By Mary Westervelt, director of marketing and communications
“We need to invest in things that parents don’t have to show up for, things that show up for parents in their homes.”Angela Glore, Executive Director, First 5 Del Norte
Nestled in the northwestern corner of California along the Oregon border, Del Norte County is one of the most rural communities in the most populous state in the country. It’s a land of towering Redwood forests, pristine rivers, and beautiful beaches, as well as home to the Elk Valley Rancheria, Resigini Rancheria,Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, and Yurok Tribe. This majestic landscape and rich cultural history is a point of pride for the 29,000 residents. But like many rural communities in America, Del Norte faces serious logistical challenges in providing equitable access to high quality education and health resources.
In 2010, Del Norte & Tribal Lands Community was chosen as one of 14 communities across California for the Building Healthy Communities initiative. The 10-year program gave the Del Norte community resources and a framework for improving health equity across the county.
As the team began to investigate the factors contributing to their health inequity, the connection between school success and health outcomes was clear. In Del Norte County, 20% of adults over 25 lack a high school diploma and 25% of low income families experience food insecurity. Education became one of the three core strategies of their plan to address health inequity.
Reimagining the Del Norte Approach
The team began with traditional approaches to improving school success, like tutoring for 2nd and 3rd grade students. But when they didn’t see the results they were hoping for, they pressed pause. It was time for a new approach, and they chose Human Centered Design (HCD) as the cornerstone of their work.
The team began with a deep dive into their early childhood programs and services. Using the HCD approach, they interviewed families, educators, and childcare providers. Interviewees came from across the spectrum of their diverse community, including tribal members, families in different socio-economic statuses, and folks with varied educational backgrounds. The interviews clearly highlighted that the community needed a better approach to family engagement as a critical component of their early childhood education programming.
What Del Norte Learned by Listening to Families
Through the HCD research process a few themes emerged:
- Families needed a support network. Many lacked people that they could call on in times of need.
- Community members didn’t know about services that were available to them
- Parents didn’t have the time to participate in parenting workshops and in-person programs
Parents needed more support, an easy way to access services, and information on how to support school readiness. But the listening sessions also highlighted that the traditional forms of parenting support were a barrier. “There are great parenting programs, but they’re several hours every week for multiple weeks,” said Angela Glore, executive director for First 5 Del Norte. “I had a parent tell me ‘the school wants me to be involved, and I want to be involved. I wish I had that freedom. If they would just text me.’”
Angela had heard about text-based nudge programs to help first generation college students succeed. Now she began looking for a similar program designed to support early childhood success.
“I saw a report about Ready4K and reached out to [Dr. Ben York] at Stanford, just to pick his brain. That’s when I learned that ParentPowered was offering Ready4K. I asked if he could create a version for us.” Excited by their vision and goal, the Ready4K team was onboard.
Del Norte’s Vision for Ready4K
Angela brought her idea to the core design team for their Building Healthy Communities working group. The team included partners from the County Office of Education, early education, and local non-profits. After the first round of listening sessions, they were already sold on the idea of a text-based parenting program. “We’re very rural, so internet isn’t always available. Even when your cell phone reception isn’t very good, you can still get a text.”
The Ready4K team joined the listening sessions, to learn directly from the community. They met with key stakeholders who had emerged as essential voices from earlier interviews. The Ready4K team heard their needs directly and began identifying additional topics for the Del Norte program.
The custom Ready4K program for Del Norte would support families across multiple dimensions. “We went in with a very clear vision of what we wanted. We loved the [whole child Ready4K Core curriculum] and wanted more parent-focused texts to help them with their self-care. When Rebecca [director of content and curriculum for Ready4K] and I first started working together, I didn’t want to take anything out! So it was just adding the mental health & wellness pieces, and adding content to feel local. And connecting families to the local resources they need.”
Concrete local resources were essential to their vision. The listening sessions had highlighted that community members needed more direction in finding local services. “We really wanted to be able to think through the services families would need in the first 5 years,” said Angela.
Funding their Vision
In order to achieve their vision, Angela trained her sights on the funds available through the Mental Health Services Act. This California tax on those who make more than $1 million a year supports expanded mental health care. Angela knew that a portion of the Del Norte County funds were earmarked for innovation and had yet to be invested.
“I knew that Del Norte had unspent innovation funds. I also knew that Ready4K was an innovative way to support mental health, which made it a natural fit.”
After gaining approval from the local mental health board and then the county board, Angela gave a brief presentation to the state board. After 5 minutes and a few questions, the board gave her the go-ahead to invest in a Ready4K program tailored to meet Del Norte’s community needs.
A New Way of Supporting Families of Young Children
The goal of the program was to provide families with the breadth of support they needed to ensure children were kindergarten-ready in a way that responded to Del Norte’s unique needs. Embedding the local culture and landscape became priorities, as did content to address parental mental health. In addition to the existing Ready4K whole child curriculum, messages were added on resilience, self-care, and building a network of support.
In addition, it was essential to connect families to local resources and supports. They knew there were resources families could use, and their Ready4K program would give the Del Norte team the opportunity to share them. “We had tons of notes from all different families. We met with local organizations to ask, ‘What services would you like to highlight? How would you describe those services to families in a text-length message?’”
In the end, the program expanded by more than 10 weeks to allow for the additional content requirements. Messages were reworked to highlight the redwood forests and Pacific beaches that reinforce that this program is designed specifically for these families.
“Angela is a dream to work with,” says Rebecca Honig, Ready4K’s director of content and curriculum. “She is so deeply connected to her community and has been able to bring such diverse and knowledgeable voices to the table. This allowed us to surface community strengths and community needs. For custom messaging, these are the two essential pieces of understanding we have to develop. They allow us to write messages and link to local resources that really reach families. Angela is so passionate about family engagement and that passion is like a magnet. She draws everyone into the work, which has benefited every part of this process-the listening sessions, the content creation and the launch of the program within the community.”
Ready4K Del Norte & COVID-19
The Del Norte team had planned a significant enrollment drive in the spring of 2020. When COVID-19 hit, they quickly pivoted from an events-based registration strategy to partnering with their local school district.
“Certainly Covid has been a lesson in all kinds of things, but in particular how amazing it was that we had this program right when parents’ lives went “boom!” It was a lesson in how important it is to give families programs that don’t require in-person.”
Reflecting on the initial conversations that led Angela to Ready4K, she believes the focus on reaching families where they are with technology they can access has been essential. “In rural areas, more and more, we need to invest in things that parents don’t have to show up for – in things that show up for parents in their homes.”
The Exciting Horizon: Tribal Cultural Resources
Looking toward the future, Angela is particularly excited to integrate cultural knowledge and information for local tribal members who receive the program.
From the beginning of the project, tribal support was a priority. Tribal leaders have been part of the development process and tribal families were part of the initial interviews. “We’re working out what [tribal support] will look like right now,” said Angela. One approach would be to integrate existing tribal resources and programs into the Ready4K messages. These are programs that have already been designed by and for tribal members. Restoring tribal language knowledge and teaching about seasonal cultural events are also a strong focus. “That’s the exciting horizon right now.”