students that when they are older, they are inspired to do the same thing and give back to the next generation. That’s the full circle.”

This is just the beginning of the youthCONNECT initiative in Prince George’s County. There will be an expansion of this program into Oxon Hill High School and High Point High School.

Ready for Work builds a pipeline to improve education, employment and healthy behavior outcomes for young people. By 2022, more than 900 students from the three high schools are projected to graduate every year prepared for employment and college.

But the impact does not stop there. This collaboration will be a continuum of impact, especially if, as Suitland’s vice principal said, students are inspired to give back to the next generation.

The one element that connects us and inspires us about superhero leagues is the knowledge that there is a team of people out there working together to make things better for all—this is what youthCONNECT is all about.