By Mary Jean Ryan

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Suburban communities experiencing rapid economic and demographic changes are not helpless bystanders. Their leaders can invent fresh approaches appropriate for their new community realities. One of the key principles advanced in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, is that communities must lead the way to new solutions and collaborations that tap their collective assets and aspirations.

“Collective impact” work is gaining traction in many communities across the country. The term describes a strategic approach to addressing important and challenging social issues that are beyond the scope of any single entity to address alone. This brief details how the Road Map Project, a four-year-old collective impact project focusing on South Seattle and its southern suburbs, emerged to tackle the region’s education challenges. This brief also addresses the progress to date and what it suggests for other regions that may be contemplating similar collaborations that span traditional jurisdiction and sector boundaries.


Some of the most intense demographic and economic changes in the United States are occurring in southern King County, WA. These communities, which grew up around economic anchors such as the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, The Boeing Company, and the Port of Seattle, have been transformed by international migration, job losses and gains, and demographic changes affecting the city of Seattle and its suburbs.

These changes are particularly evident in schools. In the six major school districts of South King County, 65% of K–12 students are nonwhite, making the area a “minority-majority” region. Approximately 60 percent of students are from low-income families. Collectively, these families speak more than 160 languages.

The creation of the Road Map Project was prompted not only by increasing poverty in South King County’s schools, but also by the growing mismatch between the skills it takes to succeed in greater Seattle’s knowledge-intensive economy and the educational attainment of the children growing up in South King County communities.

According to research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018 67 percent of jobs in Washington State will require some form of postsecondary credentials (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, June 2010). Yet when the Road Map Project started, only approximately 25 percent of South King County students were receiving a college degree or some type of postsecondary credential by their mid-20s. Results were far worse for students of color. The low attainment levels for local students contrast sharply with the high levels of attainment in the county’s adult workforce. Approximately 47 percent of adults in King County have a bachelor’s degree, but only one in four were actually born in Washington State. The Seattle region is effectively importing its talent, while the full potential of thousands of local children goes unrealized.

Road Map Project RegionThe Road Map Project Region

The Road Map Project region includes communities served by seven school districts (the southern part of Seattle and the six South King County districts). Together, the districts serve almost 121,000 K-12 students. The geography covers a very large, mostly suburban area of approximately 200 square miles.

The Innovation

The Road Map Project was started in 2010 to address some big challenges facing the region, including low postsecondary attainment, growing suburban poverty, rapidly changing demographics, siloed service delivery, and inadequate civic and service structures.

Although the Road Map Project formally launched in 2010, leaders in the region had laid much of the groundwork during the previous year. By mid-2009, I had decided to leave my job as Policy Director for the City of Seattle so I could exclusively focus on improving education. I spent much of the latter portion of 2009 gauging the region’s appetite for change. People from a variety of sectors began informal conversations regarding the need for a new approach to the region’s education challenges. Philanthropic leaders, housing authorities, city government leaders, nonprofits, community activists, education advocates, and a range of education service providers (from early learning to the chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges) were frustrated with the status quo and were willing to try something new.

Many people involved in the startup phase (including myself) had known one another for years. For some, their connections began when they worked together on the Norman B. Rice mayoral team (Rice was Seattle’s mayor from 1990 to 1998). Others had collaborated on education and other social justice issues. The members’ work together had led to a high degree of trust, and the desire to find better ways of making an impact.

Studying national examples proved very helpful to our start-up phase. At the end of 2009, a delegation traveled to New York to learn about the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization with a holistic, community-wide approach to education. In March 2010, a smaller group visited Strive in Cincinnati, one of the first collective impact efforts focused on improving education from cradle to college and career. By late spring 2010,the Road Map Project was off and running, and the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) was created exclusively to staff the regional project. The Seattle Foundation initially served as fiscal agent for CCER, provided office space, seed funds, and other assistance for the initial effort. The Gates Foundation, along with many other local funders also invested in the start-up and helped with many early planning activities. A core group of leaders from many sectors formed the Sponsor Group, the body that provides strategic advice and direction to the Road Map Project. In addition, a much larger multisector group called the Education Results Network also formed in 2010 to provide input on key project decisions.

