San Diego Agencies Join To Ensure 'New Beginning' for Families

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San Diego--While this city's picturesque waterfront, balmy climate, and California glamour can charm the casual visitor, its families are no strangers to hard times.

When city and county agencies responsible for the education, health, and welfare of San Diego residents launched a study in 1989 to explore how they could join forces to better serve their clients, the data were daunting.

The study targeted the Hamilton Elementary School attendance area, a densely populated, highly transient, ethnically mixed neighborhood with one of the city's worst crime rates and its highest reported incidence of child abuse.

The 10-month study, which experts consider one of the most innovative interagency data-sharing efforts in the nation, revealed that 64 percent of 1,143 households were involved with at least one social program. Nearly a third had crossed paths with three or more agencies in the pursuit of welfare, food, housing, and medical aid, or through the legal system.

Almost half the families were known to the welfare system; 17 percent were involved in gain (Greater Avenues for Independence), a state education and training program for welfare recipients; and 84 percent of the children qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. Some 20 percent of the families had come into contact with child-protective services in the past seven years, and 16 percent and 7 percent, respectively, were known to the housing and probation departments.

The scores of Hamilton Elementary's 3rd graders on state standardized tests last year, meanwhile, were 66 and 60 points below county norms in reading and writing, respectively, and 160 points below the county average in mathematics.

Of 193 students at risk of being retained in their grade, 44 percent were from families known to the San Diego County Department of Social Services.

The study "validated what we suspected all along--that there is very much of a connection between the 18 hours a day children are not with us and what occurs in the six when they are," says Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent of schools in San Diego.

To bridge the gap between those worlds, San Diego's top officials, with support from the Stuart Foundations and the Danforth Foundation, have launched "New Beginnings," an ambitious effort to help families navigate the maze of available social services.

The staffs of key agencies are laying plans for a center, expected to open in March on the Hamilton campus, that will offer services ranging from family orientations and needs assessments in multiple languages to health care to case management and referral.

Ultimately, says Richard W. Jacobsen Jr., director of the Department of Social Services, the center is envisioned as a "one-stop shop" to establish families' eligibility for a range of programs, including job training, school meals, and public housing.

The current system has proved so complicated and cumbersome that many families never get all the aid they need, or wind up "having to run from pillar to post to tell their stories," he notes.

Families with the most severe problems are served at the greatest cost, the study showed, and many spin their wheels trying to master the complex eligibility processes and rules required by numerous programs, each at a different site.

Social workers and teachers interviewed for the study, meanwhile, say they are overwhelmed by the problems their clientele confront and frustrated by the limits of their separate bureaucracies.

Although the center at Hamilton will be a central component in testing new approaches, the officials who launched New Beginnings view it as far more than an isolated project.

Says Superintendent Payzant: "We don't see this as a one-shot effort to make a point in one community. We hope it will become a model for public agencies working collaboratively in a way that makes a difference."

"I see it shaping a lot of the future in the way agencies deliver services and the way education is tied into it," says Job D. Moraido, a social worker who was based at Hamilton in a pilot phase of the effort.

Growing numbers of communities across the nation have experimented with collaborative approaches in recent years to pool resources and serve families more effectively.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation's "New Futures" project is funding collaborative approaches in four cities, and Kentucky is establishing statewide family-support centers--a concept used on a smaller scale in Connecticut and other states--as part of its school-reform legislation.

But the leadership and commitment by San Diego officials--and the deliberative process they launched to identify system failures--sets New Beginnings apart, experts say.

"They've done more than most cities or jurisdictions we've been able to find in setting up the mechanism" for collaboration, says Martin Gerry, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Also unusual, he says, is the linking of "basic city and county municipal structures" to involve services ranging from job training to recreation.

"It's the closest level of cooperation I've seen anywhere between a school district and county government--especially the county welfare system," adds Sid Gardner, co-director of the Youth At Risk project for California Tomorrow. Mr. Gardner, an expert on interagency issues and a former director of the New Futures project, has served as a consultant to New Beginnings.

"One of the most impressive things" about New Beginnings is that agency leaders "did not rush to implementation," he adds. "They have been extremely careful to diagnose what is going on."

"We have always tried to fix our eye on the families and kids here and how much the various agencies are spending currently, and ask how can we reconfigure to reinvent the system," observes Jean Jehl, an administrator with the San Diego schools and a co-leader of the project team.

"Often there are people with vision in a community, but they don't have the heads of agencies willing to commit time and effort," says Amy Loomis, a program officer for the Stuart Foundations.

The New Beginnings collaborative was inspired by both demographic trends and fiscal realities.

