Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

Gateway Cities – the onetime mill and manufacturing towns that helped fuel the economy in Massachusetts – fell on hard times when the industrial era faded.

“Our economic strategy for the past several years has been centered on creating only highly-skilled, high-paying jobs in high-profile cities,” Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish said at a recent Gateway Cities event hosted by the local nonprofit think tank MassINC. “The result has been limited growth throughout the rest of the commonwealth, and a middle class that has been cast aside.”

Now these 26 cities – from Brockton, Lawrence and Lowell to New Bedford, Westfield and Worcester — are making a comeback.

Refusing to be branded as “underperforming,” the Gateway Cites are using a new report to “articulate a vision for effective 21st-century learning systems,” as Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem and Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg explain in the report. Called “The Gateway Cities Vision for Dynamic Community-Wide Learning Systems,” it was released earlier this month by MassINC.

At the heart of this plan is a powerful educational strategy of “providing a superior experience for all.”

A Superior Experience for All

Architect Ron Mace coined the term “universal design” to explain his field’s approach to providing a superior experience for all.

“Its focus,” Mace said of universal design in a 1998 speech, “is not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people.” He added, “Sometimes it’s the shape of something. A doorknob, for instance, is not usable by some people. Lever handles, however, are usable by most.”

Similarly, the Gateway Cities plan to become “leading providers of education tailored to the diverse needs and aspirations of students and families in our 21st-century economy.”

The goal is to “bring recent innovations to scale,” weave them into community-wide learning systems, and generate “quantifiable returns” for Massachusetts’ taxpayers.

How can Gateway Cities do this? One powerful tool is high-quality early education and care.

“Gateway Cities are developing birth-to-grade-three learning systems that will ensure all children acquire the early literacy skills they will need to continue on in school and succeed in the state’s workforce,” the report says.

Creating a birth-to-eight strategy that promotes reading proficiency by the third grade isn’t just good for children. It also frees K-12 educators to focus on making academic progress instead of pausing to help children catch up. And schools that can press ahead because their students are better prepared are more likely to attract middle class families.

This, in a nutshell, is the work that Gateway Cities have to do: help current residents maximize their educational and economic potential and attract more middle class families, according to Benjamin Forman, MassINC’s research director and the report’s author.

“The fundamentals are there,” Forman said of Gateway Cities in a recent interview. Gateway Cities, he said, have a “good urban fabric.” They offer walkable neighborhoods, public transportation, affordable housing, and a slower, more “livable” pace. Gateway Cities also have hospitals, colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations, and businesses that can provide resources and employment.

Gateway Cities are also expanding their ability to serve as each other’s role models and advisors. One example is the Massachusetts Third Grade Reading Proficiency Learning Network. Organized by Strategies for Children, this network enables the Gateway Cities of Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester to work with each other and with Boston to study and share strategies to promote literacy.

A Four-Part Vision

In addition to expanding high-quality early education and care programs, MassINC’s report calls for three other strategies.

– Improve the social and emotional health of communities. Cities can provide more behavioral health services and weave positive, evidence-based youth development programs into the fabric of Gateway Cities.

– Expand the pathways to colleges and careers. This includes creating early college experiences for teenagers and work-based learning experiences for adults.

Integrate newcomers into the community. Summer programs for youth can help achieve this goal, along with programs that engage families.

The goal isn’t simply to help individuals or only to alleviate poverty, but rather to help individuals use their personal success to build stronger communities.

Partners Needed

New state efforts and philanthropic investments can help Gateway Cities pursue their plan for innovation. The cities need more funding as well as funding that can be spent in more flexible ways. Any new local initiatives and strategies should, whenever possible, align with state policies.

Among the unfilled fiscal holes, the report says, is “the absence of a state funding stream for social and emotional learning systems,” this is notable “given the promise of the approach and the emphasis on these strategies for turnaround schools.”

Government, public and private funders should seek out opportunities to invest in what Forman calls “Transformative Redevelopment” – also the name of a MassINC concept paper — that allows Gateway Cities to compete more effectively on local, national and international levels.

The Road Forward

“Bringing this Vision to life will require a campaign fueled by research, data, collaborative learning, and collaborative leadership,” the vision report says.

It concludes: “The collaborations of the present must, over time, evolve into much larger, community-wide joint ventures that unify whole sectors of the city in a shared, ambitious pursuit of success for all children and families. Working together to achieve the policy priorities outlined in this Vision will provide the fuel to build and sustain these collaborative efforts.”