Bringing Communities Together: A Better Way to Help America's Kids Succeed | Commentary

Today, President Barack Obama will be giving his State of the Union address, which will likely include the president laying out a vision for addressing the needs of our nation’s children. Among a host of other policy announcements, the president may emphasize much needed recent investments to expand access to pre-K and infant and toddler care.

I applaud Obama’s commitment to helping our children at the earliest stages of life — an area where the U.S. lags behind other developed nations. The commitment to expanded investment in early childhood will yield dividends for generations to come.

But more can and should be done. To fully address the needs of all our children, the president and policymakers nationwide must take a broad view to help children succeed. An approach that is informed by on-the-ground data and that engages existing government and social programs in working toward shared goals would be a huge step forward.

As information has fundamentally reordered work and necessary skill sets, our society is being revolutionized in ways that should inform policymaking and programs that serve all citizens, especially children. During the Industrial Revolution, as factories became the engine of America’s consumer economy, we created public schools to develop an educated workforce, prepared for work on an assembly line. The digital revolution is again fundamentally altering the American workforce, and it’s time for policymaking to help future generations thrive in the knowledge economy they will face.

To do this, policymakers must focus on supporting children in the crucial 0-5 years, when kids develop defining cognitive, social and emotional skills, and when investments in children’s potential can yield the greatest return.

Such a complex task, however, can’t be achieved by only focusing on the education sector, and not engaging the other key sectors known to influence child development, such as health, family support, transportation, employment, housing, criminal justice and parks and recreation, among others. Only through collaborative, cross-sector partnerships can communities better prepare future generations of children for success.

This approach to improving school readiness and optimizing the lifelong potential of America’s children not only exists, but is succeeding in dozens of communities across the country, recognized for their participation in the Transforming Early Childhood Community Systems initiative, led by the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.

TECCS uses innovative tools to discern each community’s unique characteristics, and identifies barriers and bright spots for their children. TECCS then work to help communities bring everyone affecting early childhood together, using data to coordinate and align their efforts. These collaborative strategies cut across individual programs to form partnerships that tackle pitfalls everywhere kids learn and live — in the classroom, the doctor’s office, a local library and afterschool programs.

With TECCS, more than 50 communities across the country have worked to understand where more than 150,000 kids stand and the obstacles that are impeding their success both now and later in life. These pioneering communities are found in the “reddest” of states, as well as “bluer” regions.

In Tulsa, Okla., TECCS is working with a local partner, the Community Action Project, to map out children’s development and identify opportunities for the community to better prepare their young children for school, provide family support and foster community systems. CAP sees this data-informed, collaborative approach to early childhood as a critical component of its “two generation” approach.

With 12 counties participating, Texas has the largest number of TECCS communities of any state in the country. Through the Texas Home Visiting Program, communities are using innovative tools and data to direct the best cross-cutting solutions for their children. Additionally, there is a wide learning network, supporting innovation by sharing best practices and lessons learned among all partner communities.

By making the TECCS approach the norm across the nation, we can help to make a strong start for all children possible. In fact, in Canada and Australia, nationwide community assessments are helping these two countries gain a sophisticated understanding of how their children are faring and target investments to most effectively improve outcomes for their children.

Policymakers and those on the ground working with our kids can share in a common agenda designed to address the obstacles preventing children from reaching their full potential.

Obama should be applauded for his investments in and commitment to early childhood education that we are likely to hear about in this evening’s speech. But to prepare our children for the 21st century, this should only be the start of innovative efforts to help our children succeed.

Dr. Neal Halfon is a professor of pediatrics, health services and public policy at UCLA, director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities and leads the Transforming Early Childhood Community Systems initiative.