Rapid population growth, including a large influx of immigrants, has severely strained schools and services here. Hamilton Elementary's student population has grown from 750 to 1,322 in the past five years, with an increasingly diverse ethnic mix. About 35 percent of its students are Latino; 25 percent, Indochinese; 25 percent, African-American; and 12 percent, white.

Twenty-three language groups are represented at the school, and more than half of the students do not speak English as their native language.

Mirroring conditions that are "all too familiar locally and nationally," the New Beginnings study characterizes Hamilton as "a school straining at maximum capacity to assist families with multiple, severe needs."

Once chiefly a middle-class neighborhood, the City Heights area surrounding the school has fallen into decline. Although a growing number of apartment complexes have sprung up in recent years, high rents force families to relocate frequently, and the wait for public housing is typically five years.

Many families do not own cars, and public transportation is limited. In many spots, sidewalks are absent or in poor repair. Grocery stores and recreational facilities are in short supply. Canyons lacing the area have fallen prey to drug dealers, and about 40 percent of those treated by county drug services this year were heroin users.

The school itself, appended by 26 mobile classrooms to accommodate its rising enrollment, is windowless to prevent vandalism, and shootings in the area are not uncommon.

In 1988, nearly 26 per thousand residents were victims of violent crime, and 97 per thousand residents suffered property crimes. More than 300 child-abuse reports are referred monthly to county child-protective services.

Yet, too often, even when families know how to get help, Mr. Jacobsen, the director of the social-services department, observes, "we get them after the damage is done."

Recognizing that too much money was being spent too late, and too diffusely, on a common set of clients, Mr. Jacobsen initiated discussions with city and county officials 2 years ago.

Besides the Department of Social Services and the San Diego school district, New Beginnings involves the chief administrator of the county and its health and probation departments; the city manager and its housing, parks and recreation, library, and police services; and the San Diego Community College District.

A team of managers and consultants has helped lay the groundwork by identifying and working through problems and barriers.

"There has been a strong commitment throughout to bend rules--to find ways to make it work," says Ms. Jehl, the project team co-leader.

Initially, the group considered opening a health clinic at Hoover High School, an option still under discussion. But opposition from religious and political figures and studies touting the benefits of earlier interventions prompted them to focus on an elementary school.

In addition to health professionals, including a pediatric nurse practitioner, the center will be staffed by a counselor from the school district, a gain employee and a child-protective-services worker from the Department of Social Services, and employees of a community-based organization and the community-college district.

The college district will offer such courses as English as a second language, citizenship, parenting, and adult education to the Hamilton area and base a counselor at the center to steer families to education and training opportunities.

An "extended team" of workers at various agencies will also help link families to other services.

While center-based personnel will remain on the staffs of their own agencies, an on-site coordinator will supervise them in their roles as "family-services advocates."

The center will focus first on school-age children in the Hamilton area and their families, making an effort to extend services to expectant parents and younger siblings. More extensive preschool and health components for families of children from birth to age 5 will be phased in beginning next fall.

Teachers, who will receive training in how to identify problems, use supportive classroom techniques, and learn about the roles of other agencies, will refer children with academic, social, or health problems to the center and maintain contact with staff members there.

Other agency staff members will also be "cross trained" to learn each others' functions, with the goal of creating a "generic social worker," explains Mr. Moraido, the Department of Social Services worker involved in the New Beginnings pilot.

Since 1989, the Stuart Foundations has contributed about $128,000 in start-up funds for the collaborative effort, and the Danforth Foundation last month committed $75,000 to help provide staffing and technical aid. The school board is funding portable classrooms for the Hamilton center, and the district is seeking in-kind architectural help for renovation.

International Business Machines Corporation has also agreed to aid in setting up a video orientation for families at Hamilton and a computerized reporting system to streamline referral of child-abuse cases.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Education Department have also voiced interest in supporting an evaluation.

But the collaborative's goal is to be self-sustaining, with each partner contributing leadership, staff time, and support services. Participating agencies have already contributed at least $275,000 in in-kind contributions, Mr. Jacobsen of the social-services department notes.

Agency administrators view the collaborative as their only hope for serving growing numbers of beleaguered children and families under increasingly tight budgets.

Mr. Jacobsen displays detailed charts showing how his agency's expenditures have doubled and its workload has proliferated in recent years. Of the $582 million the social-services agency spent last year, he notes, $5.7 million was associated with Hamilton-area families.

With caseloads rising, and the state having to "put the skids" on spending, "we were getting killed," Mr. Jacobsen says.

City and county officials concluded that they must join forces "if we are going to survive as deliverers of service to common clients," says Augustine P. Gallego, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.

"We are part of the community, so we need to share in the problems San Diego faces," he adds. "The sooner we begin working together, the more positive impact to the children of the community."

"We don't have the luxury of working at cross purposes anymore," Superintendent Payzant observes.