At its inception, no one could have predicted exactly what the Road Map Project would become, but there was early agreement among the sponsors on important principles. We agreed we needed to:

  • Work cradle to college and career (in school and out)
  • Focus regionally to target communities with highest needs
  • Prioritize closing racial and income opportunity gaps
  • Use data to inform our strategic actions and to shine light on successes and challenges
  • Invent new capacities to do important work that was “no one’s job”
  • Build a coalition from various sectors to work together to advance the common agenda

With no clear “playbook” on how to achieve our ambitious goals, we began our work. Four years later, we have built a sizable cross-sector partnership of aligned implementers and advocates. The project has contributed to an increase in regional College Bound Scholarship sign-up rates from 50 percent to 94 percent of low-income eighth graders, and helped the seven school districts in the project win a $40 million Race to the Top grant. The Road Map Project has also created new parent engagement indicators, started community-level data dialogues, and established an extensive collaboration in support of summer reading. The list of achievements is building.

Here are some important takeaways from what we have learned so far.

Lessons Learned

1. Set bold, but achievable, goals.

The initial mobilization phase of work mirrored the path taken by Cincinnati Strive. Significant outreach helped make new connections and brought a broad base of regional stakeholders into active project participation. Multisector committees identified the project’s indicators of student success. In fall 2010, the project finalized its indicators and established its overarching goal: to double the number of students in South King County and South Seattle who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020 and to close opportunity gaps. We have also set interim targets for many of our indicators, and we report on progress annually.

The project held a large community kickoff in December 2010 to unveil the indicators. People from around the region committed to reaching the goal for 2020. The region’s political leadership; community advocates; and leaders in the education, housing, health, philanthropy, and nonprofit sectors attended the conference.

2. Out with the old boundaries.

Given the rapidly shifting demographics of South Seattle and South King County, the project needed to look beyond antiquated jurisdictional dividing lines toward broader areas of opportunity and need. We selected our geographic “target” area by assessing where student needs were the greatest. We divided Seattle and included only South Seattle in the project area. Families in the region are very mobile, particularly lower-income families who experience greater housing instability. This means that the public sector (i.e. the county and cities, school districts, housing authorities, community college districts, etc.) must collaborate as never before so that the old, rigid boundaries give way to a new service ethic that puts children and families at the forefront of delivery decisions. In many cases, new civic infrastructure must be created to respond to new challenges and encourage collaboration. A good example of this new and much needed “infrastructure” is the Puget Sound Coalition for College and Career Readiness, a group of K-12 superintendents and community college presidents who are now working together to improve student transitions from high school to college. Their goal is to boost degree completion for recent high school graduates.

3. Use all levers for change.

As the work of the Road Map Project progressed, four central elements of the project’s approach emerged:

  • The importance of engaging parents and communities
  • The need for strong alignment of implementers and funders to the Road Map Project goal and indicators
  • The need to build strong systems so successful interventions can be scaled up and sustained
  • The need for data to track results and support continuous improvement

We consider these four elements as the project’s pillars.The second phase of the project involved more in-depth community engagement, establishing data sharing for reporting purposes, and developing several system-building action plans. Broad-based, multisector work groups involving hundreds of people were staffed by the CCER team with initial consultant help from FSG (a nonprofit consulting firm that specializes in collective impact efforts) and nonprofit partners. Work groups examined their data, available research, and emerging opportunities. Together, they agreed on the major strategies they believed could help the region accelerate progress toward the goal.

collective actionSince the Road Map Project started, work groups have completed action plans in the following areas: (1) birth to third grade, (2) STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), (3) English language learners, (4) parent engagement, and (5) high school to college completion. CCER is now staffing the region’s development of an action plan focused on “opportunity youth” (16- to 24-year-olds who are disengaged from school and work). As we do this work, we try to instill a sense of co-ownership and team, because leadership and commitment to the Road Map Project goal and action strategies must be distributed broadly.

The diagram at right illustrates the Road Map Project’s various work groups and advising structures. The concepts of teamwork and collaboration are critical.

4. Data can be a power tool.

Each year, CCER reports on our region’s progress toward the 2020 goal and the key indicators. We host a large public event to present the results, provide briefings to our school district teams, and—as of 2014—we are initiating community-specific (geographic and race/ethnic) Education Results Roundtables planned with community partners. The goals of the community sessions are to demystify data and to empower parents, nonprofit leaders, and other community activists with actionable information on important student success milestones.

We also publish district-specific reports and various topical reports on issues such as:

  • The importance of taking rigorous courses in high school
  • Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
  • Third-grade reading proficiency
  • School attendance and discipline

As we collect and analyze data, we try to find efforts in our region that are working well with hope that we can support the spread of better practices. We also show problems that need our collective focus and action.

