All communities want their children to be healthy and ready to succeed when they enter school. This comprehensive idea of “school readiness” is best understood by the following framework (see the School Readiness Toolkit):
As this picture indicates, no one agency, organization, neighborhood or family is solely responsible for a child’s school readiness. Rather, multiple agencies from health clinics providing prenatal care to early childhood education providers to the K-12 school district must work together with families and communities to insure a child’s success. Measuring school readiness requires an equally comprehensive approach. Evaluating school readiness should include measures of children’s physical well-being, and social and emotional development, the quality of early learning and health services, and the challenges and supports that families and neighborhoods can offer young children.
Several years ago, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) launched a project sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in which eight local sites documented the many components of their school readiness systems and collaborated with local and state organizations to improve the school readiness of low-income children. The sites had two goals: 1) break down local silos in the school readiness arena and 2) explore potential neighborhood indicators to measure progress.
In order to accomplish these goals, NNIP partners convened those who worked in the many domains that touch a child’s life. In some places, this meant that for the first time staff from home visiting programs, early childhood programs like Head Start, child welfare agencies, and the K-12 education system were meeting to think holistically about what actions could help young children in their social and educational development. A coordinated network of public and private services is particularly critical for low-income parents who likely do not have the resources to afford well-baby visits or quality private preschools and may turn to several separate programs for assistance.
In our report on the initiative, we made a number of discoveries that will be helpful for all fields seeking to use data to improve outcomes for low-income children and families. First, we found that while individual institutions were not always in communication or sharing data relevant to school readiness, data was increasingly available allowing these partnerships to prioritize spending and track outcomes. For example, most sites had neighborhood-level indicators on the share of infants with low birth weight, which could help nonprofits target home-visits and early Head Start services to specific neighborhoods.
We also found that a local collaboration of partners inside and outside of government working together to improve children’s ability to succeed in school resulted in more coherent systems. Our partner at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) demonstrated progress on this front. Through the Invest in Children Initiative (IIC), Cuyahoga County works through cross-sector partnerships to provide a coordinated approach to school readiness. As the long-term evaluator for the Initiative, CWRU developed and still maintains an Integrated Data System that links data on individual children from various data sources to provide a comprehensive look at which agencies are serving children and how the children are faring. Their data has been used to document service utilization rates by having detailed information on which children are eligible for services and how many actually receive them, as well as how many are being served by multiple agencies, and how service use varies by neighborhood. As the goal of the project was to promote the collaboration of agencies to form a true system for school readiness, NNIP began to think about how we could also encourage a multiagency approach to data to inform planning and service provision.
While Cleveland initially focused on young children, an Integrated Data System has potential to measure other outcomes for children, families, and neighborhoods. A number of states and localities across the country have Integrated Data Systems already in place and many national groups are already working to support and advance the Integrated Data System field, including Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy, the Data Quality Campaign, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But there’s a long way to go before we tap the full potential of these systems to inform policy and practice. We see the need to promote applications that address local policy issues and include data about the types of neighborhoods where people live, not just data about individuals themselves. For example, an effective intervention for a youth who is in foster care and involved with the juvenile justice system may differ depending on whether the teen lives in a neighborhood with low-crime and ample youth activities, or in one with high-crime and few supportive community organizations.
To further these goals, we are excited to announce the launch of NNIP’s latest cross-site project: “Connecting People and Place: Improving Communities through Integrated Data” also funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Six NNIP partners (Baltimore, Cleveland, New York City, Pinellas County, Pittsburgh, and Providence) will help local stakeholders use analysis with integrated data to inform their decisionmaking. Each partner will build a partnership with an organization or agency hosting an Integrated Data System and connect data about neighborhoods to these systems. Due to the typically sensitive nature of the information in an integrated data system, its use has been largely restricted to the host agency; this project is intend to increase access to the insights that can be gleaned from the data but still maintain strict protections regarding privacy and confidentiality.
One NNIP partner, the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System, will work with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services to study how neighborhood characteristics affect student absenteeism in public schools. Other sites will explore other issues. For example, the Providence Plan will link their Integrated Data System to voter registration records to understand how civic engagement levels are impacted by such factors as education level, employment, public assistance, and neighborhood context. See descriptions of all six projects here. Integrated Data Systems give communities the data necessary to understand how agencies and services intersect the lives of individuals and to begin the conversations about how collaborating across sectors can lead to better outcomes for children and families and our neighborhoods.
As the projects unfold over the next several years, at the Urban Institute we will be documenting both lessons across sites as well as the results of each local project. We hope that this work will allow us to answer questions like:
• What are the challenges to using an integrated data system to address neighborhood issues?
• Is the data on an individual’s residence of sufficient quality to match to neighborhood indicators?
• What issues arise in trying to expand access to an integrated data system beyond its host agency?
• How are sites able to effectively communicate the importance of integrated systems and information to community members, stakeholders and decisionmakers?
• Is there potential for long term collaboration between NNIP partners and agencies operating IDS?
We will share our findings along the way through the Urban Institute and NNIP websites, and hope this project contributes to a broader understanding about how data can inform collaborative efforts on the ground to help low-income children and communities.
The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership is a network of organizations in more than three dozen cities across the U.S. that make data accessible and easy to understand and then help local stakeholders apply it to solve problems in their communities. Visit NeighborhoodIndicators.org for more information. Two members of Living Cities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are the major foundation partners of the NNIP network.
Leah Hendey is a Research Associate with the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, who has been involved with the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership work.