Officials also see the effort as "an investment in the future" toward a healthier citizenry and reduced welfare dependency and crime, notes Cecil H. Steppe, the county's chief probation officer. By bolstering preventive services, he says, "the problems we are having to deal with in delinquent children will be lessened."

Coordinating services, he and others argue, will not only aid families, but conserve resources.

"Once we figure out how to do this well, we hope to have some economies in our operating costs," Mr. Payzant says.

Opening the lines of communication between agencies, officials note, has already sparked innovation.

"We keep seeing ways to work together better," says Connie Roberts, deputy director of community relations for the Department of Social Services.

For example:

By matching data from two San Diego schools with department welfare rolls, the district can now determine which students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, saving both parents and school workers time and paperwork. The process, tested at two elementary schools last fall, will be extended to schools districtwide this year.

New Beginnings staff members are also designing a management-information system that will allow the center to track which services families receive and certify eligibility "without having to fill in all the paperwork and tell their stories all over again," says Ron Ottinger, a planning assistant for the school district.

Several school districts in the county have contracted with the probation department to place probation officers at schools.

Having officers on site lends a "sense of power and influence" to help deter abuses and follow up with truant students or those on parole, Mr. Steppe, the county's chief probation officer, notes.

The district has also worked with the social-services agency to ensure that girls who identify themselves as pregnant get immediate access to gain benefits, such as prenatal care, food and nutrition aid, and child care. The effort, which required a waiver-of-confidentiality agreement between the district and the Department of Social Services, has helped keep pregnant girls in school, Ms. Jehl says.

Recognizing the link between parental involvement and children's success in school, county officials added a parent-education module in the gain program. As part of their training, parents learn how they can benefit from parent-teacher conferences and are required to schedule them.

Bilingual social workers from the Department of Social Services have led workshops explaining New Beginnings to families at Hamilton and participated in program planning.

The school district, the community-college district, and the social-services department are discussing launching a "parents as teachers" pilot program at Hamilton, based on the Missouri model, aimed at gain families.

The city is funding an after-school and Saturday program for the children of working parents and has placed a library bookmobile on site. Officials also hope to devise a way to sign children up for library cards at school registration.

Besides streamlining the delivery of some services, knowing each others' agencies better has helped officials breach bureaucratic barriers to get services to clients.

Because liaisons have been established in various agencies, "I can make a direct contact with the social-services department and get an appointment for a parent right now," Mr. Steppe of the probation department notes.

"If a student has special kind of problem, we know who to call in [the] K-12 [system], the county, and the city," adds Mr. Gallego of the community-college district.

Conversely, he says, a social worker with a client who wants to know how to apply to college "will know exactly who to call."

That level of collaboration between county and city agencies--and the school system--was rare before New Beginnings, Mr. Gallego notes.

Mr. Jacobsen of the Department of Social Services characterizes earlier relationships between agency heads as "personal power models, but not institutional relationships."

"There have been relationships between people at the line level, but not departmentwide," Mr. Steppe adds.

And while school staff members have initiated some collaborative efforts, Carrie Peery, the principal of Hamilton, notes, "we have not had that kind of support from the top" prior to New Beginnings.

"We now have executives who can make decisions; they don't need to ask anyone's permission," Mr. Steppe says.

Officials also hope that having the backing of more than one agency player will give them more clout.

For example, Mr. Jacobsen and William Cox, director of the county Department of Health Services, appeared together before the school board to voice support for the proposed high-school health clinic.

Approaching legislators "as not just one institution, but maybe two or four," Mr. Jacobsen says, is likely to "change the way both the California legislature and the federal government look at us."

Some observers question, however, whether a "top down" approach is the best way to revamp services.

Rudeen Monte, executive director of Network Consulting Services, a Napa, Calif., firm that trains people from different agencies to run support programs at schools, says teaching agency staff members to take small steps toward collaboration may be more effective in "changing their behavior and thinking."

While having agency heads at the helm "builds trust among the people who make the decisions," she says, "if it is perceived as an authoritarian gesture, line workers may dig in their heels."

Ms. Monte also argues that promoting collaboration from "the bottom up" brings quicker results than "long planning sessions."

"If I train people how to work with kids, then I can have a group started within a month," she says. "I'm from the school that says jump in and do it, and apologize later if you have to."

Besides involving agency workers and managers in planning, another challenge will be to ensure the center coordinator is a "masterful democratic manager," she cautions.

District officials maintain New Beginnings is consistent with the district's sweeping efforts in recent months to bolster schools' flexibility and autonomy. (See Education Week, March 8, 1989.)

"We're trying to move the decisionmaking [of agency workers] out from central bureaucracies to locations where the needs are" and "to get people who have not worked together to share in decisionmaking," Superintendent Payzant explains.

