Common Cents

The first time I visited Portland, Ore., some 12 years ago, I knew it was a cutting-edge kind of place. On the airport bus going into the city, I spotted an establishment called Motor Mocha – a drive-through espresso bar. Bear in mind that this was years before every street corner in America sported a Starbucks. I realized immediately that ingenuity was flourishing in the Pacific Northwest.

Every time I return to that progressive city, I come upon another innovation. On a recent trip, I was introduced to a funding strategy that piqued my curiosity: a system that seeks to realign multiple public funding streams around a coherent set of educational and youth development goals.

Here’s how it works: Under the leadership of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and its chairwoman, Diane Linn, the county’s Commission on Children, Families and Community has developed a School-Age Policy Framework. The concept is to deliver a wide range of services to children at schools in their communities. Whether programs are offered through the city Department of Parks and Recreation or through the county Health Department, most services are delivered where children are likely to be found – in their neighborhood schools.

The framework is rooted in the best available knowledge about how to promote young people’s learning and development, advancing core concepts such as building on young people’s strengths; paying serious attention to differences among youth that are based on race, ethnicity, culture, gender and sexual orientation; using data for program development and continuous improvement; targeting services to high-need neighborhoods; and investing in measures to build capacity, including staff development.

The most radical, promising and potentially controversial aspect of the plan is the realignment of financial resources, which essentially forces a change in the way youth services are delivered.

Phase 1 started with the city Parks and Recreation Department and the county Department of School and Community Partnerships. The initial package of $11.7 million of redirected resources advances a shared vision and shared goals. The county departments of health, human services, libraries and community justice will join the effort in subsequent phases. The funding comes from an even wider variety of sources, including the Portland Water Bureau, the state Emergency Housing Account and the McKinney-Vento supportive housing program within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Services can be school-based or community-based, although all program activities have to support the broad goal of promoting children’s academic success. To that end, the community-based programs are required to be school-linked – that is, they must demonstrate a clear relationship to children’s schools and offer plans for promoting children’s cognitive development and academic achievement.

According to County Chairwoman Linn, this alignment of existing resources to support children’s school success is key to the initiative’s effectiveness. “We believe education is a partnership between students, families, educational institutions and the community at large,” she says. “As a community partner, our role is to minimize the barriers to student success and build the assets of individual students and their families so that all children can reach their full potential.”

From a planning, funding and policy perspective, a unique aspect of this system is that its designers have figured out how to work across jurisdictional lines. In an unusual display of boundary-leaping, city and county leaders agreed to plan together, spend together and share success together.

This builds on earlier efforts that included collaborating to develop a nationally recognized community schools approach known as SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods). Launched in 1997, SUN pooled city and county resources and attracted new funding to expand student enrichment activities and social services in eight public school sites. Its positive evaluation findings and concerted advocacy activities led to passage of two recent ballot referendums that resulted in area residents agreeing to tax themselves in order to generate additional youth service funding.

The current fiscal and political environment around the country challenges youth workers to make best use of our available resources. The Portland approach offers one viable and thoughtful model, demonstrating that it’s possible to be fiscally conservative and socially progressive.

In other words, maximizing our common dollars is simply common sense.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.


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