News: Striving to Improve Children's Lives

UC's Nancy Zimpher refuses 'to be held captive with the thought that there's nothing you can do'

May 14, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

UC President Nancy Zimpher says the university provides community service through projects like Strive, which is trying to help area children from birth through age 16.

An urban university doesn't exist in a vacuum, because part of the institution's mission is public service. At least that's the way Nancy Zimpher sees it.

As president of the University of Cincinnati (UC), it's her job to keep the institution focused, and the only way she can do that is to know the community in which the school operates.

"I spend time in Clermont County, I spend time in Blue Ash, we have campuses there," Zimpher says. "I have to know what the needs of the community are in order to lead a university that is trying to address these needs. This is not necessarily a view that's embraced by every university president. I know a lot of university presidents right here in our own community who feel the same way. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to throw our shoulder to the wheel in Strive."

One of the many community programs and activities in which Zimpher is involved, if not leading, Strive is described as "a unique group of leaders representing education, business, faith, nonprofit, philanthropic and civic sectors along with input from the community-at-large, who are committed to providing a world-class education to every child in the urban for core of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky."

The importance of quality education and strong public schools is touted as essential for a healthy community and a solid workforce, but addressing the problems facing under-funded and overburdened school districts has been left to the school districts themselves and individual groups and organizations — until now.

Strive (, launched in August 2006, is an effort to bring together everyone who's addressing the need for better education.

The "Student's Roadmap to Success" describes how the organization and its partners are addressing a host of education issues. Set up as a timeline that runs from birth to age 16, there are "critical benchmarks" of academic success and essential support for a student and her family to make sure she gets into and completes post-secondary education.

Choosing early childhood as an example of how this partnership works, Zimpher describes the process that's being used to build this collaborative effort at each point along the continuum.

"We rounded up everybody — United Way, Head Start, Every Child Succeeds, Success by Six and 15 other entities — and we said, 'Let's get focused. Let's prioritize what we're going to do,' " she says. "We ended up doing two things, not 30: home visitations for babies and young children at risk and getting a higher quality early childhood education. There are a zillion other things you could do. You could work on food distribution. You could work on teenage pregnancy. You've got to start somewhere.

"We've got a group working on out-of-school/after-school, the stress teens experience through their peer groups, and the people leading that one ... are the YWCA, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club and the 4H, because that's their specialty. But never before have they been brought to one table to try to figure out what the highest priority is to help the after-school experience."

This effort to look at a specific issue at a particular point in a child's academic career is what brings the individuals and groups together. Then they work to figure out what everyone, including the community at large, can do to help solve the problem.

There are more than 20 of these groups, called "student success networks," meeting on a regular basis to prioritize the issues their age group faces. The Strive 2008 report card summarizes the progress to date as well as the support, services and resources the students and those who support them are going to need to achieve whatever goal is set. In the case of UC, a significant benchmark is to see a 75-85 percent six-year graduation rate. The current rate is 52 percent, according to Zimpher.

"Part of the reason we don't have a 100 percent graduation rate is that the pipeline has not provided enough intellectual foundation for people to be successful in college," she says. "We do not live on an island. We prepare the teachers who serve the elementary and secondary schools, so isn't that germane? We prepare the criminal justice people who are supposed to help us reduce crime, so you can't think about the people we prepare here without thinking about the world in which they intend to enter and the problems and challenges that face them. I just don't think it's possible for us to live within our own boundaries any more."

Zimpher wants to keep the university environment focused on what it's always been — a place for creativity, exploration and challenging authority. But she also sees that within the context of the ultimate goal of the school, which is to help people lead the kind of lives they want to have, including their jobs.

"You don't want to be totally driven by the goals of business and industry because we have this pure academic vision of what the learning environment ought to look like," Zimpher says. "I think we just have to constantly work on that balance."

Getting kids to pursue higher education and stick with it means making sure those same kids have the preparation they need in high school. But to make it through high school, those same kids need the kind of support necessary to make it into secondary education with a motivation to learn.

Potentially seen as yet another grand plan that will end up on a shelf with hundreds of other plans offered but never fulfilled in Cincinnati, Zimpher believes the approach Strive is taking is realistic and doable.

"People say to me, 'You can't fix this because it's really the parents. If you don't have a good home environment, you can't fix this problem.' What we're doing is we're building up a next generation of parents," Zimpher says. "They're not going to have kids of their own at age 13. They're going to stay in school, get a good education, get a good job and raise their families to be educated and do the same.

"That doesn't happen overnight, but I refuse to — and the whole of Strive refuses to — be held captive with the thought that there's nothing you can do because when the clock started you were either born into a family that gets it or you weren't. We know a whole lot more about how you can make a difference, and we're going to provide the data to prove it." ©

Read more from Margo Pierce's interview with Nancy Zimpher on the Porkopolis blog. See