Strategic Learning for the Community College Credit Building Initiative

In 2020 Boston Builds Credit’s Community College Credit Building Initiative applied a strategic learning approach to better reach and serve students. Strategic learning came together with data – from evaluation and other sources – and team wisdom to tackle thorny program challenges. Research was kept as close to the work as possible: focusing on the work at hand, and with just-in-time and right-sized analyses that teams could digest and act on continuously. Strategic learning provided an opportunity to center racial equity and the distinct experiences of those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color in social change work. Racial equity, baked into the questions being asked, is carried forward into how data are collected and analyzed – ensuring a sustained focus on racial equity as practitioners reflect and improve. See Mariana Preciado’s, Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recent call for strategic learning as the “clearest path to impact.”

What did this look like for BBC’s Community College Credit Building Initiative (CCCBI) team over the last year? Summer 2020 planning sessions zeroed in on two key challenges. The first was how to richly engage college partners for increasing awareness and bridging the trust divide with students – boosting CCCBI’s pipeline. The second challenge was demonstrating that CCCBI workshops improve participants’ financial knowledge and skills. Through planning sessions CCCBI also named the kinds of information needed to tackle these two challenges, and to meet reporting obligations. Working with contracted researchers, the CCCBI team used several different data collection tools. This included an environmental scan, surveys, interviews, and shared client databases. Three times throughout the academic year the team came together around what they were seeing in their day-to-day work and research results. Sessions were facilitated by BBC’s Project Director and BBC’s Evaluation and Learning Liaison. The team made space to think together and refine tactics along the way.  “Insights on Plugging In” lays out key lessons from a year engaging with college partners and CCCBI’s strategic learning activities.

Adalberto Jaimes serves as CCCBI’s project lead and is a senior financial coach for JVS Boston (Jewish Vocational Services). He recently shared his takeaways from last year’s strategic learning activities. When asked about the value of strategic learning, overall, Adalberto said that the team “used different techniques to reevaluate the direction of the initiative. We analyzed and diagrammed our previous activities using techniques such as brainstorming and SWOT analysis. This process helped us to identify the challenges and then we created an action plan to mitigate them.” Considering the environmental scan of recruitment best practices, in particular, (available at this link: https://www.bostonbuildscredit.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Best-Practices-in-Financial-Coaching_Environmental-Scan.pdf), Adalberto shared that the scan provided necessary insights into the CCCBI recruitment process and advanced improvement efforts. He stated that, “the findings in this document have helped us to try different approaches to improve our delivery of services (one-on-one and webinars). It helped us to contextualize the next steps to boost our performance.”

Adalberto Jaimes, Financial Coach | JVS Boston

In March 2021, research consultants convened a virtual session with the CCCBI team and team members in United Way Bay Area’s SparkPoint program embedded in community colleges. SparkPoint is a long running success story of integrated financial coaching and community services.  The session’s objective was to encourage the CCCBI team to think broadly about how lessons learned from peer practitioners – their program models, strategies, and tactics – could inform CCCBI’s design and daily practice. Together, the teams reflected on ways to improve student recruitment and engagement in the community college setting.

Adalberto shared that the Sparkpoint practitioner sessions helped the CCCBI team navigate through the second program year and reduce the team’s stress. He said, “The project team was worried that the logic model we started using was not appropriate. However, through the conversation with SparkPoint, we found out that everything we had done was similar to what they did. We realized that the SparkPoint efforts took years to implement. At that point we started to be proud that we had done so much in a short period of time. As lead of the project, I felt relief that we were on the right track. Of course, we still need to improve some of the processes.”

When asked if the process was useful this past year and whether it would be useful in future years, Adalberto said, “I think the reflection sessions helped us to improve our logic model. This helps us with the ongoing efforts. For example, structuring a systematic check-in with partners and the creating a dashboard that provides performance indicators and recent activity.

 

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