Newton — A ‘Community of Excellence’

(updated July 2nd 2016)

Press Release May 21, 2020

Workplace, education, economy, society — all evolving. So are the concepts of organizations, learning, motivation and employment. In response to these changes and especially driven by crisis, Newton set off on a journey, not with the goal of winning a “Community of Excellence” award. Rather, Newton set out to become a community of excellence.

From Crisis to Prosperity

Fifteen years ago Newton had lost a Fortune 300 employer. The company was bought out by a competitor who shut down corporate headquarters and a major manufacturing facility that had provided nearly 3,000 jobs in its heyday. Newton is a small town, and the company was by far the largest employer for several surrounding counties. The loss was economically and emotionally crippling to the proud and once-thriving “Home of the Dependability People”.

Fast forward. Population has grown, young families continue to move to Newton due to the school district’s innovative education system and the exceptional community environment. The impact of that growth trickled down. The housing market is booming, and merchants are thriving. New, high-quality employers are relocating to the area and existing businesses are expanding, both supported by a deep, stable and highly skilled labor pool. Students are fully engaged in their education, achievement and attainment levels have skyrocketed. The talent pool continues to grow deeper and stronger.

Young people stay in town after they graduate, and workers are once again finding a lasting, highly satisfying career with world-class employers. There’s no longer a need to search elsewhere for meaningful employment, so people have packed away their traveling shoes. Families are once again more stable and more deeply rooted, as is the entire community.

A socially and economically healthy population is productive, its citizens and businesses are more successful. Newton’s prosperity is soaring and poverty, crime rates and other social issues are decreasing. Citizens are highly involved in and supportive of community projects. They participate in local government and take pride in staying well-informed in national politics. Disagreements are handled with skill, people respect and value each other’s opinions. Newton has even become a popular town hall site for policy makers who have learned to respect the community’s savvy and level-headed openness.

People Development Was the Catalyst

Schools of Character is a national program that recognizes individual schools for excellence in character development. While an honor, the program only triggered a grander aspiration for Newton. Why not a community of character? And why stop at “character”? A good deal of economic and social repair work was needed to bring Newton back and take it even further. The Community Excellence design team explored three areas of improvement:

  1. Physical: community infrastructure, facilities, services;
  2. Workforce development to support increased levels of  private sector productivity;
  3. Social and emotional community well-being.

Newton’s infrastructure improvements had been well under way, guided by a comprehensive plan drafted by a citizen team. But more than a physical facelift was needed. Research by the team showed there was significant potential in the second and third areas. It was clear from the research that people development promotes community prosperity.

From coalition champion George McBig: “A 1918 quote from the Carnegie Institute of Technology got us to thinking and digging deeper. It’s a variation of the 85/15 rule: ‘85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate and lead. Only 15% is due to technical knowledge.’

The team found more recent research that painted a larger 85/15 picture. A competitor can buy any technology. So the only real differentiation is in mostly intangibles like people, culture, values, ethics. But more often than not, those 85% higher-impacting elements are not  likely to get the attention they deserve. “What a waste!” McBig exclaimed. “Here (in Newton) we’ve kicked our addiction to process at the expense of people. For those who choose to change, it can be a life-changing experience.” Newton is on the leading edge of that charge.

People development—both social and emotional competencies and workplace skills—became the catalyst that kicked Newton’s transformation into gear. The design team agreed on goals and held a series of well-attended information-sharing meetings. The small team of champions grew into a broad coalition committed to the goals:

  1. Develop people with strong character and ethics. Inspire people to do well…and do good;
  2. Create an exceptional social environment built on a foundation of shared values and respectful, positive relationships;
  3. Promote social, emotional, ethical and intellectual development. Through shared  commitment, help people become responsible, caring, and contributing citizens;
  4. Leverage social-emotional competencies to create safe and supportive school, family, and community environments in which young people feel cared for, respected, connected to school, and engaged in learning;
  5. Provide social-emotional and skills development for all ages, all sectors—education and the workplace, young students and adults, family and the community itself;
  6. Build a highly talented, skilled and committed talent pool to support economic growth.

