Health Promotion

Innovation as a Platform for Community Transformation

By: Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH

Community transformation – it’s something we all envision but is very challenging to achieve. At Connecticut Children’s, we are excited to lead a project that is designed to transform the three neighborhoods in North Hartford’s Promise Zone in collaboration with the City of Hartford and more than 20 additional partners. It’s all possible through the largest grant our organization has ever received – a five-year, $30 million award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods program.

“A child’s zip code should never determine her destiny; but today, the community she grows up in impacts her odds of graduating high school, her health outcomes, and her lifetime economic opportunities.”


The Vision for Community Transformation

Community transformation is generally described as significant, measurable change within distressed communities in the areas of employment, economic activity, educational outcomes, community safety, and community development. When I hear the terms “distressed community” and “community transformation,” I think of untapped potential and opportunity. I envision communities that are ripe for innovation and immediately begin to wonder how we can help children from such communities prosper.

Because of this outlook, when the City of Hartford asked Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health to apply for the Promise Neighborhoods grant, I enthusiastically volunteered to facilitate the process through the program I manage, Childhood Prosperity Lab (the Lab). The Lab is ideally suited to lead such an effort because it already works to address social determinants of health and enhance well-being by collaborating with changemakers to advance social innovations that help all children reach their full potential.

Learn more about Childhood Prosperity Lab.

For context, the Promise Neighborhoods vision is for “all children and youth growing up in Promise Zone neighborhoods to have access to great schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and a career.” The ultimate goal is to significantly improve the developmental and educational outcomes of children and youth by transforming the most distressed communities.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) introduced the Federal Promise Zone designation in 2013, describing Promise Zones as high poverty communities in which the federal government partners with local leaders to increase economic opportunity, improve educational outcomes, leverage private investment, reduce violent crime, enhance public health, and address other priorities identified by the community.

HUD designated North Hartford, Connecticut a Federal Promise Zone in 2015. The City of Hartford and community have successfully leveraged the Promise Zone designation to secure federal, state, and philanthropic investments to support community transformation. While these investments have resulted in an increased number of services available to residents, they are offered to residents in isolation from one another and have not influenced key academic, well-being, and quality of life indicators. We hope to change that with the new Promise Neighborhoods grant.

Community Transformation: North Hartford Ascend Pipeline

Under the Promise Neighborhoods grant, we are creating the North Hartford Ascend Pipeline (Ascend), which is a multi-sector, comprehensive, integrated, and coordinated prenatal through career system of care and support. Ascend will help all children reach their full potential by improving academic outcomes, developmental trajectories, long-term well-being, and quality of life. In leveraging existing assets, infrastructure, and resources, Ascend will integrate achievement-oriented schools and vital, evidence-based social and community services. Connecticut Children’s will engage community residents as well as public, private and philanthropic sectors during the development, implementation and evaluation of the pipeline. Together, we will measurably strengthen families so they can promote their children’s optimal health, development, and well-being.

Distinguishing features of Ascend include:

  • A comprehensive, integrated system of prenatal through career services that integrates services from all sectors known to impact children’s optimal healthy development and makes them universally accessible. 
  • A parent- and family-led agenda and community-driven engagement, marketing, and communication strategies that acknowledge the parent and family as the experts in their child’s development. 
  • A targeted universalism strategy in which universal goals are pursued by targeted processes to achieve those goals based on how different groups are situated within structures, cultures, and across geographies. Such an approach supports equitable distribution and access to resources, programs, and services.
  • Strengthening families’ protective factors by measurably enhancing parental resilience; strengthening social connections; increasing knowledge of parenting and child development; providing concrete support in times of need; and nurturing the social and emotional competence of children.
  • Enhancing the early identification of developmental and behavioral concerns, as well as the referral and linkage of identified children and families to services through the development and deployment of shared practices and a family navigation system.
Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health’s
Flower Diagram for System Building

Ascend efforts will be concentrated in five domains to ensure children and families have access to and utilize evidence-based services without disruption over the life course. These pipeline domains include:

  • Early care, education, and learning
  • Primary and secondary education
  • Post-secondary education, training, and career development
  • Health, safety, and well-being
  • Resident and community leadership and system building

The first three domains are defined by stages of the life course while the last two cut across all stages of the life course. Each domain has an aligned set of opportunity areas and services, of which will be scaled and brought to impact throughout the North Hartford Promise Zone.

Community Transformation: Evaluating Success

While drafting our grant application, we worked with our partners to develop a comprehensive evaluation plan to monitor the implementation and impact of this multi-level change strategy at the individual, community, and system levels. The evaluation consists of quasi-experimental research methods, analyzing pre-test and post-test data between Ascend and comparison groups, to bring the best possible evidence to bear in evaluating the relationship between Ascend services and desired outcomes. Evaluation activities include continuous quality improvement, plan-do-study-act cycles, data integration, process evaluation, and impact evaluation leveraging population-level school and post-secondary data, neighborhood data, and case management data.

Developing such a comprehensive proposal was a challenging but stimulating exercise that we completed over the course of about 12 weeks. Our successful proposal and funding is the result of more than 20 organizations regularly and consistently coming together to answer the question: how can we help the children and families living in the North Hartford Promise Zone reach their full potential?

We are extremely proud of earning the Promise Neighborhoods grant and are grateful for the level of support and engagement provided by our partners. We recognize that creating this proposal was an imperfect process. Connecticut Children’s, Childhood Prosperity Lab, and all of our partners are now reflecting on how we, collectively and individually, collaborate, add value, set priorities, allocate resources, develop processes, define and measure outcomes, and monitor progress in order to pave the way for a successful five-year effort to transform the North Hartford Promise Zone. Deploying this imperfect process to develop the Ascend model and DOE Promise Neighborhoods proposal was the first step to leveraging innovation as a platform for community transformation. We look forward to deepening our partnerships as we continue planning, launching, and evaluating Ascend with the goal of achieving true community transformation.

Note: In addition to the five year, $30 million grant, partners involved in the project plan to contribute $36 million in matching funds over the five-year period, bringing the total investment in North Hartford to $66 million.

Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH, is the program manager for the Childhood Prosperity Lab, which is a program of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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