5. Use competition wisely to accelerate progress.

Given our goal for 2020, and the need to show early results and build momentum, the project seized an early opportunity that offers some important lessons on how friendly competition can be a powerful force in collective impact work.

In 2007, the state of Washington created a generous early promise college scholarship opportunity called the College Bound Scholarship. The scholarship combines with other state aid to cover the average cost of tuition (at comparable public colleges), some fees and a small book allowance for students from low-income families who sign up by June 30 of their eighth grade year, maintain a 2.0 GPA, stay out of legal trouble, file the FAFSA and successfully enroll in a participating higher-education institution when they graduate.

When the state created the College Bound Scholarship, it did not market it widely, and the K−12 system did not see itself as responsible for signing up students and parents. Prior to the beginning of the Road Map Project, only approximately 50 percent of eligible students in the region were signing up for the scholarship, leaving millions of dollars on the table. One of the leaders involved in the early stages of the project suggested we should commit to securing a large number of sign-ups, because doing so would help us achieve our goal for 2020 and would help our emerging collective impact effort build power and confidence.

Road Map Region Students Completing College Bound Scholarship Applications: 2009-2013

SOURCE: Washington Student Achievement Council

We readily accepted the recommendation. A large coalition of players from various sectors has since completed three sign-up campaigns. In the last one, we reached the milestone of signing up nearly 5,000 students —fully 94 percent of our eligible eighth graders in the Road Map Project region.

We sent the sign-up data to each school district superintendent weekly and to mayors, local newspapers, parent groups, housing authorities, nonprofits, libraries, and others. The data empowered widespread action and advocacy. Early on, a local mayor e-mailed and said he was very upset with his community’s data. He said he promised that their low numbers of sign-ups would never happen again. He was right. Their students are now signing up in record numbers, and a college-going culture is beginning to take hold.

The data sparked constructive competition among the seven school districts and among schools themselves. Securing large numbers of sign-ups became a source of pride and was the subject of many friendly bets. Best practices were shared among districts and community-based organizations, and have now become systematized. Early success with the College Bound Scholarship sign-ups built a sense that we can achieve improvement at scale. The success has also given us something substantial on which to build further college-readiness supports for students.

6. Look for galvanizing opportunities.

As we were finishing several of the action plans, the region had the opportunity to apply for the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant. In previous years, Race to the Top was a competition among states; however, in summer 2012, the department allowed districts—or consortiums of districts—to apply for funding.

The timing was perfect. The seven Road Map Project districts applied together for funds to implement many of the major recommendations in the various action plans. We crafted the grant to follow our cradle-to-college framework. The competition for these funds was fierce but, fortunately, our application was solid, and it scored very well.

In December 2012, the Department of Education awarded the Road Map District Consortium a $40 million grant to fuel progress toward the Road Map Project goal. The grant is administered by the Puget Sound Educational Service District, one of nine regional agencies in the state that provides services to school districts. We are still in the early stages of the grant implementation, but are using the funds to expand successful pre-K programs, equip high-need schools with personalized STEM learning tools, add counselor assistants to high-need schools, expand Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) offerings in high schools, and offer the full suite of College Board assessments to all students in the region for free and during school.

7. Knock down silos by asking, “Who can help?”

Another big momentum builder is our region’s work to improve third-grade reading. We became involved early with the National Grade-Level Reading Campaign. Again, the timing was perfect. Joining up with the national campaign helped us get moving on one of our key indicators, third-grade reading proficiency, and allowed many different players to become involved. We engaged all of our cities, libraries, and housing authorities as well as schools and out-of-school time literacy organizations. More recently, we are increasing our efforts to integrate summer reading with summer meals. Never before has there been such a coordinated regional push to support summer reading among our highest-need students.

One of the interesting things about both the College Bound Scholarship work and the summer reading campaign is that in both cases, such important work is really “no one’s job.” We had to implement new coordinative capacities to support these new collective tasks. Doing so demonstrated the real value of forging connections among people who turned out to be great collaborators, but just didn’t know one other beforehand.

The project constantly teaches us to never underestimate how many people and organizations want to help their community’s kids. People need to be asked, and we must create structures to make it easier for that “can-do” spirit to translate into value-added action.

8. Harness parent power.

Parent engagement is another area that is strongly advancing. The Road Map Project believes strong parent engagement is a fundamental component of student success, so we have been trying several tactics to strengthen the field of parent engagement.

