The Shasta Promise: NewPublicHealth Q&A with Charlene Ramont and Tom Armelino

Mar 5, 2014, 11:14 AM


In Shasta County, Calif., the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency is using a County Rankings & Roadmaps grant to realize the “Shasta Promise,” which helps young people in the community prepare for success in any post-secondary school option so that they can obtain high-skill, high-income jobs that will yield long-term health benefits.

High poverty rates, low educational attainment and lack of employment opportunities are among the factors that make Shasta one of the least healthy counties in California. Only 19.7 percent of Shasta County’s adult population age 25 or older has a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30.2 percent statewide. The goal of Shasta Promise is to increase awareness of and preparedness for post-secondary education. The program provides students in middle school, high school and college with the guidance and support they need to overcome barriers to pursuing higher education, and encourages a culture of college attendance among county residents.

To accomplish this, the county is implementing a newly-established College and Career Readiness Strategic Plan:

  • School leaders and counselors are being provided with a training curriculum and sessions to help them get students ready for college.
  • Parent focus groups are being convened to inform the development of an engagement plan between the schools and families.
  • Written policies are being developed for local colleges to accept all county students who meet enrollment requirement.
  • An agreement is being secured from Southern Oregon University to charge in-state tuition for Shasta County students who are admitted.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Charlene Ramont, a public health policy and program analyst with the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, and Tom Armelino, Shasta County’s Superintendent of Schools, about the Shasta Promise.

NewPublicHealth: What is the mission of the project?

Charlene Ramont: Our aim is to give every student, every option. We want all students, when they graduate from high school, to be prepared for all options post high school. When they graduate, they need to be prepared to join the military if they so choose, they need to be prepared to go to college if they so choose, they need to be prepared to go to a trade school or a certificate program.

NPH: Who are you working with to achieve the goals of the Shasta Promise?

Tom Armelino: We have every school district on board. We have public health, a local philanthropy group, the community college, all the local colleges and the United Way.

What we have really focused on in the last couple of years is putting systems in place in the 25 different school districts. We’ve set goals by looking at third grade, middle school and high school data, looking at graduation rates and how many students are going to the various colleges. Our school districts have all committed to a minimum standard curriculum at the high school level. We have created subcommittees that are looking at common assessments and training throughout the county and we’re putting in a lot of resources and systems in place so that we can try to reduce the variation in the school districts so that we can make sure that kids are prepared once they leave us.

We’re three years into it now and we are seeing some of our graduation rates increase, but we’re really trying to put systems in place first. This process is going to take time. We weren’t expecting that we would see immediate results.

NPH: What are some of the interim successes or benchmarks that you’ve been able to see?

Armelino: We’ve been able to collect such things as how many kids are taking algebra, how many kids are not taking algebra—indicators to tell whether kids are on track for meeting that goal. We also have countywide assessments now to determine whether a kid should take algebra or a different math class. We didn’t have any of those things in place and that’s already been implemented this year. So every kid in the county now is consistent in their level of math preparedness.

NPH: Why is the intersection of education and health so critical?

Ramont: Nationally there’s been a lot of research that shows that education is strongly linked to health outcomes. We did some local assessments about California looking at the correlation between educational attainment according to the death rate, income, smoking and other indicators, and we found that income is the strongest predictor of the premature death rate in California. And income and education obviously are so strongly related that we knew that education was a piece that we had to work with.

So for us—for the health department—it was a wakeup call that we really needed to focus on the social determinants of health and the root causes. That death rate that was related to income, that was even stronger than the death rate related to obesity or even the death rate related to tobacco. We shared the data with community leaders and it’s just had a tremendous impact on everyone we share it with, and it really helped to spur the Reach Higher movement, which had started before the health department got involved. But I think the health data really did create a sense of urgency that helped to spur the movement on.

NPH: What are your hopes for what this effort can achieve?

Armelino: We have a very poor community. We have the highest premature death rate in the state. Only about 14 percent of the adults in the community have an education beyond high school. We know that if we’re going to change our culture and the health of our community, we need to educate more folks on the importance of education.

The data is very strong that the more degrees a person has then the more money they make and the healthier they are. They live a healthier lifestyle; they understand the effects of tobacco and obesity; and they raise their children in a healthy environment. We recognized that our best hope for a healthier community is to educate more folks and do a better job in our education system, preparing them for education beyond high school. Where in the past high school was the pinnacle, now we’re saying high school is a ticket to get you to the next level in order to be successful and go on and have a successful career.

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