Employee Katie ConditChalkboard Project recently interviewed Katie Condit, executive director of Better Together.

Better Together is located in Central Oregon. Can you tell me a little about the community?
I love this community so much. The three counties in Central Oregon, Deschutes, Jefferson, and Crook, have a truly collaborative spirit. We rely heavily on each other and collaborate around the shared desire for positive student outcomes. Our communities learn from each other and are able to have regional vision around initiatives while also catering to individual local needs.

Better Together has an interesting model of supporting cross-sector partnership to improve education outcomes for children. Why you think this partnership model is important?
I think this model is critical for one main reason– schools cannot do it alone. We often imagine that the bottom line in the private sector is different from the bottom line in the public sector. But the reality is that students and young people thriving in our region meets everyone’s bottom line! It is also a common assumption that supporting the success of our students is the primary job of our schools but while young people spend a lot of time in schools, much of their time is spent elsewhere. In fact, students are out in our community interacting everyday with people and systems in cross-sectors, including our health care system, government, and the business sector.

Can you give me an example on how you might engage the business community in your work?
One of our regional initiatives is called Youth Career Connect. We began this initiative to help address Central Oregon’s shortage of workforce talent. This has been a huge issue affecting economic development in our region and when we dug into the data, we learned young people were having fewer meaningful work experiences before they finished school. We brought employers and educators together to develop a regional cross-sector internship system. Youth Career Connect is placing over 100 youth into successful internships a year through our chamber of commerce and economic development associations. Our local workforce investment board is now leading in the expansion of this initiative, making it truly cross-sector.

I am really interested in hearing about Better Together’s Supporting Families Initiative. How does supporting families help to improve educational outcomes for children? What is the link?
Education research shows that family involvement in a child’s education is incredibly impactful. Everything from reading at home, helping with homework, to volunteering in schools has causal impacts on student outcomes. Better Together knows that all families have the power and the knowledge to be the best parents and teachers to their children but unfortunately, many of the families in our community do not feel safe and welcome in schools or they don’t feel like they have a role to play in their child’s education.

A big part of our Supporting Families Initiative is focused on Latinx parents, making sure that they feel safe and welcome in the schools and have resources, tools, and skills to be positively involved in their children’s education. Driving this work is our Latinx Success Initiative, which is a lead by 60+ committed Latinx leaders in the community to develop an aligned system for supporting families, including a Spanish literacy program for 3-5 year olds and their parents. Latinx parents participating have told us they never thought they would be welcome into their children’s schools in the way some of our partner programs are helping make that happen. It is a game changer for creating culturally responsive and welcoming spaces.

What else are you excited about?
Our Culture of Care Initiative is a partnership between the health and education sectors. The initiative received a 1.5-million-dollar grant from our Central Oregon Health Council to build upon the schools’ work in creating trauma-informed systems. Many of our students experience trauma at home which can include mental health issues, homelessness, or food insecurity, and this trauma can follow students everywhere including into the classroom. Unfortunately, educators do not always have the knowledge, tools and resources they need to respond to symptoms of trauma in ways that keep students engaged. As a result, instead of addressing the symptoms of trauma, when a child acts out they tend to be pushed out of the classroom or even suspended.

The Culture of Care Initiative is working to ensure Central Oregon school districts have 100% staff that are trained in trauma informed practices and have ongoing professional coaching. It also includes district policy review to assure that all school policies are trauma informed. This initiative is health funded because our local health care systems have recognized trauma can have a social, emotional and physical impacts on health. If our schools are trauma informed and attend to the stressors in children’s lives, our communities will thrive and are less likely to have health problems later in life.