Barbara Hutchinson has led the United Way's collaboration with public and private childcare providers and educators

The United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area has formalized a collaborative effort with local early-childhood service providers and the Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions to track children’s outcomes through high school.

The ongoing project will help the United Way assess which services have the greatest impact on at-risk children.

The data gathered by the so-called Outcome Collaborative also will be used by participating organizations to evaluate and improve their own programs.

“The purpose is to connect early educational experiences with school data to determine their individual and combined impact on later school achievement,” said Barbara Hutchinson, vice president of community impact programs at the United Way. “What we want to be able to tell is what combination of services really provides the most bang for your buck, so to speak.”

According to Hutchinson, the data gathered will include a child’s demographics, the services they receive and the frequency and intensity of those services. The participating preschools, both public and private, will share for the first time performance on the PALS-Pre-K fundamental literacy screening, and the schools will provide information about how students perform up to graduation.

For a participating organization like ReadyKids, which offers educational support for children and quality improvement programs for child care providers, the project will build on existing efforts to collect and analyze data about the impact of services.

“All of our programs at ReadyKids are evidence-based, so we know that they’ve been rigorously tested, but in this way we’re able to see that participants in other local programs are getting our services and the effects they’re having on school readiness,” said Melissa Cohen, deputy director of ReadyKids.

Because individual students’ data will be gathered over time, the collaboration will start to provide meaningful insight into the impact of services after about three years.

“I’m really proud of this community because our partners have agreed that this is not a fast-track to anything, but it is necessary for us to understand what’s happening in our community,” Hutchinson said.

Jon Nafziger, executive director of Jefferson Area CHiP, said the organization has supported the idea from the start. CHiP provides in-home child and family services for pregnant mothers and children 0 to 6.

“I think that it’s possible that, for the first year or two, it’s going to raise as many questions as it answers, but that’s a good thing,” said Nafziger. “We’ll keep working to understand what has the greatest positive impact on children in our community.”

Hutchinson emphasized that all of the children and families whose data are included in the project will have given clear, informed consent.

“We don’t want a parent filling out all this paperwork that you fill out at the beginning of the school year, and it’s just one more form to sign,” said Hutchison. “We want them to understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, so that they make a decision [whether or not] they participate.”

A few families have already consented to participate in the program, and the United Way has worked with clinical psychologist Maryfrances Porter to lay the groundwork for collecting the most useful data possible. Porter’s past research has focused on understanding community needs to focus and improve public services.

Porter said the comprehensive nature of the project will help determine what services Charlottesville and Albemarle families need most and define standards for a child’s long-term achievement.

“There is not going to be a single thing that makes the difference between a kid doing better or worse later. There’s also not going to be a single measure of kids doing better or worse later,” said Porter. “This affords us the opportunity to really understand all the different kinds of services, activities and supports families need to help ensure all kids go to school on equal footing.”

Porter explained that she has started by standardizing the way the participating organizations collect data to prepare for substantial analysis in about three years.

The first data collected will answer some fundamental questions: how many children actually benefit from services, and what paths do they take from early child care to preschool to public school? Porter referred to these paths as the continuum of services.

“We don’t even know how many kids are getting the continuum of services. We need to, at the very beginning, look at how many children we have, where they are, their characteristics,” said Porter. “Doing that as a group, across service systems, has not been done before.”

Though this type of program has been discussed for close to 10 years, the current initiative was launched about two years ago when Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran expressed a desire for better evaluation of pre-K programs.

“The collection of longitudinal data will benefit our entire educational community in the long term because it will provide us with the information that we will need to make informed decisions in the future,” Moran said in an emailed statement.

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins praised the unprecedented collaboration between so many private organizations and the public schools.

“Prior to this, we were working and making decisions and measuring effectiveness primarily as individual organizations. With this collaboration, we are hoping to reach even more students with even higher quality services,” Atkins wrote via email.

Other communities around the state have looked to the Outcome Collaborative as a model. Roanoke plans to implement a similar model to improve the quality of their private preschools, and Richmond is developing a plan thatlooks at both preschools and other child care services.

The Outcome Collaborative also will support the Early Education Task Force by sharing data on mixed-delivery preschool programs, where public scholarships fund private preschool seats to help alleviate the deficit in public preschool openings.

“All of this is meant to benefit everyone,” said Hutchinson. “If a program isn’t performing as well as it should be, we can pinpoint where and why and give them the tools necessary to fix that. If we have kids who are showing up at school ready to learn, they’re going to do better, and the achievement gap may not be eliminated, but it can be diminished.”