Among Providence, R.I.'s students, chronic absenteeism is a serious problem. In some schools, it's as high as 40 percent. But that is changing. Chronic absenteeism has decreased by 5 percent in schools that have consistently implemented evidence-based programs. "This is all the more impressive," said Suzanne Barnard, "when you consider that chronic absenteeism has increased across the school district as a whole."
Barnard oversees the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Evidence2Success initiative, which uses data and proven programs to help young people and their families in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Four years ago, Casey launched its first Evidence2Success project in Providence, partnering with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet, a cross-sector, cross-agency working group convened by the mayor's office. The cabinet had been looking for ways to lower the demand for high-cost youth services, such as special education, juvenile detention and foster care.
With Casey’s help, the cabinet surveyed about 5,000 city public school students in 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades to identify the biggest problems facing young people — and the root causes behind those problems. By identifying and treating those issues early on, city officials hope to prevent bigger problems later on in life. "The reason that we think prevention is so important is that it’s also a cost-effective investment," said Jessie Watrous, a senior associate at the Casey Foundation.
The cabinet, which includes city, state and community leaders from both the nonprofit and private sectors, used the survey results to isolate six areas they wanted to address: chronic absenteeism; school suspensions; anxiety and depression; emotional well-being; and delinquency. The group chose to target anxiety and depression, for example, because they found that 91 percent of middle school students had elevated levels of stress in the pilot neighborhoods. Many students confirmed getting slapped, punched, or hit; seeing someone else get attacked or stabbed with a knife; seeing someone point a gun at another person; or being separated from a parent or someone they depend on.
The working group decided to focus on chronic absenteeism because more than half of the high school students in the pilot neighborhoods said they were absent from school for at least 10 percent of school days.
For solutions, the cabinet turned to Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, a website maintained by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder. Essentially, Blueprints functions as a Yelp for youth-related policy programs that have been studied for effectiveness. Government agencies can go to the website, find interventions where the results were validated by high-quality research, and use them to address local issues.
In the case of Providence, the cabinet selected six programs and have launched three so far, including one addressing chronic absenteeism. Another program they implemented focuses on elevated levels of stress using a program called Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS). It’s a school-based intervention led by mental health professionals that teaches small groups of students relaxation training, how to combat negative thoughts and other cognitive behavioral skills.
Blueprints lists the program as "promising" based on results from two randomized control studies conducted by the RAND Corp. in Los Angeles and New Orleans. ("Promising" is the second highest rating, below "model.") Providence only launched its version of CBITS last year, but the early results have been encouraging. With the first two groups who participated in the program, a follow-up assessment found an average reduction of 35 percent across key stress-related symptoms.
Program officials will talk later this month in a webinar about what they've learned from implementing these evidence-based youth programs in Providence. It's the first in a planned series that will look at Casey's Evidence2Success initiative and how state and local governments can use data and research to improve child well-being.
What makes the Evidence2Success approach novel is that it combines several of today's leading ideas in youth policy, said Rebecca Boxx, who directs the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet. "How that all comes together is part of the innovation of Evidence2Success," said Boxx, "and why we’ve seen the success that we have seen."
Similar Evidence2Success pilots are getting off the ground in Salt Lake County and two Alabama cities — Mobile and Selma.*
*CORRECTION: A previous version of the story listed the wrong Alabama cities with Evidence2Success pilots. The correct sites are Mobile and Selma.