Connecting Together for Impact Pt 1
A lack of access to early education, healthcare and student engagement impacts youth over time. A study conducted by California Polytechnic University and the University of Maryland found that youth affected by poverty faced a significant disadvantage in school as early as kindergarten, and that gap in readiness increased as the child aged.1 This gap leads to greater rates of school absence, dropouts, crime and unhealthy behavior. They found that as many as 40% of children in the United States were unprepared upon entering kindergarten.1
Many communities are connecting together organizations within their community to address these issues. The Omaha Data Collaborative (ODC), composed out of interest and support from Building Bright Futures, Avenue Scholars, The Sherwood Foundation and United Way of the Midlands is one example. The ODC is beginning the process of connecting together school, out of school data (e.g., afterschool programming, mentoring), and other community data to get a complete picture of the state of youth being served by community agencies.
As part of United Way of the Midlands, Dr. Anne Herman helps ensure the ODC is providing evidence-backed processes and practices, support for data evaluation, and helping to facilitate strong collaboration between the Omaha Public Schools and local nonprofits.
Q: The United Way of the Midlands is one of the principal partners of Building Bright Futures and The Sherwood Foundation in creating the Omaha Data Collaborative. What role does the United Way have in the overall initiative?
Herman: These organizations came together with the goal of creating a system where agencies would have access to multiple sources of data, such as information another community organization would have. That data would help an agency better identify what they are doing, who they are serving, how often they are serving their clients and what impact is being made.
As a key member of the collaborative, the United Way of the Midlands is currently coordinating the processes, policies and practices around data sharing; we are also creating the infrastructure for this sharing by working with technology partners. Additionally, we are conducting training to better show the connections between strategy, goals, activities and outcomes that can be expected for the people you serve. Lastly, we work to meet agencies where they are at with respect to using data to inform programming, make decisions, and to tell their own stories.
Q: Building Bright Futures has helped encourage a multi-pronged approach to improving youth outcomes, including focusing on early education, healthcare, student engagement and mentoring services. How can a lack of resources or support in these areas impact Omaha youth, from childhood to career?
Herman: The issue of some children having less access to youth development resources is something that is a problem in many communities, not just Omaha. There’s a lot of research available that shows that, for example, missing resources in early childhood development, such as high quality early childhood education and healthcare, will set a child back compared to peers that have access; this effect can been seen before kindergarten, and is definitely obvious as children enter kindergarten. Those children might not ever catch up – in fact, they may begin to lag even further behind as they age.
In Omaha, we believe that it’s not acceptable for us to have any of our youth remain behind because of a lack of opportunity when they started school. We also want to be forward thinking and try to prevent youth from starting out behind in the first place. Building Bright Futures has been working to create programs that focus on improving education, healthcare, engagement and enrichment as well as make available high quality afterschool programming and access to great mentors.
Without addressing these gaps in opportunities for a lot of kids, we are sending them forward into their education without having knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences that will help them achieve their goals and dreams. In Omaha we have a group of people that want to change that and create a community-wide effort to ensure that all youth have the same access to a high-quality education.
Q: Do you think that the effects snowball as they get older?
Herman: Absolutely; there has been research conducted on the effects of low-quality early childhood education, lack of access to healthcare, and the effects of poverty on education and life outcomes. That research shows that not only do kids start behind and stay behind, but in many cases the gap gets wider as they grow older.
If a child doesn’t like school when they are in the 3rd grade, and they continue to not like school by the time they are a teenager and moving on into high school, they’re going to stop engaging in their education at the level they did when they were a kid. Part of that is because, at that age, they have more autonomy and ability to decide not to engage. This is another reason why it’s so important to create opportunities at the early childhood level and then find ways to target a youth’s specific needs, keep them engaged and help them excel into adulthood.
Q: How does Omaha Data Collaborative connect together schools, health organizations, nonprofits, foundations and other stakeholders to tackle youth issues? How important is this approach to long-term success?
Herman: ODC is in its first year, so we’re still in the process of connecting everyone together. I just completed my first year in this position, and we are still working to get everyone involved to identify and use common terminology, as well as sharing and co-creating the structure of this collaboration.
What’s really important to note about ODC is that it is built upon a multi-faceted, multiple stakeholder approach. We’re currently clarifying what responsibilities and roles we have within our community, as a single entity. We’re asking: how do we work with other entities to ensure that our community goals are being met? Finding the answer to that requires a lot of discussion and, in some cases, compromises of where we thought we would focus or how fast we would get to a milestone, but it’s fundamentally critical for both our short- and long-term success.
We’re finding that one of the greatest things about this process is that everyone involved is on a mission to help children by giving them access to quality educational opportunities, both formally through great school districts but also through informal programs and activities. It really comes down to making sure that we continue to be open and honest and share with each other about what we currently have and what we still need.