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Improving our city's economy through education

Sarina Coleman

Temple University

Sarina Coleman

There is a lot of talk in Philly these days about talent attraction and attainment -- how do we lure the San Francisco start-up maven, the brilliant Chicago college student or the European scientist? And how do we get them to stay? But there is another story to tell. It might not be quite as glamorous, but it is essential to building our city's economy and transforming its culture. 

That story is about homegrown talent. It's about creating those trajectories -- job growth, entrepreneurial innovation, academic achievement -- using the people who are already here. It's about building bridges to our city's underserved and undereducated populations -- those rich in potential if not opportunity -- through education and training.

According to research from CEOs for Cities, each additional percentage point improvement in aggregate adult four-year college attainment is associated with a $856 increase in annual per capita income (using data from 2010). Raising the median adult four-year college attainment rate of the top 51 metro areas from 30.7 percent to 31.7 percent would be associated with an increase in income of $143 billion per year for the nation. They call this the Talent Dividend.

"We have two Philadelphias," explains Deborah Diamond of Campus Philly, a nonprofit organization that urges college students to study, live and work in the Greater Philadelphia region. "We have a thriving, highly-educated, entrepreneurial, civically-engaged Philadelphia and we have a disenfranchised, poor, poorly-educated piece of Philadelphia -- and that's a problem."

Fortunately, there are a lot of groups working to bridge that gap through higher education. These partners include city government, local universities, employers and community groups. They are collaborating to funnel kids into college, shepherd adults back to school and place that newly-educated workforce.

College Prep

Sarina Coleman is a mother of three who grew up in West Oak Lane. When she graduated from Germantown High School, college wasn't on her radar. 

"During my high school years, I wasn't even really familiar with what it took to get into college," says Coleman. "I knew that my friends were going to college -- their parents were shipping them off. And I thought, what about me? What is it that I needed to do? I was the oldest of four children. With those responsibilities, I wasn't even thinking about college."

The Mayor's Office is working hard to reach students like Coleman. In 2010, the Office of Education launched PhillyGoes2College -- they have since reached almost 30,000 students.

"Our office started as an information and referral center, but it became very clear early on that some people need more intensive help than that," explains Barbara Mattleman, director of PhillyGoes2College. "So, we do have an office in City Hall, but most of our work is done around the city. We offer workshops on how to write essays for a college or scholarship application. We focus on students of any age, from kindergarteners to adults. Right now, in Philadelphia, there are a lot more jobs for people with a college degree."

Mattleman asserts that they will partner with "anybody, everybody" to improve educational attainment in the city. "There's not just one strategy that's going to increase the college attainment rate," she says. "It's going to be all of us coming up with strategies together."

In her early twenties, Coleman worked mostly in schools, often as a teacher's assistant or aid. Then, when she was 24, standing at the bus stop on her way home from work, she had an epiphany.  "Something said to me, this is what you're supposed to do," she recalls. "I started looking into going back to college."

Coleman enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia while also working towards a four-year degree in biblical theology from Vanguard University, a Christian university based in California. 

"I graduated from [Vanguard] in 2007," says Coleman, conceding that her theology degree didn't translate into employment opportunities. "I was still in community college as a part-time student. I thought, there has to be more than just this. I began to be interested in human services, social work and public policy. I began to look into schools that tailored toward those things."

One of the local institutions that helped Coleman make the next leap was Graduate! Philadelphia (check out an in-depth Q&A with Graduate!'s Hadass Sheffer here). 

"Graduate! Philadelphia was inside the Gallery on Market Street," recalls Coleman. "They were across from a hair salon on the second level. I sat down with a woman. She took me through an assessment to see where I was and what things I would like as far as college was concerned."

Graduate! also helped Coleman negotiate the world of financial aid, grants and scholarships. 

Without that sort of targeted guidance, the process of going to school (or going back to school) can be intimidating. Often students have debt, family commitments or employment they are afraid to jeopardize. The case has to be made that it will be worth it -- and guaranteeing employment is the best way to do that. 

Work Force

"A lot of programs are 'train and pray,'" explains University City District's Matt Bergheiser. "You train people and you pray they get a job. Here, what we do is work with the employers up front. They tell us their needs. They help us design the programs and do the recruitment. We've been really pleased with the outcomes we've seen."

University City District (UCD) wasn't always in the business of educating and empowering native Philadelphians -- or, in their case, West Philadelphians. They are technically a Business Improvement District (BID), a partnership of private entities including universities and health care providers. They were founded 16 years ago, and, for the first 13, worked exclusively on physical improvements to the neighborhood. 

"About three years ago, we took a step back and said, 'We have some of the biggest and most progressive employers in the region,'" explains Bergheiser. "Then you look at the West Philadelphia community, and you still have thousands of people disconnected from the economic mainstream. Are we the right group to try to bridge that gap? To connect the people who have talent -- but maybe not opportunity -- to jobs?"

About a year ago, they launched the West Philadelphia Skills Center for Economic Advancement. As a supplement to all the training they organize on-site at worksites, this new 2,000-square-foot space ensures that they can create pipelines to a more diverse slate of jobs -- and help people who have more complicated employment needs.

"People are dying for the opportunity," says Bergheiser. "We're currently running a program for a patient-care position at CHOP [Children's Hospital of Philadelphia] -- there were about 25 openings, we got 246 applications within two days. They've heard from friends and family and neighbors about this program. You're talking about people who grew up maybe 20 blocks from an anchor institution but might as well have been a thousand miles away in terms of thinking, hey, I could work there."

Once those West Philadelphians are in the door at an employer like Penn, Drexel or CHOP, the opportunities for advancement are huge -- in fact, UCD only trains for jobs where there is explicit upward mobility. Those employers also encourage workers to go back to school and offer tuition reimbursement, resulting in loyal, valuable employees.

"In a city where 'Eds and Meds' dominate the economy -- and there are a lot of cities like that around the country -- we think taking this approach is really important," says Bergheiser. "What if you could replicate this in other communities? What if you could replicate it around other big employers in the city and region? The model works."

"We work on both sides of the talent divide," he continues. "We're helping to foster this great neighborhood that attracts people from other places, working with institutions that are a magnet for talent from around the world, but on the flip side, there is talent right in our own backyard. We can break down some of those barriers and bridge the skills divide, taking folks from point A to B."

By thinking holistically about their small section of the city and its specific needs, UCD was able to design a highly effective program. It's an example of how "new economy" assets -- adaptability, innovation, collaboration -- can be used to solve Philadelphia's larger education and employment problems.

"Philadelphia's young energy and talent are amenable to really innovative approaches -- startup approaches -- that can really help address problems, whether it's by using technology or civic engagement," says Diamond. "I think the two [Philadelphias] are actually meeting in a pretty exciting way. We have these challenges in our city, but we also have tools in our toolbox."

After her sit-down at Graduate! Philadelphia, Sarina Coleman was off and running, enrolling at Temple University to work towards a degree in Social Administration. She'll graduate in May 2014 and looks forward to finding work in the non-profit sector.

The impact is already exponential. "My kids are looking at college," says Coleman. "The cycle has started as far as higher education. Since they were young, little babies running around, education is mandatory. There is no other option."

Flying Kite has partnered with CEOs For Cities to highlight efforts to improve Philadelphia's Talent Dividend.

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.

All photographs by MANUEL DOMINGUEZ JR

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