A Q&A with First 5 Alameda

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ASR is happy to share our Q&A with Kristin Spanos, CEO of First 5 Alameda County (First 5). Kristin addressed questions covering topics such as First 5’s mission, the changing landscape in Alameda County, and the role of research in informing the organization's actions.

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Q (ASR): What is First 5 Alameda and what strategies does it pursue to promote the development, health, and well-being of young children and their families?

A (KS): First 5 is the county’s leading public system policy voice and funder of programs focused solely on young children (prenatal to age five) and the environments that promote their growth: familial, social, economic, and physical. First 5 was created in 1998 by the passage of state Proposition 10, which added fifty cents per pack to the cost of cigarettes to help fund early childhood education and development related services for children ages birth to five.  

We use Results Based Accountability to measure our contribution to two population level results, namely, children enter kindergarten ready to learn, and children are free from abuse and neglect. 

Using an equity framework, our program investment approach is focused on creating a more user-friendly early childhood system through neighborhood-level investments, parent engagement and leadership work, efforts to improve the quality of early care and education programs, stronger integration of family referral and navigation supports through Help Me Grow and through outreach workers based at hospitals and other community locations, expansion of training and capacity building supports for providers, and support to agencies across the county to improve the experiences and representation of men and fathers.

There is growing acknowledgement that if we are to use public resources effectively in service of our population results, we need to support families around food, workforce, financial resources, housing stability, health care, and transportation, to ensure their basic needs are met. 

That is why we are committed to advocating for and implementing public policy that seeks to achieve equity. Specifically, First 5 intends to take an active role in combating poverty as a means to ensure all children reach their full potential. This requires the strategic and creative use of our investments, programs, partnerships, engagement with parents and communities, and advocacy for policy and systems change.

Q: What changes have you seen in Alameda County over your time working with First 5 and how has your work been affected by these changes?

A: Persistent poverty negatively affects many families with young children in our county, as the cost of housing has risen dramatically, accompanied by ongoing demographic and social shifts that exacerbate existing inequities and long-term disinvestment. These inequities are reflected in neighborhoods with unacceptable economic, health, and well-being conditions that profoundly influence children’s outcomes. To address the growing disparities and opportunity gaps, we are investing in neighborhoods and families differently, expanding on our place-based and parent engagement work and embracing our role as a catalyst, collaborator, capacity builder, and policy advocate.

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Q: How has research informed First 5’s work?

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A: Our agency has a strong history of using research to inform our work. Research studies have provided critical information on the needs of families and providers in our county and the effectiveness of our interventions, as we learn more about what combination of supports and drivers create the conditions for strong families and communities. Faced now with the challenge of declining tobacco revenues, together with the opportunity presented by greater public awareness of the importance of early childhood, we are increasingly focused on “research to action” that will support larger policy and systems change. For example, the results from the 2017 kindergarten readiness study in Alameda County underscore the importance of addressing issues related to children’s health and well-being, access to licensed early care and education, and the socioeconomic needs of families with young children. School readiness data from our bi-annual studies was used to make the case for recent county and city of Oakland early childhood ballot initiatives that garnered over 60% voter approval.

Q: Why do you believe in this work?  Why do you feel it is important?

A: Recently, there have been significant advances in understanding the critical role of the early childhood system of care as a preventive and early intervention strategy for supporting health outcomes, preventing child abuse and neglect, and enhancing school readiness.  We know now that 90% of brain development occurs during a child’s first five years.  And we know that investing early pays off. As the work of James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, has revealed, high quality birth to five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% return on investment. Our goal is to effect broader system changes that lead to a robust early childhood system with strong social and economic supports for healthy family and child development.

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