"We can't accomplish our major goal of restructuring schools unless we deal creatively and differently with all the forces that impact on a child's readiness to learn," he adds.

"Anything that provides more service has to help," says Laura Friedman, a Hamilton resource specialist who notes that many special-education students and families she works with could use extra counseling. Ms. Friedman helped identify such families in the New Beginnings pilot.

Officials concede, however, that classroom teachers have been only marginally involved in the effort.

"Hamilton has made a choice to keep separate its school-reform process ... and New Beginnings," notes Ted Lobman, president of the Stuart Foundations.

Teachers, who are engaged in implementing a multi-track, year-round restructuring plan that divides the school into four smaller academies, "don't have much time," Ms. Peery, Hamilton's principal, says.

But she notes that their participation in workshops and responses to questions posed as part of the New Beginnings feasibility study provided important input, and that teachers will be more involved once the center opens.

Officials also acknowledge that, apart from their communication with i.b.m., New Beginnings has not involved the business sector. Observers attribute the omission to the San Diego business community's lack of enthusiasm for education initiatives. But agency leaders also say they wanted to establish their own credibility before enlisting outside aid.

"Before making a pitch for other agencies or the business community to be involved in any major way," Mr. Payzant says, "we wanted to establish some track record" in working together to stem overlap in publicly funded services.

"We want to make sure we get our direction, goals, and objectives cleary defined," Mr. Gallego of the community-college district adds.

Apart from start-up funds from foundations, officials hope to support New Beginnings primarily through the reallocation of funds that would have been used to operate programs in traditional ways. But some worry that that may not be enough.

"Everything is going to be predicated on the state budget," says Steven Escoboza, assistant director of the San Diego County Department of Health Services. "You put all this effort into it and wonder: Are we going to be able to get some additional funding to tie all this together?"

Such issues must be resolved in order to develop a "reliable model" that can be replicated in other communities, he notes.

Other officials also caution that, given the level of need and current fiscal constraints, it would be unrealistic to set expectations too high.

"We're not going to solve the whole problem, because the demands on the system are horrendous," Mr. Jacobsen of the social-services department warns.

Some also suggest political conditions favoring systemic change in San Diego may not hold sway in other urban districts.

For example, Mr. Lobman, the president of the Stuart Foundations, notes, relations between the school board and the administration and among agency leaders are good, and the momentum for school reform in San Diego is "fairly secure."

Observes Ms. Monte of Network Consulting Services: "San Diego City has a great reputation for being willing to take risks and work hard to do whatever is needed that's in the best interest of students."

As a result, she adds, "the foundation world thinks fondly of them and is willing to invest their money in them."

New Beginnings officials also note that they will need some administrative rules waived in order to merge funds for some projects and share certain data about families.

The state legislature passed a bill two years ago that eases some funding regulations for collaborative efforts at the county level. But such measures, Ms. Jehl of the San Diego schools says, have been "too restrictive" in dictating the forms collaboration must take and the outcomes it must guarantee.

"We'll be looking for legislation that supports building collaboration based on communities' own strengths and needs," she says.

Some state legislators appear ready to back such efforts, and Gov. Pete Wilson has highlighted the need for more interagency coordination in serving children at risk. Federal officials, notably those at the Department of Health and Hu4man Services, also have been receptive.

"Our goal is to use the existing federal programs we have in a way that supports what they want to do," Mr. Gerry of H.H.S.. says.

In return for greater flexibility, he notes, the agency will press for "a tight outcome evaluation."

While New Beginnings participants concede that the effort's success--and the question of whether it is replicated elsewhere--will hinge on such an evaluation, details have been slow to emerge.

Stuart Foundations backers are "eager for them to have a state-of-the-art evaluation" that "will assess changes in children over a long time," Mr. Lobman says.

A preliminary evaluation framework drafted by project team members calls for assessing measures ranging from infant mortality to welfare dependency and from student achievement to parental involvement. But the specifics are still sketchy, and some proposed indicators--especially those related to health--need refinement, Mr. Escoboza of the San Diego County Department of Health Services notes.

Despite the challenges they still face, however, officials backing New Beginnings see it as an essential step in "developing a closer bond between school and home"--a partnership that is fundamental to a child's success, Superintendent Payzant notes.

"This whole effort has the promise of reducing the fragmentation and frustration families encounter in trying to access services that will meet their needs," he says.

But the effort hinges, officials acknowledge, on how successfully they can adhere to the philosophy that they share a common purpose.

"The superintendent," Mr. Steppe says, "should never have to stand there by himself."

Vol. 10, Issue 18, Page 1, 16-17, 19

Published in Print: January 23, 1991, as San Diego Agencies Join To Ensure 'New Beginning' for Families
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