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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

Fayette reflects on ways to become ‘world-class community’

By Bradley Roberts, Content Manager at United Way of Greater Atlanta

There are more than 25,000 children living in the five zip codes encompassing Fayette County, and while much of the county may celebrate success, we know there are still children in need. There are still kids who don’t have access to the same opportunities.

There are vast differences from zip code to zip code.

United Way of Greater Atlanta set out to map those differences in Fayette and the other 12 counties just over two years ago when it launched the Child Well-Being Movement. What United Way saw was that children growing up in one zip code didn’t have the same resources, social support or opportunities as those growing up a few miles from them. Through a set of 14 child, family and community measures, United Way calculated at the time a child well-being score for each individual zip code.

The region as a whole had the previous score of 58.9 — a failing grade. United Way found that about 500,000 children in Greater Atlanta lived in areas of low to very-low child well-being. This helped United Way form a single, shared agenda targeting low child well-being areas.

On May 9, United Way announced that the regional score had improved to 61.8 — that equates to a change in the lives of more than 82,000 children.

But, back to Fayette. Fayette County had a previous score of 82.2, and after the new data was released in May, that score actually decreased overall to 81.1. While still better than the region average, this still tells the story of nearly 6,000 children living in low child well-being communities — and there are disparities among Fayette County zip codes, with the lowest child well-being score of 69.4 in zip code 30214 and the highest of 84.5 in 30215.

There’s a story behind those numbers and behind those disparities.

United Way of Greater Atlanta and Fayette County Schools presented its Fayette State of the Children Community Conversation on Nov. 20 to give context to those stories.

Jennifer Young, regional director of United Way of Greater Atlanta in Fayette County, said there were notable improvements in high school graduation and an increase in people enrolled in post-secondary education, but there was also an increase in children in poverty.

In the 30214-zip code, Young says the Child Well-Being Score had dropped 3.1 points. She said there were improvements in high school graduation rates, improvement in college and career readiness and a decline in unemployment. But there was also an increase in children in poverty and families not financially stable.

In the neighboring 30215 zip code, the score improved to 84.5 in two years, Young says, which was an increase by 2.8 percent.

She said a reason for the drop in overall child well-being for Fayette County could largely be attributed to the change in standardized testing, which dramatically impacted third-grade reading scores and child well-being scores.

“When we talk about the data and everything behind the data, these are great points, but there are stories behind it,” Young says. “When you have access to early learning programs, we know they will have cognitive, social and behavioral skills. The access to early education is essential.”

Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Barrow agreed with Young.

“One of the things I’ll say all the time [to his staff] is, ‘In God we trust, and everybody else we expect to see data,’” Barrow said with a laugh. “We dig down into it and drill down so we can better understand… It’s not just about the data, but we need to be able to interpret the data.”

Barrow says that “poverty is the beast that really impacts us all.” He said that poverty in the community can directly affect the well-being of students in schools. Barrow sat on a five-member panel with four other community leaders to discuss how they are powering the Child Well-Being Movement in Fayette County.

Colin Martin, president and CEO of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, says that the overall Child Well-Being of Fayette impacts the business community in addition to its schools.

“When we talk about Child Well-Being and how it impacts businesses, one short-term perspective is that all of our businesses have employees that are parents, and if those parents have to worry about, ‘Is my child fed?’ Then they are less likely to be productive employees.”

The county needs to be able to “create a climate” where businesses should be successful and nonprofit providers can provide assistance, Charles Rousseau says.

Rousseau is the District 4 commissioner for Fayette County. He says the county is currently doing well, but he said to use that success as a springboard to continue the work in the county.

Barrow said the discrepancies in Child Well-Being in neighboring zip codes was a “brutal reality” that the community needed to confront.

“One of the things we have to do as individuals and businesses and entities is you have to confront the brutal realities,” Barrow says. “One of the things we have to do is talk. We have certain schools within this zip code that may not be performing as well as other schools. That’s an issue of equity.”

But Fayette County Public Schools isn’t “short-changing anybody,” he says.

“We realize some schools may be more impacted by poverty, and we need more resources to overcome those barriers,” Barrow says. “Partnerships are critically important to what we can do as a group.”

Kim Schnoes, a financial planner and community advocate, agreed these partnerships were crucial. Schnoes is active in her community serving on a number of local boards. She stressed the importance of giving to organizations like United Way.

“I think it boils down to wanting to be able to bring out the best assets and best around us from the community,” she says. “We know this community is great, but we don’t want to rest there.”

Dawn C. Oparah, executive director of Fayette FACTOR, says one of the ways to improve the community is to speak up. She said it was important to continue this same type of dialogue within the community beyond just those in the room.

“The threat to [Fayette’s] Child Well-Being is not having the knowledge,” Oparah says. “When people don’t know, we can’t do. If you have the knowledge and the willingness, then we’ll continue to thrive as a community.”

Conversations like the on Nov. 20 are what help a community overcome its problems, Barrow says. He said it’s easy to point out those issues, but it takes more than that to address them. He said this type of work only happens through collaboration and partnerships with organizations like United Way.

“We can maintain the level of quality of life and even bump it up,” Barrow says. “I think we have the opportunity to have a world-class community, but it takes people working together and checking our ego at the door.”

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