The Power of a Network: How a Unique Regional Collaboration Fuels Progress in the South
October 26, 2018

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education

“As reform becomes more widespread and complex, many of the same issues reappear in state after state. Recognizing this, involvement in the Columbia Group network allows us to get ahead of these issues.”

As leaders across the Network strive to improve educational outcomes for kids, they are often confronting shifting political winds and changing education policy priorities—in addition to the ever-present demand of managing relevant, viable small organizations. Amidst these challenges, it’s more important than ever to avoid reinventing the wheel.

That’s why, for more than two decades, education advocates in southeastern states have benefited from an informal but powerful opportunity to collaborate with their regional peers. The Columbia Group currently brings together seven state-based advocacy organizations in the South: PIE Network members A+ Education Partnership (Alabama), Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence (Kentucky), Mississippi First, and Tennessee SCORE, in addition to Education’s Next Horizon (Louisiana) and Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Below, PIE Network members share insights into how the Columbia Group has helped to strengthen their advocacy, plus lessons learned that could serve to benefit advocates interested in pursuing a similar initiative in their own region.

‘Ed Reform Before Ed Reform Was Cool’

According to Columbia Group members, their informal network of state-based education advocacy organizations began to take shape simply by happenstance more than 25 years ago. After connecting with the Columbia Group’s future members at a regional conference, a leading regional corporate foundation honed in on the apparent synergy.

Their organizations may have had different histories, different agendas, and different styles, but they found unity in their commitment to ensuring that education in their respective states would indeed improve. Financial support resulted in bi-annual convenings for the group to exchange ideas, formulate strategies, and occasionally collaborate on regional projects.

“Particularly in the early years of education reform, the Columbia Group provided an opportunity for the Prichard Committee to share progress in Kentucky and to learn from the policies and strategies of our southern state partners,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, Prichard’s executive director.

“By coming together regularly over the years, I believe we have all benefited professionally and have been able to make more sustained improvements in our states as a result of our connection.”

Additionally, supporting partner organizations, including funders and regional and national education reform organizations, have benefited enormously from their relationship with the Columbia Group and its members. According to Diane Hopkins, executive vice president of GPEE, the Columbia Group has long served as an informal advisor to keep various entities abreast of education policy developments in the southern states and also provided a sounding board for new philanthropic ideas.

Opportunities to Confront Emerging Policy Issues

Every year, the Columbia Group’s two meetings include rich, thought-provoking dialogue with national experts on various policy issues, ranging from building a strong teacher and leader pipeline to effective use of data to addressing equity in rural and urban school settings and more. Each meeting provides members with meaningful time to connect and discuss their similar issues that are occurring in very similar landscapes, said Thomas Rains, vice president of operations & policy at A+ Education Partnership.

“The small size and the format of the meetings let us really dive into topics in ways that help us reflect and consider issues from different perspectives,” Rains said. “The South is unique as a region…so while we like to take best practices from wherever we can find them, often the ones from our neighbors in the South are already addressing issues with a level of nuance that we have to consider on a regular basis.”

Throughout the year, regular state updates allow for Columbia Group members to anticipate issues and develop effective mechanisms to deal with these issues. No one organization drives the agenda; the group as a whole identifies what should take top billing for study and discussion.

This is no easy task as the work, especially as it relates to communication with state policymakers, differs from state to state. Thus, coordinating times even for brief joint calls can be challenging. In response to this challenge, the Columbia Group recently established the “Delta Force”—a smaller representative group equipped to make timely directional decisions.

Accelerating the Pace

Columbia Group collaboration has brought about successes, most recently with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in developing a regional learning agenda and a coordinated communication strategy related to equity and closing opportunity and achievement gaps for our students.

The work resulted in a major new report, Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South, which spotlights the urgent need for more and faster improvement in education in the South and provides results from the first-ever Education Poll of the South. The report was recently nominated for an Eddie! award for Most Actionable Research at the 2018 PIE Network Summit.

The Delta Force, mentioned previously as the four-member subset of the Columbia Group, became critical for streamlining the design and implementation of the multi-pronged, multi-state equity-focused project. (Click here to learn more about the report’s key highlights.)

“As reform becomes more widespread and complex, many of the same issues reappear in state after state,” said GPEE president Steve Dolinger. “What happens in Tennessee or Kentucky or Alabama or any of the other southern states will make its way to Georgia.”

Christina Dobratz

Christina is PIE Network's Manager, Communications & Policy  

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