Enter the Young: Six City-Level Strategies to Harness Critical Talent for Education Reform (Part 3 of 3)

In my last two posts I cited a new report by Joe Cortright at City Observatory that describes an increase in the number of young and educated workers moving to America’s inner-cities over the last decade, the upside of this trend, and dangers of gentrification and segregation that it could bring. All in all, I think there’s a huge opportunity for city and education leaders to attract and retain young and educated workers in their city’s urban education reform movement while honoring long-time residents.

How might they do this? Here are six strategies they can employ:

  • Make your city a magnet. Macro-level demographic shifts emerge from millions of individuals making decisions. For college graduates, cities with good public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, diversity, culture, professional sports teams, and nightlife are important. Richard Florida has complementary posts on this here and here. In many cities, these attributes exist but aren’t known widely. Take entrepreneurial activity in Baltimore or the art scene in Detroit as examples. In these cases, there’s an opportunity for intermediary organizations and city governments to launch aggressive recruitment campaigns that highlight their assets. Where these urban assets aren’t present, education leaders should team up with city and business leaders to create policies that invest in walkability, affordable housing, nightlife, and entrepreneurial opportunity as a long-term talent strategy.
  • Source local talent and recapture diasporans. The focus of this series has been on young educated professionals moving into the inner city at a rapid rate, but every city has native talent and natives who’ve moved away. To create a talent strategy only around newcomers would be incomplete and insulting to a city’s long-time residents. State, cities, and universities could work together to market the professional and social benefits of living in inner cities to college juniors and seniors. Kansas provided loan forgiveness to recent college grads if they moved to rural areas. Why can’t states do the same for inner cities? Organizations like Challenge Detroit that run programs to identify native talent and provide them with career advancing opportunities can help establish local talent pipelines. Another valuable segment to pursue is diasporans, people from a city who have left, but still have an affinity for their hometown. Recapturing diasporans would likely take the form of marketing in targeted geographies coupled aggressive, high-touch recruiting from local organizations, and incentives like relocation stipends or loan forgiveness.
  • Build pipelines. Having talent pipeline organizations with expertise recruiting young professionals from across the country is critical. Teach for America, TNTP, New Leaders, Education Pioneers, The Strategic Data Project, and the Broad Residency are musts. The immediate benefit of having a steady stream of top talent is clear: organizations get skilled workers to execute their mission. But there’s more to it. When nationally recognized organizations put down roots in a city, it also signals to top-shelf school operators looking to expand that there will be enough quality principals and teachers to fuel their schools. City and education leaders should look to recruit such organizations, curry local support for their expansion, lower any barriers to entry, and fund startup costs to ensure a successful launch.
  • Introduce the neighbors.  Urban planner and blogger, Pete Saunders sees bringing these two populations together as an opportunity to introduce vital social, professional, and housing networks to low-income communities that need them. “Doing so, however, requires engagement by city newcomers in the neighborhoods they move into, and the companies they work for, in ways perhaps they had not imagined.” He has some great ideas on this; read them here. But it’s not a one-way street. Inner city communities can also help bridge differences that they might have with their neighbors by providing opportunities for newcomers to learn about local history in engaging, age-appropriate ways. For millennials, civic center lectures and walking history tours aren’t going to cut it. Instead, think along the lines of Nerd Nite where people give funny, alcohol-fueled, informative lectures at bars. Smart, compelling local media coverage like this and this, social media campaigns like Humans of New York, and public art installations can raise awareness as well. It’s likelier that someone will protect what is good and unique about a place if provided compelling opportunities to learn about its history.
  • Catch and DON’T release. Retaining young talent after they’ve migrated is an equally important but often neglected part of a long-term talent strategy. At the organization level, education organizations must strive to be talent-ready by building truly diverse teams as well as providing competitive compensation, autonomy, career development opportunities, recognition, effective management, and work-life balance – factors shown to increase retention. At the system level, local foundations and intermediaries must create a local ecosystem teeming with high-quality organizations so that young and highly mobile workers don’t feel constrained by a lack of options and flee to another city. Policy can play a role here too. Cities and states can offer incentives to individuals working for education organizations, such as low-interest home loans and student loan forgiveness.
  • Double down on dramatic reform efforts. As young professional age, start families, and look to put down roots, their desires shift from an active nightlife scene to things like single-family homes, open space, convenience, and (of course) schools. A looming question exists around whether there will be enough high-performing inner city schools to keep them from fleeing to the suburbs, what Mike Petrilli calls the diverse schools dilemma. Education reform is rarely considered a talent strategy, but access to good schools is a driving factor for relocation decisions which reinforces the importance of dramatic, swift, and cost effective city-wide reform efforts. Cities must work across all three sectors – district, charter, and private – to create a common vision for a dynamic system of schools and aggressively pursue strategies that deliver results quickly and cost efficiently.

In a country where the population of tier two and three cities fluctuate wildly over time, these tactics can help smaller cities compete in the war for talent and distinguish themselves from the rest.

I opened this series with a lyric from the song Enter the Young by The Association because it expresses a combination of energy, optimism, intelligence, caring, and daring that can invigorate urban education reform. It’s easy to envision deep racial and economic divides resulting from this trend, but that doesn’t make it inevitable. The work in front of us is to proactively mitigate risks and maximize benefits to urban communities through policy, planning, and practice.

But the influx of young, educated talent moving into America’s inner cities is a trend. And like all trends, it will change over time so acting on it with urgency is important. I’m convinced that coordinated policies, creativity, and a vigilant stance toward equity can capture this vital demographic and integrate them into communities so there’s mutual benefit.