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Sara Plachta Elliott on Sparking Collective Learning

Hi, I’m Sara Plachta Elliott, Evaluation Fellow at the Skillman Foundation in Detroit, Michigan, through a grant to Brandeis University’s Center for Youth and Communities. As an Evaluation Fellow, I work with Foundation staff to create learning opportunities that inform the work of improving school and neighborhood conditions for Detroit’s kids.In 2010, Brandeis conducted a System of Supports and Opportunities (SOSO) analysis in six neighborhoods where Skillman focuses its grantmaking and changemaking efforts. Data collection involved interviewing youth program and basic service provider staff to assess program offerings, participation rates, program quality, and accessibility.

Below are learning opportunities that were created with SOSO data.

Lesson Learned: Have stakeholders review findings before the final report is prepared.

  • An internal review with Foundation staff helped identify inaccuracies in participation rates and site location addresses.
  • Then two-page SOSO snapshots for each neighborhood were released.
  • Key neighborhood and youth program stakeholders were engaged in a review of findings and lifted up questions about how data were collected. This review process ensured “on the ground” validity of the analysis.
  • For full transparency, the dataset was also released to partners for system planning purposes.

Hot Tip: Create maps or other visual products.

The Foundation engaged its partner Data Driven Detroit to create maps of agency and program site locations. In meetings with stakeholders, we reviewed these maps along with youth population maps. In one neighborhood, we learned that most kids lived on the west side but program sites were clustered on the east side. The collective “ah ha” moments helped the Foundation and its stakeholders work together to fill gaps.

Consider hosting a discussion session and ask community partners and stakeholders to interpret brief data reports and maps. What patterns do they see in the data?

Cool Trick: Engage youth and residents in reviewing data, not just program staff.

In the summer of 2011, a social service agency, Southwest Solutions, organized a community youth mapping project. Youth reviewed the Brandeis SOSO data, then designed and conducted their own neighborhood opportunities survey.

Youth researchers were paid through summer youth employment funding and walked every street in their neighborhood twice, administering surveys to youth, youth program staff, and business owners, as well as mapping vacant properties. They discovered that some local businesses wanted youth to work during school hours, thereby tempting them to drop out of school. The youth also learned that students wanted more college and career preparation opportunities, mirroring findings from the SOSO report that more of these opportunities were needed.

Evaluation reports can sit on a shelf if not accompanied by intentional learning opportunities. As an evaluator, encourage clients to create interactive learning opportunities with short, visual reporting products. Spark their collective learning!

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