New Evidence: The Impact of Community Partnerships

Liberals and conservatives often disagree about the causes of poverty and other social ills. Broadly speaking, liberals point the finger at structural factors and advocate for policy changes, while conservatives look to individuals and families and favor behavior changes. Clearly, both points of view have validity. But what’s often overlooked is what lies between these two poles — communities and neighborhoods — and the value of focusing on this middle zone. (David Bornstein, How Community Networks Stem Childhood Traumas)

In the early 1990s, Washington State created a state-wide Family Policy Council to address a spike in youth violence. The Council in turn funded local community networks to develop integrated approaches to violence prevention. David Bornstein, a reporter for the New York Times, describes the thinking behind the approach in ways that will sound very familiar to those working on P-3 initiatives:

Policy makers analyzed the problem and recognized the inter-connectedness of issues usually handled separately: child abuse, domestic violence, dropping out of high school, teen pregnancy, youth substance abuse, and youth suicide.

The separation made little sense. Youths who commit violence or drug-related crimes at 17, or drop out of school at 15, often have received a first suspension in second grade and have experienced abuse or neglect as toddlers or infants. It is now understood that the best hope of interrupting this downward spiral requires years-long collaboration between child welfare specialists, parents, educators, health workers, police officers, legal advocates and community members. [Italics added.] (Tapping a Neighborhood’s Inner Strength)

Over time the Family Policy Council began sharing research with the community networks regarding the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on young children. ACEs refer to 10 types of abuse, neglect, and family exposure to toxic stress. One in four adults report having three or more ACEs, which are closely linked to a range of problematic outcomes for adults, including drug use, physical and mental health challenges, and early onset of disease.

Washington’s community networks followed the lead of the Family Policy Council and focused their work on addressing ACEs. They launched community outreach campaigns, organized neighborhood associations to address the underlying causes of ACEs, and developed programs in schools and social service agencies. Communities chose to work on a variety of issues, including prenatal smoking and drinking, truancy, youth drinking, domestic violence, foster care, mentoring, and improving playgrounds and parks.

In recent years several evaluations have found that community networks have been highly effective in reducing ACEs, capped off by a recently-published Mathematica study that found that several communities had successfully reduced the “long-term social, emotional, and physical problems related to abuse, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences.”

Washington’s successful experience with community networks focused on ACEs validates a central underlying premise of the P-3 movement: community partnerships that implement integrated approaches can improve outcomes for low-income children and their families. Washington’s community networks also suggest that addressing ACEs can serve as a focus for the community outreach and quality improvement initiatives that P-3 Partnerships carry out. Further, these networks provide a vivid demonstration of the efficacy of organizing family and community members to participate in and lead community improvement initiatives focused on young children and families. Finally, Washington’s experience with ACE-focused community networks helps to flesh out some of the core ideas and principles embedded in the P-3 Partnership theory of action, connections I make explicit in the discussion that follows.

Striking Research Findings

David Bornstein writes the Fixes column for the New York Times and is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. Bornstein has written a three-article series on community efforts to address ACEs, the first two of which focus on Washington State. The series was timed to coincide with the release of the Mathematica study mentioned above. This post draws both on the Bornstein series and the Mathematica evaluation (links below).

Evaluations of Washington’s community networks found that the best functioning ones reduced ACEs in young adults. Networks that were sustained for at least eight years achieved, “significant reductions in births to teenage mothers, dropouts from high school, youth suicides, and youth arrests for violent crime.” The Mathematica evaluation studied five communities and found improved graduation and discipline rates, reductions in prenatal smoking and alcohol use by mothers, improved infant birth weights, decreased truancy rates, and increases in the awareness of ACEs.

The Impact of Community Partnerships

The P-3 movement is premised on the idea that the most powerful way to improve outcomes for low-income children is to improve the quality and alignment of services along the entire P-3 continuum. Improving quality as well as the continuity of children’s experiences requires significant coordination across P-3 organizations, including elementary schools and school districts, community-based preschools, libraries, museums, hospitals, early intervention services, and after-school programs. This coordination requires that P-3 organizations work together in community partnerships.

