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Cradle-to-career systems

What is it?

In communities across the country, leaders are building neighborhood-level cradle-to-career systems to provide children with health, social, and educational supports from birth through college and career. Cradle-to-career systems like Promise Neighborhoods and the pioneering Harlem Children’s Zone use wraparound education supports to break the cycle of generational poverty by helping children effectively learn, grow, and succeed. Guided by a commitment to long-term, large-scale change in an entire community, cradle-to-career systems bring residents, school staff, community leaders, and service providers together to focus their collective efforts on addressing pivotal areas of a child’s development: early learning and development, elementary benchmarks, successful transition to middle school and high school, on-time high school graduation, and successful enrollment and matriculation from postsecondary education and career tracks. This includes not only delivering high-quality programming inside and outside of schools, but also delivering policy and systems change to break down barriers to opportunity for all residents of a community.

Developing the robust infrastructure to support, sustain, and scale-up an effective cradle-to-career continuum requires a long-term commitment and discipline across a broad range of stakeholders. By coordinating and aligning resources to address the full range of challenges facing children and families in a given neighborhood, wraparound educational supports can do more than improve school outcomes for students — a 2015 return-on-investment study found that, conservatively, every dollar invested in the Northside Achievement Zone in North Minneapolis produced a social return of more than six dollars.

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed on the right, see the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink (PNI), the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Coalition for Community Schools, and StriveTogether for more resources on wraparound educational supports.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can convene and coordinate stakeholders and authorize funding for nonprofit or faith-based organizations, higher education institutions, and Indian tribe or tribal organizations to partner with schools in cradle-to-career efforts.
  • Community-based organizations and other advocates willing to align their services, advocacy, and leadership are essential partners in designing and implementing wraparound support systems.

Key considerations

Cities seeking to develop effective cradle-to-career systems must consider a range of related policy and practical questions:

  • Building strong coalitions: Schools, public agencies, advocates, and community-based organizations that come together to build a cradle-to-career system should begin by agreeing on a strategic vision, defining clear and measurable goals, and committing to continuous improvement toward those goals, including adapting strategies. 
  • Coordinating a continuum of solutions: A systems-change approach to student success requires more than disparate services. It requires evidence-based programs, family engagement, policy leverage, and a high degree of coordination among multiple actors who share responsibility for a core set of results.
  • Securing funds: Public-private partnerships can play an important role in sustainably funding wraparound support systems. Federal, state, and local public monies can take the form of competitive grants or regular appropriations, but local leaders should seek to supplement these funds through philanthropic or business partnerships.
  • Measuring and tracking results over time: Wraparound support systems should use longitudinal data to measure student, family, and community progress over time, and to evaluate and improve the quality of their programs and solutions. 
  • Long-term planning: Based upon the experience of the Harlem Children’s Zone, it could take a minimum of 20 years for an effective pipeline to be built within a community. Partner organizations and agencies should be committed to a long-term vision for developing the infrastructure of systems and resources needed to sustain and scale-up effective solutions. This means not just planning for the infrastructure to sustain the current scope of a cradle-to-career system, but also planning for the scale necessary to reach population-level outcomes.
  • Advocating for systems change: The capacity to leverage policy advocacy and systems change is critical to scaling up and sustaining efforts to ensure that young people are healthy and connected to the necessary services and supports to prepare them for college and career success. The Cradle to Career Act of 201_ provides model legislation to be used at the state and local level to secure support for cradle to career efforts.

Where is it working?

Local leaders are most successful in building, scaling, and sustaining cradle-to-career systems when they use a disciplined approach that integrates the efforts of schools, families, and community partners.

  • The Harlem Children’s Zone, a formal partner in the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink, began with a pilot program in the 1990s serving a single block in Harlem, with the goal of addressing all the issues facing the children and families living there — not only school quality and academic performance, but also broader challenges related to housing, health, and safety. By building strong relationships between community members, institutions, and best-practice programs, the organization grew to encompass nearly 100 blocks by 2007 and today serves 25,000 youth and adults. Since 2010, the Family Support Center has helped 1,200 families stabilize and afford foster care. In 2016, the college acceptance rate across programs was 96 percent.
  • In San Antonio, Texas, Eastside Promise Neighborhood (EPN) leaders are strengthening educational systems that have failed generations of children and youth — primarily low-income students and students of color — by using a results-driven, cradle-to-career framework as a vehicle to support organizational learning within youth-serving institutions. EPN and its partners in the school district and the City of San Antonio, have committed to using a results framework that provides a clear way to measure outcomes, a means for aligning partners and solutions, and a common language for communicating progress with families, residents, partners, funders, and the general public. This focus on results is paying off: the number of children age 5 or younger who have a consistent medical provider, other than an emergency room, has increased by 17 percent since 2013. The share of parents or family members who regularly read to their young children has doubled to 50 percent, and 77 percent of parents or family members with children in high school are helping their students plan for college and career – a nearly 25 percentage-point increase since 2013. 
  • In Austin, Webb Middle School and Reagan High School, two of the worst performing schools in Austin Independent School District, implemented a community school model when they were on the verge of closure in 2007. This entailed redesigning school discipline policies based on restorative justice, introducing mental health programs, providing day-care programs and clinical care for student mothers, making new investments in creative arts education, and offering English language courses for parents. Webb Middle School, where 98 percent of students are youth of color and 93 percent are economically disadvantaged, operates a family resource center with community partners and was the highest performing Title 1 middle school in Austin in 2015. Reagan High School has become an early college, offering students concurrent college-credit opportunities, and has almost doubled its graduation rate from 43 percent in 2003 to 85 percent in 2011.