Better Know a Network: Higher Expectations for Racine County

Higher Expectations for Racine County has existed in some form since 2007. In 2014, Higher Expectations’ executive director Jeff Neubauer came together with the national director of the StriveTogether organization, Jeff Edmonson, to outline a new vision for the coalition. Edmonson wanted to galvanize the community, bringing new energy to the network and identify core and measurable areas for Higher Expectations to focus. These areas included kindergarten readiness, elementary reading, high school graduation, post-secondary completion, and finally, employment. Higher Expectations launched as a StriveTogether initiative in 2014. Early champions of the network were the leadership of school districts (the superintendent and deputy superintendent of the local district), Racine County, United Way of Racine County, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and several global business executives. The network was initially funded by these business executives, including five-year commitments for local employers supporting the initial staffing. Higher Expectations has since procured two national grants, allowing them to expand their budget and support more community strategies in addition to the backbone organization. The initial concrete vision for Higher Expectations was creating a fully employed, capable workforce in the county of Racine. To support that vision, the organization has focused on the importance of aligning resources across the network and using data and evidence to measure and improve outcomes for children and adults in the area.

This emphasis and use of data are one of the greatest successes of Higher Expectations for Racine County. Part of this focus developed from the fact that many of the first champions of Higher Expectations were business partners who were very accustomed to using and analyzing data. It is also core to StriveTogether’s theory of what strong local partnerships need to be effective. This has led to the network using data in a variety of different ways, from supporting partner organizations to building capacity for evaluating the effectiveness of programs. They work with a regional association of higher education institutions called HERA, which has been able to encourage all its 18 institutions to share standardized data between them. They use public and regional dashboards to look at important indicators of success and summarize trends. Higher Expectations has helped these partners and others by assisting them in the customization and use of data for many purposes. Also, the network uses and shares both public and in-house data to spark broader conversations in the community to develop strategies moving forward. This data has informed and allowed for the measurement of many community programs that Higher Expectations supports, which is another big area of success for the network.

One of the most significant focus areas for Racine County partners and Higher Expectations has been a fully capable and employed Racine County workforce. The City of Racine has had the highest rate of unemployment in the state of Wisconsin for most of the last 30 years, so this is a major local issue being addressed by the network. One way that Higher Expectations is addressing this issue is through designing a paid workforce training program with local service providers and a large health care employer. This program will focus on female heads of households, primarily those with young children. This goal is to improve the areas of both employment and early childhood, as mothers receive income, training, and wrap-around supports, which in turn improves the lives and education of their children. To inform this program, Higher Expectations and partners have done a great job of seeking feedback and input from the actual target audience of mothers themselves.

Another initiative, which has already moved the needle on success indicators, is a partnership with UW Parkside and Gateway Technical College through a grant sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. Higher Expectations has supported significant work both externally and internally at both institutions. The results of this are that UW-Parkside has managed to increase its graduation rate for three consecutive years. The university is now at one of its highest graduation rates ever, which is especially important given that the school is one of the most racially diverse campuses in the entire UW system. This aspect, racial equity, and diversity have also been one of the hallmarks of Higher Expectations’ efforts.

In a recent article by 24/7 Wall Street, Racine and nearby Milwaukee ranked and respectively on a list of the worst places for African-Americans to live in the country. This report, along with national priorities of Higher Expectations’ funder StriveTogether, has catalyzed the integration of a racial equity lens into all of the network’s work and programs. They seek to think holistically and systemically about equity across all sectors of community participation, from housing to employment to education. This focus on racial equity has informed many of their strategic decisions and has led to it becoming a tenet at the core of Higher Expectations and its work. The network has worked to engage and start a conversation in their organization and the community around this tenet, which is vital to make sure their programs are not only successful in improving community members’ lives but are successful for everyone.

Moving forward, Higher Expectations for Racine County has many reasons to be optimistic. Their knowledge and use of data in their organization and outside partnerships is incredible and offers support and information for many of their programs.  The community has been successful in moving the needle in terms of employment and college and high school graduation rates. In the future, the network hopes to be more effective thanks to their recent collaboration with the government of the city of Racine. Through this partnership, they aim to expand programs around high school achievement and workforce training and develop a long term, racially aware plan for housing in their region. Whatever the future for Higher Expectations holds, the network’s affinity for using data and their experience with aligning strategies will undoubtedly inform decisions and contribute toward success.