More than three-quarters of the brain develops in early childhood, before kids even get to preschool or kindergarten. That means that giving children every opportunity to learn, grow and develop from age zero is fundamental.
And that’s why the Children’s Agenda Inc. was established some 15 years ago.
“We were founded in 2004 as an initiative of the (Rochester Area) Community Foundation. And after a year-and-a-half-long planning process that pulled in United Way, major children’s service providers and other funders they were asking the question: What’s missing in the landscape of what children need?” said Larry Marx, executive director of the Rochester nonprofit. “And they concluded three things and they built an organization around it.”
Those three things that were missing were evidence-based research, advocacy that was “without fear or favor” and collaborations between the various silos that address children’s needs. Evidence-based research would look strictly at outcomes and what the best research shows produces the best improvements in children’s lives, Marx explained.
Equally important was having an organization without self-interest.
“One of the principles of the organization was to not accept government funding, to have independence from children’s service providers and to really take an independent and impartial view of what the system most needs to support kids,” he said.
But building connections between those providers was equally important, as was collaboration between government and business and others to ensure wraparound supports for kids from prenatal to young adulthood.
“As opposed to lots of organizations that focus on early childhood or school-age youth, it’s really focused on prenatal to young adulthood and trying to create more of a seamless system and connections all throughout,” Marx said.
Through its research, the Children’s Agenda has found that from two years of excellent early care, high school graduation rates jump 20 percent, while four-year college rates jump by 23 percent. Improved health as an adult jumps by 23 percent when a child has two years of quality early care, Marx noted.
“We know that … high-quality early childcare has been shown to produce really important lifelong outcomes,” he said. “Kids—if they receive a couple of years of high-quality early care when they’re only two or three—as adults they show better physical health, they show better earnings and job stability, they show much better educational attainment. But it’s especially interesting that these effects are lasting long-term.”
The Children’s Agenda was founded after the former children’s advocacy group, Children’s Collaborative, folded in the late 1990s. In 2001, RACF began recruiting people to help plan the new agency, said Jennifer Leonard, RACF president and CEO. From 2001 to 2005, the Children’s Agenda was under RACF’s umbrella, at which time Jeffrey Kaczorowski M.D. was named founding executive director of the fledgling agency.
“It was very important that it was able to become independent and speak with its own voice,” Leonard said of the new nonprofit. “Jeff was amazing because he was a pediatrician and helped create pediatric links in the community for University of Rochester Medical Center.”
Kaczorowski also was instrumental in winning funding for the Children’s Agenda in its infancy.
“Jeff did a wonderful job of putting Children’s Agenda on a path by working with his board to identify a successful program that would fill a gap in Rochester,” Leonard added.
That program was the Nurse-Family Partnership, a home visiting program that had been run successfully in other communities. It is a program that has reduced child abuse of young children by roughly 75 percent, Leonard said, and it has deferred second births in moms.
“It had astounding results,” she said. “The focus was on high-risk first-time mothers, many of them teenagers, and their babies.”
Nurse-Family Partnership arranges for home visits from registered nurses to low-income first-time mothers. The visits begin during pregnancy and continue for two years following birth. Nurses teach new moms about child development and how to bond with their baby and stimulate their young brains.
“There’s a real bond that forms between the nurse and the parent, and as a result of that the same sort of lifelong outcomes on health and educational attainment and income security pertain not only to the kid, but it stops everything from early mortality in the mom to smoking cessation with the mom,” Marx noted. “It’s the most effective program for reducing child abuse and neglect. It’s all pretty amazing.”
With roughly 8,000 births in Monroe County annually, some 2,000 would qualify for the Nurse-Family Partnership program. About 800 of those women take part in the program, Marx said.
“It could be better. Our job at the Children’s Agenda is to look at those gaps and look at how we can extend the tent cover across more families in the community,” Marx said.
Marx joined the organization in 2010 as director of development, having spent a number of years working with nonprofits in Wisconsin. In 2012, Kaczorowski was named president and chief children’s advocate, while Marx took over as executive director.
By 2013, the Children’s Agenda had grown to eight employees and revenue of $700,000. Today, the nonprofit employs 14 and has a budget of $1.5 million. Three-quarters of the agency’s funding comes from foundations, and the organization receives a smattering of support from businesses and faith communities. The remainder is from individuals who answer the Children’s Agenda’s two annual appeal letters.
The Children’s Agenda completes its own studies, as well as works with others on important research. Recent projects include work on “Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which looked at how improving the school climate supports academic success, as well as research that addressed reimbursement challenges for early intervention and preschool special education services in Monroe County.
The Children’s Agenda also has added an analysis of the Rochester City School District budget to its recent undertakings and has advocated on RCSD’s behalf as well. The agency is closely tied to both ROC the Future and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative; five of the Children’s Agenda’s staff are dedicated to ROC the Future and Marx serves on several committees for both collaboratives.
“We’re part of 23 cross-sector partnership groups of some kind or another at the state, federal and local level,” Marx said. “It’s the cliché about it takes a village. We’re very realistic about what our 14 staff and board and 5,300 advocacy network members can do on our own versus what we can do together with many of our partner agencies throughout the community and state.”
The Children’s Agenda has either played a key role in or led recent efforts to improve the lives of working families and teens. The agency helped win the state’s new paid family leave by getting two of the key swing votes in the state Senate behind it. In addition, the Children’s Agenda backed the “Raise the Age Initiative,” which keeps 20,000 16- and 17-year-old children stay out of adult prisons.
“More close to home we’ve done things like, this past year, after years of advocacy, (the county has) added $1.8 million to their childcare assistance fund. They’ve lowered the parent co-pay after years of our advocacy around that from the very top—35 percent—down to 25 percent,” Marx said. “By mobilizing the community and our partners that’s major wins for kids that we’ve helped marshal through.”
Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo this week said her proposed 2020 budget will include $1.7 million in funding to support the reduced “parent fee,” which officials said benefit 2,200 low-income families.
“The Children’s Agenda always worked to identify evidence-based programs and practices that could be spread or grown to scale to help Monroe County children,” Leonard said. “More than half the children in the city of Rochester live under the poverty line, which is already very low, so the Children’s Agenda makes sure that things that actually work for children are made available to them, if it’s possible.”
Marx called the agency a “catalytic change agent.” Oftentimes—due to lack of funding, programs or the hours to devote to it—schools are forced to try to put square pegs in round holes.
“And our job is to make sure there is a fit for every child in every system in schools and healthcare and all the systems that touch families’ lives.”
The size of the Children’s Agenda’s advocacy network is extensive, said Joe Calabrese, the agency’s communications and administrative coordinator.
“I’ve been at a number of different nonprofit organizations, and one of the things I think is unique about the Children’s Agenda is the reports that we author and the ones that we cite aren’t things that just sit on shelves,” Calabrese said. “They shape policy recommendations that we make locally and on a state level.”
And the agency goes where the data goes. It isn’t married to outdated programs or systems.
Marx said in the next 15 years, the Children’s Agenda will continue to see gains in early childhood development. The agency is looking to partner with the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc., the Children’s Institute, Common Ground Health and others on a system of supports from ages zero to eight called “All Kids Thrive.”
“So we have a vision of what a seamless structure of what supports at scale would look like and that’s really what it comes down to,” he said.
The next 15 years also will see advocacy behind Medicaid funding, as well as more of the same research and collaboration.
“We have huge credibility that we marshal and maintain, and that’s part of our success too,” Marx added. “That’s one of the reasons for our funding success. It’s why people really want to work here. That’s why we get all these partners in our collaborative system building efforts. It’s because of that credibility that the Children’s Agenda has.”