Many children around the world head back to school this month, but they’re not the only ones with an opportunity to expand their minds. City leaders, too, are bringing fresh thinking to the many ways they can help kids learn. Chicago, Miami, and Bogota, Colombia, are just a few of the cities working to ensure young people reach their full potential in — and outside — the classroom.

Early-childhood education can help boost children’s later school performance, leading to more economic opportunities for kids and their communities. Chicago city leaders knew this, and were committed to investing in children at young ages — but they had trouble getting students in the door.

So, the Chicago Innovation Team (i-team) stepped in to figure out why. Together with a working group composed of city staff and outside partners, the i-team found that the preschool enrollment process was so confusing and burdensome that it overwhelmed parents. This was, in large part, because there were different processes for the city’s school- and community-based programs.

When they took their findings to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he quickly gave them the green light to move forward with finding a solution.

“The quote that always sticks in my mind from the mayor was that ‘Parents should not have to have a PhD in bureaucracy to get their child into preschool,’” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the city’s director of early education policy.

To streamline the process, the team developed a unified online application platform, Chicago Early Learning, that both guides parents through every step and determines children’s’ eligibility for certain programs. Since launching the new platform just a year ago and rethinking how the city reaches out to parents, the city is already filling 6 percent more of the places in its early childhood education programs.

Another side benefit of this work was streamlining funding and city administrative processes, giving the city the opportunity to create a single set of policies across all early childhood programs. “Now all school- and community-based programs must meet the same requirements,” said Aigner-Treworgy. “It’s given us a singular vision of quality in our city, and enabled us to set a higher bar.”

Many of the 1.5 million children in Bogotá, Colombia, endure miserable daily commutes to school. If they take the bus, it’s not uncommon for their ride to take several hours — in each direction. If they walk or bike, they do so through treacherous traffic and dangerous streets.

But Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa refused to accept this situation as the status quo.

Speaking to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo last fall, the mayor said he sees one of the government’s primary roles as that of problem solver: “The public sector must try and define new ways of solving problems faced by citizens,” he said. “It is our duty do solve the problems in more powerful and effective ways.”

True to the mayor’s words, the city was named a winner of the 2016 Mayors Challenge with its idea for “Niños Primero (Children First),” a plan to help children get to school as easily — and as safely — as possible.

As part of the program, the city has designated school-bus only lanes, and will block off new pedestrian zones, as well as support volunteer-led bicycle and walking routes. City leaders are also exploring ways to better engage children in educational opportunities during their commute.

“We are still in the pilot phase,” Mayor Peñalosa, told El Tiempo “We’re using the resources given to us [through the Mayors Challenge] to work with what we have and improve.”

The program is showing progress, with the designated bus lanes cutting bus commute times by an average of 15 minutes.

Finishing high school is about much more than a piece of paper. It also increases a person’s earning potential, improves their health, and decreases the likelihood that they’ll have trouble with the law. In Miami, Raul Hernandez, Miami’s Chief Service Officer, knew volunteers could play a valuable role in helping at-risk students say in school. But first he needed to find the volunteers.

Hernandez, whose role is made possible through Cities of Service, was inspired by then-Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s Graduation Coaches initiative, a program that trains volunteers to mentor youth. As city leaders in Philadelphia did, Hernandez used the Cities of Service Graduation Coaches Blueprint to guide his city’s work.

In addition to find partners throughout the community, Hernandez saw an opportunity to go a step further and draw upon another resource: his own peers. All city employees now have administrative permission to volunteer an hour a week with the Graduation Coaches program. Moreover, the city’s human-resources department hosts training sessions for city employees to encourage their participation.

Since the program’s launch in January, the city has hosted seven orientation sessions for city volunteers, and 78 city employees — including 12 police officers — are serving as mentors to 135 youth.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

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