“Our big picture goal” said McBig “is to help people become maximum contributors in what they do, to help them succeed and be highly satisfied with their lives.” When asked why skills and economic growth were so far down the list of goals, McBig explained “the evidence is too clear. Get people emotionally healthy first. Only then will they really dive into learning skills and be really motivated to improve their capacity to perform.”

As it is critical to start young in building a strong foundation of social / emotional health, the Coalition focused first on children. Social-emotional classes were already provided in Newton’s elementary schools.  But that’s where it stopped. And that end point is where the coalition kicked into high gear. Remember the 85/15 rule and that emotional alignment comes before maximum skills development is possible.

Education Issues, Teen Cool and the Talent Pool

Nationally, academic achievement and attainment is dropping. High school grads aren’t ready for college and it’s far out of reach for too many anyway. The relevance of a college education to work is under fire, the value of over-priced degrees is being challenged. Employers get woefully unprepared workers and blame education for it. Parents and guidance counselors continue to obsess over pushing young people toward college-or-bust.  Newton was a microcosm of that national landscape.

Emotional development is mostly nonexistent after elementary school; it’s not considered important for teens even though they have a particularly tough road to navigate. Social issues, uncertain futures, peer pressure, raging hormones… teens are high-risk emotionally and physically. Common sense said there must be more attention given to their emotional needs.

Teens’ needs are complex, but most teens are too “cool’ for social-emotional stuff. So the trick became how to sell an uncool topic to fickle teen consumers. The solution: a subtle shift in emphasis. Says McBig: “high school is relevant if kids feel they are being prepared for life after high school. We have a 7-12 ‘Real-World Prep School’ series. Our goal is to maximize employability and after-high school preparedness, and to ensure learners’ potential for a successful, satisfying, and values-driven future.”  Social and emotional development plays a role but it is more integrated than featured. So teen cool remains intact.

But there’s more. “Beyond developing children and teens, there’s a solid business case for employer involvement and for reaching adults with the same message.” McBig said Newton’s experience validated what the studies reported. “Because of the Carnegie Institute’s 85/15 rule we looked at tons of studies on ‘engagement’. This isn’t just feel-good pixie dust! There’s some serious bottom-line return from doing this soft stuff, and not just in the workplace.”

All Hands On Deck

The Coalition team learned that making a real difference would require broad involvement. Research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) showed the only way to achieve long-term, lasting social impact would be through “a well-planned, well-executed and lasting strategy with common goals that ensure shared focus among all stakeholders.”

Patchwork activities and programs wouldn’t cut it. Classes in schools wouldn’t be enough. A broad community effort was needed with private sector, government, civic and religious groups all involved.

McBig explained why all-stakeholder commitment is essential. “Learning isn’t just for kids in school. We can’t expect them to get all pumped up with character and values and new skills only to run headlong into an uncaring, business-as-usual world. The new mindset needs continuous reinforcement, mentoring and support outside of school. It’s a cliché, but it really does have to become ‘the way we do things’ here in Newton.”

How Much Can Emotion Possibly Matter?

A study by UC Berkeley found that children who participate in social and emotional programs do better academically. Feeling socially connected as a kid is more strongly associated with happiness in adulthood than academic achievement. The data showed that students who are more socially and emotionally developed are more likely to graduate from high school on time, finish college and have stable employment. They are less likely to need special education or have to repeat a grade; less likely to need public assistance; less likely to be arrested or spend time in jail. They are less likely to be on medication or have mental health problems and less likely to suffer from substance abuse.

Further expert studies validated the UCB findings. It’s well-known that emotional health directly impacts stress levels, therefore overall physical health. And when a population’s health increases productivity rises and the economic drain and emotional strain of health issues decreases. It’s undeniable-this soft stuff delivers impressive hard results.

What’s Next?

There was no national or state legislation needed to get the ball rolling. A coalition of education, government and private sector leaders and everyday community members reshaped Newton’s terrain.

It’s no secret, any community can follow the same path. “We’re not competing, we’re glad to share” says McBig. “There’s plenty of success to go around. The more communities with social and economic vitality, the better off we’ll all be. We’ve actually set out to improve the human condition locally, nationally, globally… and that’s a worthy goal for all of us.”

“Besides” McBig smiled…“Newton isn’t following a trail blazed by someone else. We’ll keep forging ahead. By the time others catch on to what we’re doing, we’ll be somewhere different doing bigger and better things.”

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