Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities Featured in New NLC Report

May 10, 2013

By Michael Karpman

NLC has published a new report highlighting promising city efforts to improve the lives of children, youth and families in communities with populations below 75,000. "Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities" provides a rich array of strategies shared by local officials representing more than 40 cities and towns across the country. Click here to view the report.

The report contains in-depth case studies of comprehensive family strengthening efforts in Rapid City, S.D. (pop. 67,956), and Manchester, Conn. (pop. 58,241). Both cities made remarkable progress in building and sustaining new collaborations that are making a difference in the lives of children, youth and their families. In Manchester, the town developed a new "infrastructure" for neighborhood engagement and implementation of a children, youth and family master plan. In Rapid City, a Task Force for Strengthening Families has been the catalyst for improved mental health services, expanded access to high-quality prekindergarten programs, innovative poverty reduction approaches, truancy and dropout prevention efforts, and much more.

The report also includes a set of shorter city practices categorized by topic area that highlight local action in areas such as early childhood development, education, health and safety, family economic success, neighborhood revitalization, and youth and community engagement. See below for a snapshot of the featured examples.

Unique Challenges and Opportunities

With information gathered from surveys, interviews, and a scan of promising practices identified by NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) and state municipal leagues, the new report provides a starting point for exploring the unique challenges and opportunities faced by smaller cities seeking to improve outcomes for children and youth.

Municipal leaders in cities of all sizes want their communities to be great places to grow up, get an education, and raise a family, because they know that these are attributes that will help their cities thrive. Efforts to promote child and family well-being are critical to addressing top local priorities such as economic development, public safety and neighborhood quality of life.

All too often, however, mayors and councilmembers in small cities and towns do not realize that many of the most powerful levers of leadership exercised by big-city mayors are also within their reach. Limited resources and staff capacity, a shortage of critical services, and a tendency to define core municipal functions narrowly contribute to an assumption that there are few roles that smaller cities can play in efforts to help children and families succeed.

Yet small and mid-sized cities also have many unique opportunities to seize and strengths upon which to draw. Personal relationships and a powerful sense of community shared by residents can be enormous assets in advancing collaborative efforts among city agencies, schools, colleges, community foundations, faith-based and civic groups, PTAs, businesses, and other organizations. Close-knit communities can foster a more pronounced spirit of volunteerism.

Local governments in smaller cities may also have advantages in being closer to residents and responding quickly to their concerns. For instance, the City of Charlottesville, Va. (pop. 43,475), and its partners were able to survey all households with children in the target neighborhood for their City of Promise initiative. In Danvers, Mass. (pop. 26,493), local leaders developed Project Sunshine - a six-week summer recreation program for homeless children whose families were placed in local motels - in a compressed timeframe as the community stepped up with donations and support.

Municipal Roles in Small and Mid-Sized Cities

NLC produced this report to provide municipal officials in small and mid-sized cities with new ideas and inspiration to guide local action on behalf of young people and families. The examples featured in the report highlight four key roles that municipal officials are playing, usually requiring little or no allocation of city revenue:

1. Convening stakeholders behind a shared vision and using data to track progress on measurable goals.

The two case studies in the report demonstrate the powerful role that city officials can play in bringing the community together around a common vision and set of priorities. Rapid City's Task Force for Strengthening Families, formed by local elected officials, provides a mechanism for cross-sector planning, information gathering, communication, and pooling of resources. In Manchester, the process of creating a children, youth and families master plan engaged several hundred youth and adult residents, including leaders from local government, education, law enforcement, business, and the faith community.

2. Finding creative ways to leverage city resources, infrastructure, and policies.

Local officials in small and mid-sized cities are finding many ways to maximize available resources, such as agreements for shared use of municipal and school district facilities in Spartanburg, S.C. (pop. 37,013); contracts with innovative nonprofit organizations to provide high-quality music and arts programming at recreation centers in Redlands, Calif. (pop. 68,747); and strategic infrastructure improvements that expand educational options for children and youth in Caldwell, Idaho (pop. 46,237); Delray Beach, Fla. (pop. 60,522); Lemoore, Calif. (pop. 24,531); and Monticello, Iowa (pop. 3,796).

3. Forming innovative partnerships.

Because no city can go it alone in its efforts on behalf of children and families, small and mid-sized cities are partnering with a wide range of entities in their community and region. City-school partnerships in Holyoke, Mass. (pop. 39,880), led to the establishment of family literacy centers that parents can visit to help their children become proficient readers. In West Bend, Wis. (pop. 31,078), the city has worked with the school district to secure federal funding for healthy meals served at a summer enrichment program. The Community Schools Collaboration that originated in Tukwila, Wash. (pop. 19,107), currently serves schools in neighboring communities throughout the county.

4. Mobilizing the community and engaging volunteers.

Municipal officials in smaller communities are galvanizing local residents and tapping numerous sources of volunteers. For instance, city leaders in Cortland, N.Y. (pop. 19,204), and Northfield, Minn. (pop. 20,007), recruit college students to tutor youth after school. Youth advisory council members in Tualatin, Ore. (pop. 26,054), and mentoring program participants in Westwood, Mass. (pop. 14,618), help organize programs and serve as positive role models for younger students. The City of Petersburg, Va. (pop. 32,420), helped bring together employers, health care providers, and other partners to host a summer job and health fair for youth.

View the Report

Click here to view the full report, executive summary, and specific sections. To order printed copies of the executive summary and to learn more about NLC's efforts to help municipal officials in small and mid-sized cities take action on behalf of children, youth, and families, contact Michael Karpman at (202) 626-3072 or karpman@nlc.org.

NLC will also host a free, hour-long webinar on "Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities" that will take place Thursday, June 20, at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Click here to register for this webinar.