December 13, 2018

From left: Peggy Samolinski of the Department of County Human Services, Judy Strand of Metropolitan Family Service, Dr. Carlos Richard of United Way, and Keith Thomajan of United Way

In the 2014-15 school year, just 67 percent of Latino students in Multnomah County graduated from high school. That number was 63 percent for African-American students. And for American Indian/Native Alaskan students, graduation rates were even lower: 55 percent.

But for the past several years, a coalition of six community-based providers have been working to improve outcomes for youth of color, from “cradle to career.” The collaborative briefed the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday on the progress of their initiative, called Successful Families 2020 (SF2020).  

Successful Families 2020 aims to eliminate educational disparities for youth of color in Multnomah County. The initiative, made possible thanks to the Promise Neighborhood investment by Multnomah County, mobilizes culturally-specific organizations to work directly with youth of color to improve school attendance, increase graduation rates, and decrease behavioral referrals at school.

SF 2020 “was intended to turn neighborhoods of poverty into neighborhoods of opportunity,” said Commissioner Loretta Smith, an early champion of the initiative. “ZIP Codes should not indicate what your future will be.”

The partners include the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Self Enhancement, Inc., Native American Youth and Family Center, Latino Network, Metropolitan Family Service, and United Way. Most of the organizations were created by members of the community they serve.

During the briefing, the partners reported on the program’s progress. The report showed SF2020 students are performing better or on par with students of color who aren’t in the program in attendance and graduation rates. SF2020 students report higher levels of positive cultural identity. The program has also reportedly improved parents’ engagement with their child’s school.

“The Multnomah County partnership has really elevated SF2020 from what was initially an academic initiative to a real world learning lab in two school districts,” Keith Thomajan, President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of the Columbia-Willamette told Commissioners. “There is no bigger or comprehensive approach to effectively serving kids and families of color in the region. That’s thanks to your investment.”

The program serves eight schools in two school districts. SF2020 schools have high levels of racial and cultural diversity and large numbers of families living in poverty. Disparities in the classroom have been shown to result in poor health outcomes in the future. The program aims to shape a generation of leaders by setting them up for success early in life.

Staff provide a combination of case management, after school programming, and family support to program participants. Because staff work directly in the schools, the program increases the number of adults of color in the building, surrounding SF2020 students with more positive role models.

"We tried something new,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “It’s working, and it means really so much. I think this is just the beginning.”

In addition to reporting on progress, the partners also reported on work that remains unfinished.

While SF2020 participants are showing improvements in the classroom, they continue to report their schools need to create a more inclusive environment. Looking ahead, the program aims to work in school settings to foster a friendlier climate and work with the school community to address implicit bias.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann, whose district includes Reynolds School District, said she knows firsthand how valuable the SF2020 partnership is for the community.

“I grew up in the Rockwood neighborhood and I understand many of the challenges that kids of color face,” Stegmann said. “There was nothing like this when I was going to school and there was really no place for me to access my culture. So I’m really glad that you all are at the table and give kids a chance to learn about the role and the importance that they play in our world because everyone has a story, but it’s not always honored.”