Bornstein captures a healthy skepticism around these kinds of collaborative structures when he says,

The notion that a modest investment in a “community network” can chip away at entrenched social ills seems hard to believe. (How Community Networks Stem Childhood Traumas)

Yet Washington’s community networks do just this. They provide further validation of the idea that partnerships can build community capacity, coordinate existing services in ways that lead to significant improvements for children and families, and implement new programs that effectively target identified needs.

According to the lead author of the Mathematica study, says Bornstein, “The reason for the outsize impact, relative to resources, was the way networks leveraged resources by engaging partners within the community.”

ACEs and P-3 Partnerships

In the P-3 Partnership theory of action, I suggest that partnerships focus on several core strategies to support P-3 organizations. Washington’s community networks implemented two of these core strategies—collaborative quality improvement initiatives for schools and community-based organizations and direct community outreach and family support. The focus on ACEs proved to be a powerful approach that influenced both community outreach and organizational programming. According to Bornstein, this focus “provided a common framework and language within which communities can pursue mutually reinforcing strategies in related areas … to break intergenerational patterns of dysfunction and poverty.”

As one example, the community of Walla Walla rallied around the ideas of reducing ACEs and supporting youth and adults in addressing the impact of ACEs and as a result established a new youth community center, creating a new mentoring organization, improved playgrounds and parks, developed a children’s resilience initiative, and instituted a trauma-informed approach at an alternative high school.

Community initiatives focused on addressing ACEs have proliferated across the country. See the ACEs Too High news site and the ACEs Connection for additional information. Washington’s experience suggests that using the ACEs frame around trauma-informed practice can be a powerful approach to include in the work of P-3 Partnerships and their member organizations.

Organizing Community Members and Developing Positive Social Ties

Another priority of the P-3 Partnership Theory of Action is the development of positive social ties among families with young children (see principle #4). This type of community building is an integral part of the Head Start model, and many community-based preschools and community schools at the elementary level excel at connecting families and community members. (See, for instance, Mario Small’s, The Ties That Bind: How Childcare Centers Build Social Capital.) Parent Cafes using the Strengthening Families model is another example of community building in a P-3 context. The Washington ACE-focused networks demonstrate the role of connecting community members and building trust in a particularly robust way, moving beyond connecting families to community organizing and facilitating leadership by local residents.

Bornstein relates how many of the community networks began their work by working with local residents to identify and prioritize their own needs, in some cases going door-to-door to talk with residents. In the case of the Washington community networks, the focus was not exclusively on P-3, but rather on community development infused with a commitment to preventing ACEs and helping youth and adults deal with traumatic childhood experiences. With the help of the networks and community coaches, community members formed associations that worked on a wide variety of issues, including lighting, walking and biking trails, community gardens, neighborhood clean-ups, and renovating a community center. Other communities worked on youth drinking, foster care, and domestic violence.

P-3 Community Partnerships can draw on Washington’s experience in supporting their members in developing positive social ties. Further, it is easy to imagine P-3 Partnerships allying with broader community partnerships in which the kind of community organizing seen in Washington is a priority (see principle #5 of the theory of action, Link P-3 to Place-Based, Cradle-to-Career Initiatives).

Implications for P-3 Initiatives

Washington’s community networks illustrate how addressing ACEs can provide a useful focus for some of the work of P-3 partnerships. These efforts will be all the more successful to the extent that P-3 Partnerships and their member organizations develop meaningful relationships with families and community members and engage them in local initiatives. Further, the positive results achieved by Washington’s community networks reinforce the underlying premise of the P-3 movement: community partnerships that improve coordination across organizations and design effective programming can bring about large benefits for children and families.

Links:

Tapping a Troubled Neighborhood’s Inner Strength
How Community Networks Stem Childhood Traumas
Putting the Power of Self-Knowledge to Work 
New Study Shows Communities Can Reduce the Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences

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