The Road Map Project, with many partners, hosted a successful regional parent forum in spring 2013 and then worked with University of Washington researchers and community-based parent engagement practitioners to develop a set of common parent engagement indicators to measure progress. Leaders in the seven school districts are now in the process of adopting the indicators, hiring parent and family partnership directors, and expanding innovative parent leadership approaches in the region.

9. Experiment and reward great results.

As the work proceeds, we keep pushing forward. We are constantly learning and trying new things.
We look for ways to support strong implementation. We work to improve our use of data. We look for new ways to shine light on things that work and endeavor to spread success.

In March 2014, we held our inaugural Road Map Project awards celebration, which included a rigorously judged competition for efforts that advance equity. The judging rewarded efforts that demonstrated great results for kids, used data effectively to improve, and for strong collaborations and partnerships. The amount of positive work in our region is impressive. Our job is to help it spread, so by 2020, we have system strength at each critical point along the cradle-to-career continuum—and there is no turning back.

10. Trust is a must.

Trust is the most important factor for success. People involved in collective impact work must have the trust of the communities in which they are working. Trust is earned by actions, sincere listening, keeping one’s word, and building up personal ties and relationships. Trust is not a box to be checked. It might seem old fashioned to write about trust in the context of working for system change; however, trust is fundamental for collaborative efforts to be successful and endure.

Looking Ahead

Scale and Sustain

Our next phases of work will focus on supporting the scaling up of successful efforts and practices and on systematizing effective approaches so our most impactful innovations can be sustained. We will be looking for ways to build even stronger distributed leadership for Road Map Project aligned strategies. Broad ownership of the Road Map Project goal is absolutely critical for sustained forward progress. The Road Map Project is designed to end once we have achieved our 2020 goal. By then, we intend to have brought about a much higher-performing system from cradle to college and career and to have built the requisite capacities to sustain the “new normal.”

Aligned Communication

As of 2014, we have begun to develop a strategic communications plan with a diverse set of partners. We are looking forward to expanding our repertoire of messages and messengers, informed by a solid understanding of community aspirations and concerns.

We anticipate implementing the plan with numerous partners. It will be interesting to see the power of aligned collective communication. We are also planning for numerous new ways to broaden engagement and dialogue with parents and other community leaders and to test new ways to reach more parents directly. For example, we want to communicate more directly with the parents of students who sign up for our state’s College Bound Scholarship. We believe in the power of supporting parents with the information and tools they need to advocate for their kids.

Stronger Partnerships

Interest is growing in our region in expanding and strengthening a variety of partnerships supporting student success. Growing poverty and homelessness create the need for an “all hands on deck” approach to helping kids. Thankfully, housing authorities are stepping forward to help stabilize families and reduce the number of moves families make. Health systems are integrating their services with school systems to reach children and families more effectively. Community-based organizations (CBOs) are developing new ways to partner with teachers to make time outside of the classroom more effective in promoting academic success. School administrators are also looking to CBOs to help with critical issues of student motivation and engagement.


The project is organizing itself to better harness its advocacy power. All of the Road Map Project work groups have priorities for changes to state and local policy or practice. We are determined to build multisector coalitions to advance our priorities. One of our most influential community leaders aptly stated, “It’s time for the Road Map Project to take its power for a ride.” We plan to do just that.

Data Mobilization

We have significant work underway to develop new and better tools to help parents and educators improve education outcomes. For example, a number of Road Map Project partners are working on creating new program-level feedback reports designed to show the efficacy of pre-K offerings. Once perfected, this information should be useful to parents as education consumers and to early learning leaders who are dedicated to program improvement. Similarly, we are developing high school-focused reports with information designed to help guidance counselors do their very important jobs. Eventually, we hope these reports will also be a great resource for parents interested in comparing high school performance across the region and a source of actionable information for education leaders working to improve the high school to college transition. Another exciting new area of data mobilization involves linking K-12 data on recent high school graduates with our region’s community college data. We are interested in supporting our colleges by producing campus-specific data reports showing enrollment, persistence and completion of degrees and credentials.


There is no set playbook for collective impact projects. They are very context-dependent. This is true for the Road Map Project, as well. There cannot be a standard approach. Each project springs from a unique set of circumstances, communities, and practitioners in the context of a rapidly evolving regional economy. However, we have learned lessons along the way about some of the ingredients for success, which—we hope—can assist others working in similarly evolving U.S. regions.

Mary Jean Ryan is Executive Director of the Community Center for Education Results, the organization which staffs the Road Map Project.