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Denver mayor sets child well-being goals

After eighteen months of planning, two Denver collaborations between city government and community groups aimed at improving outcomes for children are quantifying their goals.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Director of Children’s Affairs Lindsay Neil Wednesday announced five objectives that aim to unite the work of the Denver Education Compact and the Denver Children’s Cabinet. Hancock launched both groups with the goal of aligning the work of Denver Public Schools, city agencies and community groups that work to improve children’s health and educational achievement.

The broad goals the groups have chosen to focus on are increasing the number of children served by early childhood programs, increasing the number of Denver third-graders reading on grade level, reducing the number of young people who neither attend school nor work, boosting the number of first-generation students who obtain post-secondary credentials and reducing the number of overweight and obese children.

“We understand that we as a city can’t do these things by ourselves,” Hancock told reporters. But, he said, the city can act as a “main convener” to help various agencies and organizations coordinate their resources and their work.

That’s the theory behind both the Denver Education Compact, a partnership between Denver Public Schools and a group of business and community leaders that launched in October 2011, and the Children’s Cabinet, which Hancock established last September to bring together the heads of city agencies that work with children.

Officials are working now to finalize more specific benchmarks within the five broad goals and will make those public in the coming weeks, Neil said. Preliminary plans for those benchmarks include identifying specific neighborhoods where city agencies can target obesity-reduction strategies and boosting the number of young people who earn their GEDs.

Much of the effort during the first year will be focused on the relatively quiet work of aligning the work of various city agencies, including several that have not traditionally been focused on working with children. The mayor said that a city government culture where agencies operate independently has historically been a major impediment toward setting and achieving citywide goals. “We’re breaking down silos where agencies weren’t talking,” he said.

Some of that silo-busting will help the city obtain basic information it needs to set benchmarks, Neil said.

For example, she said, Denver has nearly 16,000 licensed early childhood slots, and city officials estimate that roughly 34,000 children have both parents in the workforce. But because many students receiving public early childhood services are enrolled in more than one program, and each program counts its students separately, it’s difficult to know exactly which children are currently being served and where precisely gaps in service exist.

And so one of the Children’s Cabinet’s preliminary goals is to assign 3, 4 and 5-year-olds who receive public services a unique identification number that is shared across agencies, which Neil said will allow the city to more accurately determine the demand and capacity of public early childhood education programs.

Similar challenges exist when trying to improve the outcomes for the city’s “disconnected youth” – young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who neither work nor attend school and who interact with a variety of different city services at different times, from the school system to health clinics to homeless shelters.

But, Neil said, “we’re not able to share data with each other and we’re not keeping the same data.” One shorter-term goal as a result is to promote greater information-sharing across agencies.

The city is modeling its collaboration efforts in part on projects like the Boston Compact and the Strive Partnership, which has brought together city services and non-profit social agencies to work toward common outcomes in cities like Cincinnati. Neil told the agency heads convened for the Children’s Cabinet that the goal-setting process has been a useful exercise in figuring out where public agencies can act and where they need to partner with each other and with outside groups.

“We learned a lot in this process about what the city does and doesn’t do and what it can and can’t do,” she said.

And from there, Neil said, the city can scale up its ambitions. “There have been a lot of conversations about how aspirational we should be,” Neil told the Children’s Cabinet gathering that met this afternoon. “These [first-year] goals are really designed to strengthen the resources we already have…so this time next year we can be more aspirational.”

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