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Cheryl Mitchell is deputy secretary for Vermont's Agency of Human Services. We asked Ms. Mitchell to describe some of Vermont's efforts to integrate education and social services at the state and local levels, as well as some of the lessons learned from this effort.

Could you please describe Vermont's goals and strategies for integrating education and social services?

Our primary goal is to improve outcomes for children and families in the state of Vermont. We have developed a framework of outcome areas and indicators associated with each. Within this framework, we are trying to foster a “streamlining of the system.” In addition, we are promoting the idea that we must focus on children and families in order to improve the community climate for people of all ages in Vermont. We are working toward meeting these goals through four interlocking strategies at the state and local levels:

  • Community service delivery model. At the local level, we are employing a community service delivery model. Vermont has no county governments; instead, there are 12 service areas as well as 261 school districts and 60 supervisory unions. Each union puts together its own set of services and mechanisms which reach out to children and families. The actual plans of service are developed at the community level. An integral part of this process includes planning groups composed of parents, school personnel, social service workers, and health care providers, all of whom work with a state liaison to put together a plan that goes to the state for approval. The planning groups are responsible for a variety of school-linked services such as parenting classes, drop-in recreational programs, and early literacy programs.

  • Links with the health care community. Another component of school-linked services is schools' links with the health care community, where physicians and physician's assistants spend time in schools seeing children. This has been particularly helpful in Vermont's rural communities. Additionally, the Department of Health has entered into contracts with supervisory unions and enrolled children in health care coverage. Most of these school-linked programs are using Medicaid connection dollars, and the state has central oversight responsibilities and sets specific standards.

  • Team for children and families. At the state level, there is a team for children and families, whose members include parents, community representatives, higher education representatives, and program managers from state departments. This team provides advice to programs such as statewide Success By Six, our early childhood initiative. Success By Six outlines a set of outcomes involved in preparing children for school and is supported with state general fund dollars which help communities create comprehensive systems of care.

  • Financing mechanism. Another statewide program is Success Beyond Six, a financing mechanism which focuses on the needs of children, families, and school teachers, and permits schools to use local tax dollars to meet needs of specific children.

What have you seen as some of the challenges and benefits to integrating education and social services in Vermont?

The issue of boundaries is an ongoing problem. Traditionally, schools have been quite separate from the rest of the world. With so many different local entities, there is often the question of who fits where. Although we still struggle with this issue, we are making progress and moving more towards a child and family-focused service system. The growth of technology has de-emphasized boundaries. With this growth has come the ability to process applications instantaneously, to know which services are available, and to schedule joint meetings. Another factor is the amount of time people spend together in the planning groups or on specific projects between schools and human services. As people feel more comfortable with each other and recognize that we are all ultimately trying to do the same thing, the issue of boundaries is downplayed.

The issue of money and legislation continues to be a problem as well. There are still areas of the state where there is a tremendous dearth of resources, and it tends to be those areas that are least aggressive in seeking out additional funding. In terms of legislation, virtually every year new federal legislation and new state legislation target specific problems, and each piece of legislation has a requirement for an advisory committee. So, at the same time that people are trying to consolidate their thinking, there is this legislative pressure to have all these new separate entities.

Our efforts are clearly paying off in terms of what is happening for children and their families. For example, real reductions in child abuse rates, teen pregnancy rates, and overall improvements in the health status of children stand out as clear achievements. We have been able to make limited resources go much further, and that has brought a new sense of pride and commitment in our communities. People are looking out for each other, and really beginning to shoulder and share the sense that we are all jointly responsible for the well-being of children in Vermont.

How is Vermont evaluating these efforts?

We are using a multifaceted approach, which includes quantitative, qualitative, and case study methods. The quantitative aspect investigates three outcome areas: demographic, educational, and health care statistics. First, the set of demographic evaluations are called community profiles, in which we are simply tracking outcomes and indicators over time. With these profiles, people are able to observe trends for each supervisory union, each county or district area and the state as a whole. We can also track our work in relation to benchmarks that we have set. In our second focus, we are studying educational outcomes through our examination of school report cards. This process is being done on a school-by-school basis, and enables us to consider standardized test scores as well as school climate issues. A third, similar data tracking process is being implemented to examine health outcomes overall for Vermonters.

The qualitative approach to the evaluation features an ongoing engagement of consumer groups, parent groups, and client groups. We are interested in whether people are satisfied with the services we are offering, whether people feel respected and involved, and whether their needs are being met properly. In addition, this approach works to develop our community groups as learning communities, where evaluators from higher education groups work with community planning groups to identify their needs and mechanisms for communication.

Finally, we have done a number of case studies using the family voices process and studying changes in a community by interviewing its members in an effort to support future program planning.

As technology improves and we are administratively able to link data sets across departments, we will be in a better position to study program impacts as well as isolate the elements that are making a real difference. We also hope to improve communication systems so the continuous feedback loop is much smoother than it is right now. Technological advances such as interactive television will help us to provide timely information to improve decision making.

Caroline Schaefer, Research Assistant, HFRP

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