Summit Spotlight: Making the Case for Investments in Children, Youth and Families

By Woodwell, William H., Jr. | Nation's Cities Weekly, October 17, 2005 | Go to article overview

Summit Spotlight: Making the Case for Investments in Children, Youth and Families


Woodwell, William H., Jr., Nation's Cities Weekly


Making the case for citywide action is one of the first challenges facing local elected officials and their partners working to strengthen families and improve outcomes for children and youth.

Participants in the 2005 National Summit on Your City's Families, held last month in San Antonio, Texas, heard from local officials, communications experts and others about successful strategies for generating community support for new and expanded initiatives and investments.

A common theme in the conversations at the summit: emphasizing return on investment and accountability as opposed to tugging at people's heartstrings and making moralistic appeals.

"We need to make this not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do," said Janelle Cousino, vice president of the communications firm Fowler Hoffman in Washington, D.C.

Big Returns for Investments in Little People

Cousino presented her views in a summit session entitled "From Our Front Porch to Yours: Strategies to Get the Word Out."

Among the presenters at the session was Lisa McGrath of the PBS affiliate in San Antonio.

McGrath described San Antonio's Early ON, which teams the city with the media, the schools and community-based organizations in a wide-ranging public awareness effort to educate parents and early childhood providers about school readiness.

Early ON, according to McGrath, was launched in 2000 after educators and other community members expressed alarm about the large numbers of local children who were entering kindergarten unprepared.

To recruit business support for the campaign, its organizers stressed research showing that every $1 invested in early childhood education resulted in $4.47 in increased economic activity in the community. The same $1 investment also yields $7.26 in savings because of reduced levels of crime and lower costs for special education and welfare.

"The idea we started to communicate to the community was that these early investments produce big rewards down the line," said McGrath, "including a better-prepared and more highly paid workforce."

Another community that has been working to emphasize the positive economic impacts of investments in early childhood education is Greenville, S.C.

Like San Antonio's Early ON, Greenville's Early Childhood Development Strategic Plan is based on an understanding that support from the private sector is crucial if government intends to expand early childhood programming.

"We are a business-oriented community," said Mayor Pro Tem Diane Smock, citing the presence in the Greenville area of such international companies as BMW, Michelin, and Hitachi.

"We had to come up with reasons why city government should be involved in this issue, even though we do not run the schools."

As in San Antonio, the case for action was made largely on economic grounds. To build support among larger businesses in the area, Greenville leaders emphasized the role of early education in ensuring a productive and qualified future workforce.

And, in their outreach to smaller "Mom-and-Pop" businesses, the city and its partners emphasized how quality preschool programs can reduce absenteeism and stress among working parents.

Smock described the city's message in simple terms, "If our families are prospering, then our businesses prosper and our city prospers."

Institutionalizing a Focus on Youth

Among the summit participants seeking insights on communications and outreach issues was a group from Minneapolis, where the city's Youth Coordinating Board is beginning work on a 15-year action plan for enhancing healthy child and youth development.

Team members, who included representatives of the city, the schools and Youth Coordinating Board staff, used their time together at the summit to brainstorm about opportunities for building communitywide support for the agenda. …

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