A child born to a family on the west side of Atlanta is brought into this world perfect, unblemished with his entire future ahead of him. A nurse swaddles the baby with blue blankets and places a beanie on his head before gently handing him off into the loving arms of his mother who sits at the edge of her hospital bed.
She looks down at this boy who has drifted off to sleep—he’s had a long first day. He has all of the potential in the world. He doesn’t know this yet, and he may not learn that for a long time, but it’s true.
Unfortunately, there are some things that are beyond his control. Statistically, because of the zip code he was born into, he is handed a disadvantage.
United Way of Greater Atlanta identified this at the end of the last strategic planning meeting, Ginneh Baugh, vice president of strategy and knowledge development, said. It triggered reflection and discussion with stakeholders, board members, agency partners and the donors.
“There was this question that was put up to the board and stakeholders of, ‘What does this work add up to? What is the big picture?’” she says. “We’re not just fundraising for the sake of fundraising.”
There was measurable success across the Greater Atlanta area, but they had significant challenges, and they noticed a trend. Students in certain areas weren’t graduating. There was a discrepancy. Many didn’t have the same resources, and there wasn’t the same sense of community.
“We looked at what does this all add up to, and what is getting in the way,” Ginneh says. “We found what it came down to was child well-being.”
But, how could they reverse this? How could they “remove the barriers of zip code”?
OFFERING A NEW FRAME
Born out of this meeting was the foundation of the Child Well-Being Index. We had to put our children on a path to fulfill their greatest potential. United Way saw the only way to do this is to work together toward a single shared agenda.
“We were trying to use information that people were used to seeing, but it offers it in a new frame,” Ginneh says.
A data committee looked at how we measure potential for a child. Fourteen measures in determining child well-being were selected.
There were seven child measures such as percentage of low-weight births, students exceeding third-grade reading standards and high school graduation rate. Three family measures were chosen. We began looking at financial stability, housing cost burden and the percentage of mothers without a high school diploma. United Way identified four community measures looking at adults with post-high school education and how that related to employment and access to health care.
The data showed half a million children in Greater Atlanta grow up without the resources, opportunities or social supports to reach their full potential. Since that first data was released in 2016, United Way has seen an improvement in the lives of more than 82,000 children living in areas of low or very low child well-being. The region has improved its overall Child Well Being Score from 58.9 to 61.8.
The index gave United Way a tool to measure this. The data was daunting, but the data created a common goal for the organization to work toward correcting.
United Way developed an easy-to-read child well-being heat map in March 2017. It ranged from green, which indicated high child well-being, to red which was at the other end of the spectrum.
There was a clear mission. They knew that in order to help these children and reverse this behavior, they had to make the best of their efforts.
They ended up finding a way to hit all three measures in one community with a low score.
PARTNERSHIPS ARE KEY
In 2007, The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site (ACS) brought community leaders and educators together to plan a new learning complex. $20 million went toward the Dunbar Learning Complex (DLC), an educational hub housed within Dunbar Elementary School. Dunbar was located was located previously in an orange zone on the CWB heat map. New data shows that the 30312-zip code has improved its child well-being score to 54.8, up from 50.5 in 2016.
It is located in what is called a “Neighborhood Planning Unit V,” wherein children and families live in the most vulnerable and challenging conditions.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation made long-term commitments to improving the future of at-risk children and their families. Since 2005, the foundation’s ACS has partnered with schools, parents and community-based organizations to close the gap in school readiness.
DLC used an innovative model to create opportunities for families by simultaneously equipping parents and kids with tools they need to succeed.
The approach is led by several partners: Annie E. Casey Foundation, Sheltering Arms/Educare Atlanta, Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School and The Center for Working Families, inc., a nonprofit housed next door to the complex that helps parents secure family-supporting jobs.
Laura Miller, director of family engagement and leadership for early learning and development, said the DLC was the United Way’s first site to offer a center-based home visiting program, implemented in the learning complex.
United Way can’t do everything, but we can be a strategic philanthropic partner, which means looking for the best opportunity to ensure we leverage the dollars committed by donors—money given has helped United Way invest in continued programs at Sheltering Arms and the DLC and 13 different locations. Additionally, we support Healthy Beginnings, a program bridging early development and important health education and health care coordination.
United Way takes data to find initiatives, programs and projects that are already working, and we add missing pieces or scale a solution.
Laura first worked with the Dunbar cluster through a program called Partners Advancing Childhood Education, a school readiness program designed to help children enter school ready to learn.
United Way’s work in the area began around 2010-2011, Laura says. United Way could provide help to children from birth to age 4, and that work would feed into the elementary school. They then provide funding and resources for Center for Working Families.
“The development of that complex, knowing the challenges of the community and the need to turn things around, there was an intentionality around including those organizations that could help change the trajectory of those families,” Laura says.
The partnership with the Dunbar Learning Complex offers an example of how focusing and integrating the work of United Way departments into one community has a significant impact. It shows how we can reverse the implications of the Child Well-Being map.
“We always focus on supporting the needs of family and children, and those are great in theory, but when it comes down to community, what does [CWB] really look like?” Laura says. “Until it affects you, it doesn’t really affect you.”
United Way didn’t just hand a report and set of instructions on best practices. We worked with partners.
Together, we refused to let a person be defined by his or her zip code.
“There are partnerships that are existing within those settings amongst all levels, and if those didn’t foster and we didn’t nurture those relationships, then we wouldn’t be able to speak to the overall goal,” Laura says. “The partnerships between the families and the center directors, as well as the overall organizations within our work relationships, are key.”