Evolving Impact: Data-Driven Insights Transforming Early Childhood Programs in San Mateo County

First 5 San Mateo County funds programs and builds partnerships that support our mission to promote positive outcomes for young children and their families, and foster success for every child. Collecting data through impact evaluations is a huge part of how we make sure that we are actually doing that. Data allows us, and our whole community, to understand how we can support, invest in, and enhance the effectiveness of all of the early childhood programs that are proud partners of children and families in San Mateo County.

As a funder, First 5 San Mateo County collects information from the programs it funds to understand the impact they’re having on children and families. Jenifer Clark is First 5 San Mateo County’s Research and Evaluation Specialist, and she has been dedicated to First 5 San Mateo County’s data and evaluation practice for over 15 years. 

“When San Mateo County first started collecting data, it was focused on population-based research of the families with young children that lived in San Mateo County. We had asked each partner organization to produce its evaluation report. That led to differences in what each program chose to evaluate and how robust those evaluations were.  This made it difficult to measure our overall impact.,” Jenifer explained. 

Asking the Right Questions

When she joined the team in 2008, one of the first things Jenifer did was move toward a more unified evaluation strategy across all funded programs. Through standardized surveys that all programs had to complete for their clients, First 5 collected information about all of the indicators to be tracked across organizations. 

“When every organization was asked the same set of questions, we had a clearer picture of the improvements in the lives of children and families across all our programs.” This data collection practice also prompted service providers to ask about other services their families might need.  Providers could then connect families to the network of First 5-funded services or other community supports. Over time, First 5 San Mateo County-funded partners became more collaborative, and the impact of all First 5 programs expanded. “This model of evaluation is resource-intensive,” Jenifer explained, but demonstrates the way that a robust data practice can improve the way the systems work, and work together. 

Getting the Whole Picture for Every Child

Now, First 5 San Mateo County focuses on collecting some key performance indicators to assess the effectiveness of early childhood programs. “We look at how everything–all of the funded services and initiatives–come together for the child. 

“We look at what it means for a child to be ready for kindergarten, but also what it means for a family to be engaged with a school system in a meaningful way. We look at parental mental health, parental social isolation, health care and health insurance, housing stability, food insecurity–we want to understand all of those critical aspects of a family’s well-being to understand what is working in the big picture, and what needs to be supported in a more granular way.”

“The other piece that is very critical is how things are working at a systems level: how are all of these programs working together?” Jenifer poses. “If there is a child in preschool and, for example, that child also has a developmental delay, the preschool and the health care system need to be able to work together to support the parents as they are trying to meet their child’s needs..” First 5 San Mateo County collects data to make sure that these connections are happening, these systems are strong, and they can act on opportunities for improvement. 

Harnessing Data for Equity

“All of these are kind of a backward-looking way of using data.” Jenifer clarifies. “We can also use data in a more forward-looking way. We collect information about what families need  to see what the gaps are, and direct resources toward filling those gaps.”

“We have always collected data on race, ethnicity, and language, and it is really important that we see and address any differential results across those markers.” These are some of the most important gaps to close. Working to counteract racism, create opportunity for all children, and promote equity has been integral to the work of First 5 San Mateo County from our beginning more than 25 years ago. Every child should be able to reach their full potential, and when we can see racialized outcomes on an aggregated scale, we know we have more work to do in our community. We can better understand the solution when we understand how the problem manifests in real life.  

Data collected by First 5 San Mateo County was instrumental in making the case for The Big Lift’s summer and preschool program. “The Big Lift provides high quality education for families within eight specific school districts in San Mateo County where data showed fewer children were well-prepared for kindergarten, and 3rd grade reading proficiency was lagging. In order to build political will to develop a a program like this, we have to produce  data showing the need. That is why it is so important to evaluate and assess the needs of our community all the time.”

A Holistic Approach for Diverse Families

Jenifer explains that differentiated outcomes among children with special needs are also critical. “We also fund a lot of support and programs focused on children with special needs and their families. Early intervention systems can be incredibly complicated and difficult for parents to navigate on their own. There has been a lack of inclusive services for children who have developmental delays or health issues.”

“As part of our trauma and resiliency informed systems initiative (TRISI), we’ve begun examining how our team and our partners’ teams experience the work environment, considering factors like primary language resources, immigration history, or sexual orientation.” This effort aims to “enhance and support our organizations by ensuring an inclusive and supportive work environment that honors the diverse backgrounds and needs of all our staff members. Our focus is on improving the overall work environment across all staff populations, fostering an environment where everyone feels valued and supported.”

Though there are some barriers to effective data collection, Jenifer wants data collection to be easy and inspiring to partners. “[First 5 San Mateo County] is really trying to create a positive culture around data. We want to help people shift their mindset so they see data as an instrumental tool in supporting staff and securing necessary resources. When the data is strong, our community knows they are making a difference.”

Data, like stories, holds the power to depict collective community experiences. Recognizing its potential to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging underscores the critical importance of data collection. Aligning perspectives to view data as a storytelling medium could facilitate a paradigm shift in its perception and utilization within organizations.

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