County Health Rankings & Roadmaps: Early Learning in South Salt Lake

Feb 24, 2014, 12:40 PM


The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, will celebrate its fifth anniversary next month. In the last few months, NewPublicHealth has been reporting on the work of programs grantees that are making changes in their communities to help improve population health.

Utah’s Salt Lake County ranks 20th out of 27 counties in social and economic factors. Its high school graduation rate is 72 percent, below the state rate of 76 percent. Approximately 19 percent of the county’s children live in poverty, compared with 16 percent state wide.

South Salt Lake, a city in Salt Lake County, has many resources and assets that make it a great place to live. However, the city’s residents also deal with challenges similar to those faced by individuals living in the elsewhere in the country. Nearly half of South Salt Lake’s residents live in homes with annual household incomes less than $35,000. Among similar-sized communities in Utah, South Salt Lake has some of the highest rates of obesity, chronic cigarette smoking, binge drinking, mental illness and prescription drug abuse. In previous years, South Salt Lake has had the highest rate of violent crime in Utah, but over the past three years the city has noticed a 76 percent decrease in gang-related juvenile crime and a drop in overall crime of 23 percent.

In spite of these challenges, the schools, community partners and the City of South Salt Lake share a common goal to ensure all of the city’s kids are performing on grade level, graduating high school and pursuing a post-secondary opportunity. To create a foundation to allow children to achieve these goals, United Way of Salt Lake, the City of South Salt Lake and numerous other partners have created the Early Learning Network, a comprehensive, integrated early learning system for children from birth to age five. The program is critical because research shows that evidence-based investments in children from birth to age five improve school readiness; lower rates of crime, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and obesity; are essential to academic achievement; and have a direct impact on people’s health and financial well-being.

The goal of the Early Learning Network is to make sure that by the time a child enters kindergarten, he or she will be ready to learn.

The Early Learning Network is a recipient of a County Health Rankings and Roadmaps community grant. Grantees are funded to work with diverse coalitions of policy-makers, business, education, health care, public health and community organizations to improve the education system in ways that also better the health of the community. Roadmaps to Health grants support more than two dozen projects across the United States that aim to create healthier places for individuals and families to thrive. The Roadmaps to Health Community Grants project is a critical component of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Elizabeth Garbe and Chris Ellis of United Way of Salt Lake.

NewPublicHealth: Tell us about the Early Learning Network.

Chris Ellis: The Early Learning Network is a coalition of early childhood providers, basic needs groups, government agencies and health organizations. The primary goals of the group are to ensure that kids are demonstrating age-appropriate development and entering kindergarten ready to learn. The Early Learning Network is focused on a specific geography, the City of South Salt Lake. It is a great example of collective impact, as non-profits, businesses and government agencies are working together to determine the most effective way to support children ages 0-5 in this community.

The Network has discussed baseline measures to better understand what services are needed to support the community. Collecting data to set a baseline is essential in order to demonstrate whether we are making any progress on our two goals.

In South Salt Lake, the majority of children that the Network supports are low income, refugees, or have other characteristics that make them more likely to enter kindergarten behind their peers—a cycle that is difficult to stop. Research has shown that if these children do not access interventions then they will most likely be behind by third grade, and ultimately may not graduate. The partners in the Early Learning Network understand this situation and work collaboratively to reach these high-need populations. For example, a local school district preschool program that has had a tremendous impact on children from low-income families and with refugee students is a member of the coalition and has shared best practices with the group.

Elizabeth Garbe: Part of the strategy is to ensure all children in South Salt Lake enter school ready to learn. The Early Learning Network has brought together providers within the area to strengthen all programs so that a child accessing a program in South Salt Lake is receiving high-quality services, preparing them to enter school ready to learn.

NPH: Why is it important to educate business, education and government leaders about the goals?

Garbe: There are a number of reasons to educate community leaders about the goals and strategies being employed. You can only change the odds for children, families and entire communities by working together. One sector alone cannot achieve or overcome all of the social problems that a child or a family may face. It is only through collaboration, intentional work around shared goals, shared data and continual communication with each other that you can actually solve complex social problems. The business and education communities and government leaders all need to be partners if we’re actually going to change the odds in our communities. That’s a key reason why it’s important to have everyone onboard.

The second component is that we want to make our efforts sustainable over the long term and make sure they are replicable statewide. Research has shown that when children enter school ready to learn and have high-quality early-childhood interventions, they’re more likely to graduate and go on to receive some sort of post-secondary education. They’re more likely to be healthy. They’re less likely to end up in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems. They are less likely to become welfare dependent. All of those components not only have an impact on state spending in those areas, but when you have successful students you have a more productive citizenry.

Ellis: It’s also very important to educate families about the importance of supporting their children from ages 0 to 5. Some of our partners in the Early Learning Network do just that; they do home visits to make sure that families are engaged in their children’s education before they actually go to school.

NPH: What are the specifics of preschool legislation that the projects advocate?

Garbe: This legislative session we are working with Representative Greg Hughes on a school readiness bill that will do two things. First, it will create a competitive grants program to increase quality within existing programs. Both public and private providers—schools, charter schools, private daycare providers and online/computer providers—can apply for the grants, making hundreds more high-quality programs available to Utah children.

Second, it will allow the state to enter into contracts with private investors so that the state only pays for preschool if there are results that prove academic success and ensures that the state will avoid significant remedial costs. This public-private partnership ensures we can sustain high-quality preschool programs for the long-term and that the programs are getting our children ready for school

We know that only high-quality programs actually get results. We also know that because there are limited resources in state budgets, and since we need to continue to pay for remediation and other educational needs, we need a financing mechanism that will help get us to scale quicker. This financing mechanism is known as social impact loans, pay for success, or result-based financing. The beauty of it is that we can leverage private dollars and the state will only pay for results. Really it’s a win-win for everyone.

NPH: Tell us about your data acquisition.

Garbe: All of the work that we do is data driven. One of the things that the Early Learning Network did when we first began working together was create a process to establish a baseline, assess where kids are, and then continually use data to determine course corrections and whether the network is achieving its goals. If not, then the Network does what it needs to do to make sure they are making an impact. That helps sustainability because we can show clear data that proves the impact we’re having.

NPH: And what are the next steps?

Garbe: We’re hoping to pass legislation in the 2014 legislative session.

On-the-ground next steps and goals of the Early Learning Network are to create public-private partnerships and expand access to evidence-based, high quality, early-learning programs. We’re working with some private preschool providers in South Salt Lake to improve the quality of their programs, so that kids that go to these sites receive the same quality instruction as kids at public school sites, ensuring that they, too, enter school with a better chance of being ready to learn by kindergarten.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.