Published by Crain's Cleveland Business
Someone might want to start a hot-chicken restaurant in Akron, because the Rubber City is taking a lot of cues from the Music City these days, especially when it comes to urban schools and nonprofits.
A group of 18 Akron civic leaders recently saw how it's done on a June 21 trip to Nashville, Tenn.
"I was impressed. Nashville does a nice job with a lot of different things, but I was really impressed that there was so much collaboration among various institutions," said Akron mayor Dan Horrigan, who made the trip.
"We're trying to do some of the same things up here, so it was a very worthwhile trip for me," Horrigan said.
The connection between the two cities did not happen by chance.
Akron Public Schools (APS) has been working closely with area businesses and looking to Nashville in recent years for clues as to how schools can better prepare students for available jobs that go unfilled and careers in industries poised for growth.
And when United Way of Summit County hired CEO Jim Mullen from the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville in 2015, the board knew Mullen brought a slew of ideas that he helped implement and had seen work in the southern city.
APS has been watching Nashville and efforts related to education initiatives there since 2011, said APS superintendent David James, who has visited Nashville schools three times, including once with local CEOs.
What he's seen, he said, has impressed him and guided his strategy in Akron.
Schools in the Tennessee capital cover all the basic math, science, English and history as other schools, but they also offer students intensive vocational education at dedicated high school academies.
"If anything, it's more rigorous," James said.
A kid might leave high school prepared for pre-med, for a career in television, or even with a private pilot's license and a start to a career in aviation. McGavock High School, which the Akron contingent visited, has flight classes and its own simulators.
"In Nashville, since they've implemented this, their attendance rates have increased along with the amount of engagement with kids. When kids get involved with something they like, it makes a huge difference," James said.
"Every student in high school picks a career path way — and we're going to do the same thing in Akron," he added.
In Akron, North High School is the first to adopt the academy approach. It began last year, with freshman selecting and enrolling in specific curriculum. This fall, they'll start in a North academy for health and human services, or global technology.
Each academy will have four paths, James said. The health and human services academy will offer a curriculum for biomedical engineering, another for allied health, one for health care operations and one for childhood education.
Over the next three to four years, James plans to roll out academies at high schools across the district. Akron Children's Hospital has partnered to help with one academy at North, he said, but the Cleveland Clinic, Kent State University and Stark State College have also expressed interest.
Workforce advocates for business love the district's initiative.
"I can't say enough about the district in terms of them supporting a wall-to-wall approach. This is not just for a select group of students; it's for everyone," said Sue Lacy, president of ConxusNEO, which works to develop a skilled workforce in the region and connect job seekers with employers often struggling to find help.
Lacy said she's been impressed with APS' willingness to "step out of the mold and take some risk to truly make education in APS more relevant and more meaningful to students in terms of what they're prepared with when they graduate, including industry credentials."
Business interests hope that what they saw in Nashville portends good things for Akron.
"We're looking into the future of what successful community engagement looks like 10 years down the road," said Laura Duda, a Goodyear vice president and United Way volunteer who was on the trip.
While APS works on its educational strategy, United Way also is adopting tactics that have worked in Greater Nashville, Mullen said.
He sees similarities between the two places. There are about 625,000 people in Davidson County, of which Nashville is the seat, and about 550,000 in Summit. Both urban areas have struggled with impoverished inner-city populations, poor city schools and a lack of upward mobility for many residents.
But Nashville has found ways to address many of those issues, according to Mullen.
"They're probably 10 years ahead of us," he said.
Mullen said Nashville's United Way has succeeded in part by pushing services into neighborhoods, with 18 family resource centers and five financial empowerment centers. They help residents learn to secure and manage housing and transportation – keys to employment – and with economic challenges ranging from budgeting to paying down debt and filing income tax returns.
In the past four years, those programs have helped 5,000 Nashvillians increase their wealth by $7 million, by both paying off debt and beginning to build savings and investments, Mullen said. More importantly, the programs also taught them how to continue to build wealth, rather than debt, he added.
Such efforts fit with the goals Mullen has set for United Way of Summit County and with the goals of Horrigan and other city officials to draw residents to Akron's downtown and strengthen its neighborhoods.
Mullen said he'll ask the Summit County United Way board to approve a plan to begin opening its own neighborhood centers later this year. He said those on the recent trip — including many of his board members — think the centers are a good idea after seeing them firsthand.
"Most of the people came away and said, 'We need to get these instituted in Akron as soon as possible,'" Mullen said.
Of the seven visitors to Nashville who spoke to Crain's about the trip afterward, none said they came home either unimpressed or unenthused about copying some of what they saw.
"It was very educational with regards to some of the stuff we've been talking about, especially with regards to some of the financial empowerment stuff we're starting to do here," said real estate agent Bill Lowry, a United Way board member and a member of the committee that sets the organizations goals in Summit County.