A Promising Future for Lane County

Posted on April 12, 2011, by admin

All over America communities are organizing to improve outcomes for young people living in high poverty neighborhoods.  Here is a glimpse of one effort that I am proud to be connected with.

I while back I had the honor of giving the keynote address to Lane County United Way’s Promise Neighborhood Initiative.  The initiative is an inspiring example of what communities can do to nurture young people’s development from the prenatal period through early adulthood.

President Obama developed the Promise Neighborhood idea as a way to replicate the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).  HCZ provides supports to children from the prenatal period through early adulthood in a 98 square block area of Harlem. The children in this neighborhood are doing much better in school that students in Harlem have typically done.

The administration set up a program to fund communities to plan promise neighborhoods programs.  I helped United Way of Lane County write a proposal to the Department of Education to get a planning grant for this effort.  We did not get funded, but we said at the time we wrote it, that we would move forward with the effort whatever the outcome.

Lane County’s Promise Neighborhood initiative is built on Success by Six, an effort led by United Way to improve outcomes for young children. It began 12 years ago.

I was at the Success by Six meeting a year or so ago when they took the bold step of focusing on two of the highest poverty neighborhoods in the county, one in the Bethel area of Eugene, the other in Springfield. This required people from other parts of the county to agree on concentrating resources in these neighborhoods. They agreed because they realized that if we can demonstrably improve outcomes in these two neighborhoods it will justify putting additional resources into additional neighborhoods. If we spread our limited resources over the whole county, we would never be able to show that comprehensive efforts can work.

A large and growing network of nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies are cooperating with United Way and the Bethel and Springfield school districts to make a difference in these neighborhoods.

One of the first things Success by Six did is get data on the pre-reading skills of every kindergarten child coming into the four schools in the two target neighborhoods. About 50% of children are at high risk to not learn to read. Now they are setting up systems to reach every family of a preschooler and every day care and preschool provider to support them in reading to children, teaching them vocabulary, and getting them ready to succeed, once they get to school.

(Success by Six is getting these measures on virtually every kindergartener in the county. I am blown away by this. It means that, over time, we will be able to see how our young children are doing and to motivate our communities to find ways to ensure that every child is ready to thrive in school.)

United Way is now working to get sponsors to support evidence-based school and family support programs and practices that can improve children’s’ chances of success.

For example, Katherine Pears of Oregon Social Learning Center has developed the Kids in Transition to School program which is delivered to children in the summer before they start school. A randomized trial Katherine did showed that the program improves children’s readiness to learn.

It has sometimes been said that we fought the war on poverty and poverty won.  But unlike the last war on poverty we have research evidence and tools to guide us.  There are many evidence-based programs, policies, and practices that can make a difference. And we now know how to carefully measure and evaluate whether what we are doing works. Our efforts will get better as we monitor outcomes and modify what we do in light of the evidence.

I think our biggest challenge in Lane County and around the country is to convince everyone that we can do this. For many years skepticism about social programs was understandable, because there wasn’t much hard evidence that they worked.  But that is no longer true.

Once we realize that these interventions can work, it becomes a question of our values.  What kind of communities do we want?  Do we want ones that make the success of every child a priority?  Do we want communities that make sure that every family has the material wellbeing, social support, and health care it needs to thrive?  This is the question we must ask of every citizen.

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