Palm Beach County, the third-most-populous county in Florida, is a relatively affluent area and a magnet for tourists.
“Nobody thinks we are a county in which kids go hungry, but we are,” said Tammy Fields, Palm Beach County youth services director.
Five years ago, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting jolted the nation, county leaders turned their attention to the safety and well-being of young people.
The Board of County Commissioners and a group of community organizations convened a summit on youth and drew together a task force. The county created a department of youth services and worked intensively with the task force and community organizations to develop a master plan defining the needs of its young people.
Called “Strengthening the Steps to Success: Birth to 22,” the plan was released last fall and details six areas for action:
- Make basic services affordable and build pathways for disconnected youth.
- Increase support for parents.
- Strengthen out-of-school time opportunities and promote social and emotional learning.
- Support access to and success in higher education.
- Address health risks.
- Become a trauma-sensitive community and ensure safety and justice.
One problem in the county is an academic achievement gap.
“We’ve just got this big gap between what occurs for white students and what occurs for African-American students,” Fields said.
Weak wages, high crime rates and unaffordable housing are also problems, according to Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit that measures community well-being through its Opportunity Index. Palm Beach County got a C+ grade on the index in 2015 and 2016.
And programs for youth were scattered, Fields said.
With the help of the Forum for Youth Investment, a national nonprofit that works with state and local leaders to improve conditions for youth, the task force took a “collective impact” approach to develop the master plan. Such an approach mobilizes the community and draws together many parties to define and address the problems.
“We went around to various areas of the county,” Fields said.
“We did 11 community conversations” in areas with diverse populations, she said.
“What came to the top in every conversation was economic stability” and the need of families for support and access to jobs, Fields said.
Another top concern was equity in education.
Young people ”facilitated much of the conversation,” Fields said.
Today the county has a number of initiatives. It’s working with The Wallace Foundation, the school district and the Prime Time after-school program to promote social and emotional learning in school and out of school. It’s working to mitigate the effects of poverty on youth, promote educational equity and provide trauma-informed services, Fields said.
The goal is to provide the following outcomes for each child:
- born healthy
- attached to caregivers
- developmentally on track
- ready for school
- healthy and active
- meeting educational standards and behaving prosocially
- connected and contributing
- career ready
- graduating and in the workforce.
“It’s to make sure we’re planning better for kids in our community,” Fields said.