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Stepping Stones study finds racial disparities in community issues

A Stepping Stones report was recently released highlighting areas in the community that are in need of resources, and others that are doing well.

The report’s data focuses on issues that include education and civic engagement, economic security and housing, and health and family stability in Albemarle and Charlottesville’s youth and families. The recent report was also released with a supplemental report that breaks down some of the metrics by race.

The goal of the Stepping Stones report is to stimulate dialogue and promote action, according to its organizers. It also aims to improve living conditions for those within the community.

“It is unfortunate, if not surprising, that we see pretty substantial racial gaps in all of the measures,” Michele Claibourn, director of equitable analysis at the Equity Center, told The Daily Progress. “We’re really hoping that’s another way of looking at these outcomes and the well-being of our community that might promote more urgent action. Providing this racially disaggregated data is a first for this report and one that we hope to be expanding on to build it out further.”

The first Stepping Stones report was produced in 2000 by the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families, according to Claibourn.

“It’s been a resource in the community for a while and it’s been updated periodically over the last couple decades, but most recently has been sustained by the City of Charlottesville Department of Human Services, with the last update in 2019, and so they wanted to generate a new one,” Claibourn said.

This year’s Stepping Stones report was created in partnership between the Equity Center at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville Department of Human Services and the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, according to a statement released by the Equity Center.

Charlottesville’s Department of Human Services provides resources and programs “that improve and support the resilience, health, and well-being of youth, families, and community organizations.”

This is the first time the UVa Equity Center has contributed to the report. The organization, which was founded in 2019, aims to serve as a model to other universities “seeking to promote equity and justice.”

The report was a way to help achieve the Equity Center’s goal, according to Claibourn. Work completed by the community and university has been “a great demonstration of the power in real partnership.”

“We’re excited to be able to bring something that is good for the community and was a learning opportunity for students, and also just an opportunity for us to build on this report because we added a new component that was trying to show some of the data broken down by race to center equity,” Claibourn said. “The city was interested in this, but we were pleased we were to add that as a novel component.”

Conversations began last fall, when Claibourn introduced the idea of allowing her public interest data ethics and practice students to help with the report, she said.

“They really did a lot of the initial work of understanding all the sources, finding new sources for metrics, writing code to gather sources so we can make it reproducible and update it more easily so other people could see exactly how it was generated, and then also doing research around the metrics to provide more context and understanding of what these were really meant to be representing,” Claibourn said.

The material curated by the students was brought to the Equity Center to be validated and put in a coherent form, according to Claibourn. A draft of the report was brought to roughly 20 “local knowledge experts” to gather feedback and ensure the data was transparent and had undergone multiple reviews.

“It was a really great opportunity to bring it to people who are working on front lines largely with children and families since this report centers a lot of indicators around youth well-being, and who could give us more background or tell us that if we were representing something that was not quite right. It really made the report even more powerful,” Claibourn said.

The data came from a variety of sources, including many state agencies such as the Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Justice and Department of Social Services, according to Claibourn. Other sources include the National Census and the American Community Survey. The goal was to utilize public sources available to all, but not easily accessible to all.

“Also, we really wanted to center sources that could be verified, that we would get the same answers as other people would get because part of our goal here is to have is a shared understanding of how we’re doing and we feel like that’s facilitated by using transparent processes and open data so other people can check and verify,” Claibourn said.

One positive outcome Claibourn notes in the report’s findings is the increase in the on-time graduation rates in Charlottesville City Schools.

Albemarle County Public Schools and Charlottesville City Schools on-time graduation rates sat between 93% and 94% in 2022, according to the report. This is higher than the state rate of 92%.

“One of the things that I was happy to see was the increase in on-time graduation rates over the last 20 years because again, every indicator is represented for about 20 years so we can see both where we are now and where we’re coming from,” Claibourn said.

Another success in the report Claibourn notes is a drop in the use of exclusionary suspensions in both city and county school districts.

Suspension rates in Charlottesville and Albemarle schools were above 200 per 1,000 and 100 per 1,000 students, respectively, prior to the 2009-2010 school year. Since then, suspension rates have dropped, hovering around zero in the 2020-2021 school year. When referencing this data, the report notes the hybrid learning schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Claibourn hopes the report is used to make data-informed decisions and prioritize spaces where more urgent action is needed.

“But we also want it to be a resource for others at multiple levels like community organizations and leaders as a way of helping them target their own work,” Claibourn said. “We have a lot of nonprofits in this community doing great work and it’s a resource to support the argument for gaining more resources for their efforts.”

In previous years, Claibourn’s wishes have come true.

The Commission on Children and Families created a group focused on teen pregnancy and STD prevention after the release of a Stepping Stones report, according to Daniel Fairley II, youth opportunity coordinator for the City of Charlottesville. The initiative helped reduce rates of teen pregnancy in the mid-2000s.

“You would see the numbers start plummeting for teen pregnancy in our area that wouldn’t have happened had there not been a coalition that was built to work towards ending and minimizing teen pregnancy, and that was created because of the Stepping Stones report,” Fairley said. “People were able to see the data that teen pregnancy was rising and put a coalition together to work towards the minimization of it.”

The teen pregnancy rate per 1,000 in Charlottesville was 9, 5 in Albemarle and 7 in the state, according to the 2018 to 2021 data in the Stepping Stones report. Rates have seen an overall declining trend since the data was first reported in 2000.

The recent report also indicates areas within the community that are still falling behind.

“Despite a lot of efforts made by both governments and nonprofits, there is this very stubborn persistence in the rate of children living in poverty,” Claibourn said. “It just truly hasn’t budged in 20 years. The fact that we haven’t been able to move that needle for decades I think should trouble us and is concerning.”

The rate of childhood poverty in 2021 in Charlottesville sits between 15% and 24%, according to the Stepping Stones Report. In Albemarle County, that same rate ranges between 7% and 12%. The city’s youth poverty rate has been consistently higher than the states, while the county has consistently reported lower rates than the states over the years.

The supplemental report finds that the highest percentage of youth living below the poverty line throughout the state are Black.

Though the city and county are still experiencing these community issues, the report creates a space and opportunity for government agencies and nonprofit organizations to collaborate and “move the needle” on issues that need to be addressed, according to Fairley.

Harnessing the Stepping Stones data allows the community to have a benchmark. It enables organizations and state agencies to revisit areas that were thought to be doing well, or not doing well, to take further action and allocate resources.

“It’s focused on our students and kids in our community and making sure that we are looking at some of the most vulnerable portions of our population and seeing whether or not we’re serving them the way that we think that we’re serving them,” Fairley said. “It allows for benchmarking in the city, the county and the state.”

The report is still in its discovery phase, according to Fairley. Organizations and state agencies are “combing through data” and figuring out what to do with it.

“It’s been presented and shared at meetings, shared through the city’s reports that go out to everyone in the community, and it’s been presented to the city manager,” Fairley said. “It’s still in the discovery phase of what’s inside of the data, but it’s being shared throughout committees and commissions to figure out what we are going to do about the things that we are seeing right now.”


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