Children living in poverty are five times more likely to drop out of high school than their higher-income peers, and only nine percent will obtain a college degree. Even in the prosperous Bay Area, more than one in four children live in poverty. When these children go to school hungry, sick, or worried about challenges at home, they are not prepared to focus in the classroom and often fall behind in school.
To combat this day-to-day reality for so many of our neighbors, United Way supports a Two-Generational (2-Gen) Approach that aims to improve the immediate and long-term financial stability of parents while ensuring that children are healthy and supported at school. We are essentially disrupting the cycle of poverty so that entire families can succeed—now and far into the future.
Ena Yasuhara Li, UWBA’s Vice President of Community Impact, leads an internal team who ensures our 2-Gen work supports our communities through our SparkPoint initiative. Here are a few highlights from a recent conversation we had with Ena.
United Way’s 2-Gen approach came from a number of different avenues. After we declared our goal to cut poverty, we needed an education strategy. We landed on community schools as a natural area of focus, an education focus that leads directly to reducing/preventing poverty since it removes barriers low-income children face so they can concentrate in the classroom.
We then wanted to figure out how United Way can add value in this area, and not just offer grants to schools and districts to become community schools like we’ve done in the past, but how can we really support the community in this area where a lot of other players are already leaders in the field. This is a national movement and many organizations already play this community leader role.
In 2012, we did a scan of Bay Area community schools and completed a listening tour to see what their needs were. We explored what community schools look like in the Bay Area and what United Way could offer to the community. Out of that came this need for more adult economic support services for parents. A lot of community schools provided one-off support to parents like helping them sign-up for CalFresh benefits, tax prep, or an English as a second language workshops, but nothing really comprehensive was offered. And then we thought, we have something comprehensive called SparkPoint. Is there a way to bring that into the school setting?
At around the same time, we also started doing research on what impact this kind of service can have in schools. There’s compelling research from Professor Sean Reardon, Stanford University, where he explored the growing income gap in the United States. He said that in the past 50 years, the education achievement gap between the highest income percentile and the lowest has widened more than the racial achievement gap. So it’s really about income.
There’s also a growing national movement around taking a 2-Gen approach and the theory is that if we really want to strengthen outcomes for the children and set them up for success in the future, we really need to be working with their parents. And vice versa. If we’re working with the parents, they really care about the future of their children so we need support services for the children.
That led to a SparkPoint community schools approach where we provide economic support services to the families, the parents. The community school provides services primarily to the child. The community schools model also has a family engagement component so a lot of community schools see SparkPoint as part of their family engagement service offerings.
There’s a lot of research that says students in high-income families and neighborhoods do well in school while students in lower income neighborhoods, schools, and families don’t do as well. What we’re trying to track is the movement. What we’re trying to test is, if we can move a family towards financial prosperity, which SparkPoint has proven effective in doing, then can the student perform better academically?
For SparkPoint, we have four metrics of success: increases in attainment towards self-sufficient income, progress towards improving credit, decreasing/eliminating debt, and accumulating savings. Ideally, we want families to have self-sufficient income, a credit score of 700 or above, at least three months of living expenses and eliminate new revolving debt.
For students, we’re collecting academic data–grades, test scores, standardized tests or reading scores, attendance data, and behavioral data. We also have a parent survey where we ask the parents what their involvement with the school has been, and whether their engagement has changed. We ask the parents about their children’s health, what services the students are taking up, and overall whether or not they think the child is doing better in school.
When United Way started its SparkPoint initiative more than eight years ago, we were agnostic about where a SparkPoint was located. We have SparkPoint centers in community colleges, elementary schools, family resource centers, county facilities, and community action agencies. We wanted to have SparkPoint where a community preferred and where the community members would go.
Through the years, we’ve learned that SparkPoint can have a positive impact on student persistence rates in a community college. At Skyline College in San Mateo County, fall-to-spring student persistence (staying on from semester to semester) is about 50-60%. We found that students who participated in SparkPoint, however, had persistence rates of 87%, and over 90% if they took up two or more services. We realized that having SparkPoint in the community college setting had a powerful impact in helping students stay in and complete training programs. The community college system provides opportunities for a lot of the families that we work with to gain more skills and get on the path towards a career that pays a self-sufficient wage, and we now know that having SparkPoint support students has an even greater impact for families.
I’d like to grow SparkPoint in the community college and K-12 settings. I’d also like to have enough data to be able to show that SparkPoint has had an impact on student persistence rates in schools outside of Skyline College. And for the 2-Gen work, we’ve started to collect student data but we don’t really have enough to show the impact that improvements in a family’s economic situation correlates to student academic achievement. I’d like to be able to collect enough data to be able to test that this year.
They can help by spreading the word about SparkPoint, donating, volunteering, providing in-kind support, and being a community advocate for these centers. Being an advocate for the issues that impact our families also really helps. Right now in this political climate, there are a lot of families that have fear or are living in this unknown or uncertain climate. Many SparkPoint Centers also serve an undocumented or an immigrant population. If community members want to support our families, we’re always here, and we always need advocates and supporters of issues that help families live the life that they want for themselves.
Ena Yasuhara Li, UWBA’s Vice President of Community Impact, oversees United Way Bay Area’s portfolio of integrated services designed to reduce poverty in the eight San Francisco Bay Area counties. She leads the design and implementation of UWBA’s economic success, youth workforce, education, and two-generation programs. Prior to this role, she served as Senior Director, Education and Evaluation and led the development of UWBA’s two-generation initiative. She also served as Director of the SparkPoint initiative and managed technical assistance, data collection, evaluation, and regional peer learning among SparkPoint Centers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Her expertise includes evaluation, program design, data collection, database management and implementation, data visualization, performance management, and teaching. Prior to joining United Way, Ena worked as a public school teacher in Brooklyn, New York. She received her B.A. from Middlebury College, an M.P.A. from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and an M.S. Ed from Brooklyn College.