“It’s healing for my soul to see the neighborhood,” Sharnissa Secrett said as she walked up a brick walkway to a small house just a few blocks from Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland. She hadn’t lived in the neighborhood long and was looking for a way to get involved with the elementary school and get to know her neighbors.
Secrett decided to work as a data collector this summer for the Earl Boyles neighborhood community health assessment, part of the Early Works initiative’s new effort to understand how health impacts school readiness and performance and the first step by the Children’s Institute to tie a public school to health services.
With 12 other parents and community members, Secrett knocked on doors, asking parents of young children and expectant parents to take a survey about health issues in their community.
“We’re building a new neighborhood center at Earl Boyles, and it’s an opportunity to draw in young families and pregnant moms,” says Maxine Fookson, the Children’s Institute Lundquist Health Fellow who spearheaded the effort along with partners. “But we have to find out what services are needed.”
The community health assessment surveys will help answer this question, and drive the planning and implementation of services in the neighborhood center, which is part of the Richard C. Alexander Early Learning Wing that opened at Earl Boyles this school year. Health services that are connected to the school through the neighborhood center are intended not only to give families better access, but allow them to feel safer and more secure in reaching out for support. The Children’s Institute’s goal is to catalyze a health program at Earl Boyles that addresses health barriers to school readiness and success.
Conducting a community health assessment is a long-standing best practice in public health because it brings the voice of the community into visioning and planning. In Oregon, an effort is under way to not only overhaul health care, but to connect it to early learning because the entities working in each area are responsible for very similar outcomes. These include healthy, well-timed births and ensuring more children are developing on track.
The Early Works community health assessment is the Children’s Institute’s first step to bring together health and early learning at one school. The effort is a microcosm of the regional and state efforts to integrate health and early learning in a child’s life. For this reason, the two coordinated care organizations responsible for the Earl Boyles neighborhood, are leading partners in the assessment. Other partners include Care Oregon, David Douglas School District, Mt. Hood Community College Head Start, Rose Community Development, and Metropolitan Family Service. What the Children’s Institute learns during the process will inform these organizations’ efforts in other neighborhoods.
“Our primary goal is to better understand the values and priorities of parents when it comes to health, and also their experiences,” says Fookson. This will help Early Works and Earl Boyles build partnerships and provide the right services for the community. The survey is the first step in a process to engage the community and build on assets. This is one reason parents and community members were hired to do the data collection.
This summer, they spent one Saturday morning training for the role. The preparation was led by Betty Izumi, Assistant Professor of Community Health at Portland State University and an expert in community-based participatory research. She also created the assessment protocol and her team will analyze the resulting data. She says it’s both unusual and exciting for a policy advocacy organization such as the Children’s Institute to take on this type of research. “It leads to richer, more meaningful, more sustainable work,” she says. “It also requires openness. It can be messy and doesn’t always go the way you want. But the Children’s Institute and Earl Boyles are open with the community. It’s a perfect fit.”
Data collector and community member Teresa Soto came away from the training excited. “I only do projects that are fun,” she said. Soto said she enjoys going door-to-door and has experience — she was a data collector for the U.S. Census in 2010.
Josette Herrera, mother of two Earl Boyles students, expressed how Early Works and engaging with the elementary school over the past few years have prepared her to take on the role of data collector. “If you had asked me three years ago, there’s no way I would have done something like this,” she said.
Engaging parents, partners and community members in the data collection process will have another important impact in the community. “By engaging in the research and planning phases, families and community members have become that much more invested in the school and are more likely to stay involved and continue to take on new roles at the school and neighborhood center,” says Marina Merrill, Senior Policy and Research Advisor for the Children’s Institute.
On data collection day in late July, Secrett and her survey partner, Nora Flores, walked over to an apartment complex. They were excited to have gathered three surveys already, despite many residents not being home. The apartment complex proved fruitful; Flores quickly walked over to greet two Latino fathers sitting in the grass watching their children play together. Secrett began knocking on doors. Many of the apartments are home to young families. At one, Secrett sat in the doorway with a baby in a carrier, reading her a picture book. “This is for your daughter,” Secrett said as she handed the book to the baby’s father and collected his completed survey. The data collectors distributed books, along with gift cards, to families who completed the survey.
After three hours of data collection, the group gathered for dinner and to debrief about the experience. Everyone had stories to share about the struggles and successes of going door-to-door.
Soto described knocking on a door where a father answered who didn’t seem interested in the survey. As she prepared to leave, the mother arrived home. “She was really excited, and wanted to know all about the preschool, too,” Soto said.
Forty-three surveys were collected that day, and the group has since brought the total to 149 out of their goal of 200. The survey data results will be discussed and reflected on this fall at a community meeting with the data collectors and other parents and community members. Once health service priorities and gaps are clear, the community discussion will help determine service implementation and programming for the new neighborhood center.
As this work moves forward in the community, the Children’s Institute will continue to share lessons learned during this effort with coordinated care organizations and the state. Ultimately, bringing together community partners and building a strong linkage between early learning and health at Earl Boyles will serve as a model for Oregon. What the Children’s Institute learns will lead to actionable strategies that bridge practice to policy.
“Public health is integrally related to educational success,” Fookson says.
Children who face health challenges are often chronically absent from school and may not be able to focus on learning when they are there. By understanding the health needs and gaps in the Earl Boyles community, Early Works can help address them, ensuring that young children arrive at school healthy and prepared to learn.