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Petaluma, CA: Improving Systems and Settings
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case study

Petaluma, CA: Improving Systems and Settings

May 18, 2011
Petaluma, CA
How can a community change the quality, coordination and reach of its services, supports and engagement opportunities for children and youth? This case study shows how leaders in Petaluma, Calif., did just that, working with the Forum for Youth Investment to use the Ready by 21 approach to build a community wide coalition and develop new strategies that had impact.

“Ready by 21 provides a framework and a process for us to engage and involve community members, including our organizational members, as well as parents, the general public and teenagers.”
— John Milburn, Project Coordinator, Petaluma Youth Network

In 2005, Petaluma faced a challenge familiar to many communities: rising drug and alcohol use among teens, too much bullying and alarming school suspension rates. What’s more, conversations with youth showed that they felt unvalued
and disconnected.

Make no mistake: Petaluma boasted many good youth programs. But its efforts were hampered by several barriers to
change. Organizations used different terms to talk about youth issues. The recession shrunk the capacity of youth-serving 
organizations while increasing the number of youths seeking services. Multiple programs, initiatives and task forces 
existed, but leaders and their organizations often focused on a small facet of youth development – such as reducing teen 
pregnancy or increasing high school graduation – and rarely had the time or resources to look at Petaluma as a whole.

The Foundation for Change

Thus was born the Petaluma Youth Network (PYN), composed of youths and adults representing families,
education, businesses, government, faith organizations and youth-serving agencies. The Network, which
is part of the Healthy Community Consortium, developed a five-year plan to “strengthen community 
and school connections” and “increase relevance, rigor and relationship” at high schools.

Step one was a redesign of the high schools; they created small learning 
communities for students, professional education circles for teachers
and more links with community agencies. But this movement had to get
beyond school. To be a truly community-wide effort, the collaboration 
needed to bring together a range of leaders and initiatives, and get them
 working toward the same goals for all Petaluma youth in all settings.

That’s where the Network turned to the Ready by 21 strategies. Pat Landrum,
executive director of the Healthy Community Consortium – the coordinator of
 Petaluma’s Ready by 21 work -- explains that Ready by 21 fit because it promoted
 positive youth development principles from which everyone could work, provided
a common language for that work, aligned with what the community was already
doing and valued all the stakeholders engaged in the reform process.

Launching the Strategies

Improving youth outcomes required developing and implementing
 a strategic plan to address areas where, as Landrum put it, there
 was “a clear need for change, opportunities to impact many areas
 at once, and where there was passion in the community.”

The Network developed a set of policy and practice strategies to increase 
accountability, innovation and continuous improvement among agencies 
working with youth and families. To help accomplish that, the Network 
held a series of community retreats; focused on five developmental
 areas -- working, thriving, connecting, leading and learning; and used
tracking tools to show progress (or lack of it) within those areas.

The Network’s project coordinator, John Milburn, says the Forum provided “the technical assistance we need to construct our retreats, to hold effective meetings, to bring consensus and collaborative thinking to a very diverse group of stakeholders with many competing needs or overlapping services.”

In addition, he says, “again and again we were able to point back to the five developmental areas and see where a stakeholder’s work fit in.” And for the first time, “we have a common language for us to talk about these issues.”

Petaluma leaders pursued six objectives, each touching on all the developmental areas: caring relationships, youth leadership, parent participation, aligned resources and policies, common measures and evaluation, and communications. Those objectives have driven changes that improved youth services, supports and opportunities.

Petaluma’s Successes

Although the community will measure long-term outcomes, the efforts netted some early changes:

  • Improvements in caring relationships. Several opportunities were created for peer mentoring, youth voice and youth engagement, highlighted by the schools’ ongoing “Challenge Days”: one-day programs focused on connecting youth to each other and to caring adults. Since starting this program, organizers have noted dramatic reductions in student suspensions and an increase in youths’ perception of meaningful participation opportunities and school safety/security (as measured by the California Healthy Kids Survey).

  • More attention to parental involvement. The Challenge Days opened a new way to draw parents to the schools. One high school created an engagement process that has more than 50 parents regularly volunteering there, while other schools have seen an increase in parent involvement as well.
  • Youth became change-makers. After participating in the community retreats, local youths formed their own organization, Petaluma Teens for Teens, which serves as an information hub on Facebook for local youth engagement opportunities. Also, the PYN trained Latino youth to canvass under represented neighborhoods to encourage voter registration and civic participation, which led to a Latino Youth Civic Engagement conference that explored community issues.
Increased collaboration among organizations. The PYN brought together stakeholders focused on children aged zero to five to examine needs in services such as child care, education preparation and health care, and to determine how to fill the gaps. Many of these people – from such entities as the local United Way, county government and service providers -- had never been in the same room together. They soon attracted outside funding for family education and are working together on a continual basis.
Establishing shared accountability. The network is creating shared metrics, indicators and tracking tools connected to goals for individual organizations and the community as a whole. It has established a general consensus around a set of core themes, goals and initial strategies.
“Without the Ready by 21 structure and framework,” notes Milburn of the PYN, “it’s hard to imagine how we would have accomplished very much of this.” The changes required more than specific strategies and tools; they required community
leaders to change their fundamental