NLC’s City Showcase Honors Diverse, Groundbreaking City Family Programs

February 20, 2012
by Sandi Burtseva

The City Showcase exhibition, presented annually at NLC's Congress of Cities and Exposition, highlights some of the most successful and creative programs from cities and towns across the country.

Winning programs represent a diverse range of locations, city sizes and topic areas, and are selected for their innovative practices. In 2011, the 24 City Showcase participants highlighted the Congress of Cities' concurrent conference topics: infrastructure, green cities, economic development and your city's families. Below are the six programs relating to your city's families. 

[See the February 13February 6 and January 30 issues of Nation's Cities Weekly for descriptions of the infrastructure, economic development and green cities programs featured at the showcase.]

Bank On Brazos Valley - Bryan, Texas

Bank On Brazos Valley (BOBV) is a public-private partnership that helps unbanked or under-banked residents of Brazos Valley access mainstream financial services. The goal of the program is to improve the financial stability of lower-income consumers and help them engage in mainstream financial practices - primarily focused on opening a bank and/or savings account in order to stop relying on fringe financial services like payday lenders and check cashing. The program engages local banks and credit unions in order to offer affordable products and services to these new customers.

BOBV was launched in March 2011 with eight banks and two credit unions participating. The program also partners with nonprofit organizations, such as United Way and Project Unity, which work with our low- to moderate-income residents. These organizations serve a vital role by introducing Brazos Valley residents not currently involved in banking to mainstream financial services.

The city's financial institution partners - the banks and credit unions - offer products that are appealing specifically to people who haven't been banked before - ones with low rate, minimum balance or deposit requirements.

The City of Bryan first learned about BankOn programs through NLC and program managers have made use of NLC's technical assistance - offered through the Institute for Youth, Education and Families - to learn to implement and market the program. NLC was instrumental in putting the city in touch with federal regulators, including the FDIC, the Federal Reserve Bank and the Office of the Controller of the Currency in the Treasury Department. The support of these institutions was vital to garnering involvement from local banks and credit unions.

The first quarter numbers from BOBV show that the program has already reached about 1,500 people and spurred them to open new banking and/or savings accounts, and program managers are hoping for a similarly successful second quarter. "In our region, we think we have about 5,000 people who are unbanked... even more who are underbanked," said Bryan Neighborhood/Youth Service Manager Ronnie Jackson.

The average low- to minimum-wage worker cashing their checks every payday is spending between $800 to $1,000 a year on check cashing fees, just to get access to their own money - that adds up to about $40,000 in a lifetime. "That's a large amount of money to be wasting just to get access to your own money," noted Jackson. "So we used that as part of the promotion in our ads to try and educate the community around how important this program is."

Safe Routes to School Decatur - Decatur, Ga.

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) began in 2005 as a pilot program with two elementary schools, but had expanded to five elementary schools and one middle school program by 2011. The program aims to make walking and biking to school a safe routine for Decatur residents. SRTS has an important role in the Active Living Department's mission of promoting an active lifestyle among community members. The program also improves air quality and controls traffic flow around schools.

When a new school is introduced to the program, particularly one that is not centrally located, much planning goes into designing the safe routes. Anticipating concerns about distance and safety, program directors survey parents on how they plan to transport their children to school and what areas in a potential walking route they consider unsafe. The survey results are analyzed with the help of many community stakeholders - school principals, involved parents, police and fire officials, school bus drivers and representatives of the Public Works Department.

These stakeholders collaborate to come up with recommended routes, which are then walked and biked by invested parents to generate further safety suggestions. The city engineer and Public Works Department use this feedback to determine placement for new crosswalks, curb-cut ramps and bike lanes. The department also uses sidewalk decals to mark the routes. In addition to guiding students on their way to school, the decals serve to raise awareness of the program in the community.

"Start small, maybe start with one school this year, and then start expanding the program," recommended Decatur Assistant Director of Active Living Cheryl Burnette. "Once people see how successful that school is, all the other schools are going to want to do it and that's what we've seen happen."

Burnette explained that Decatur has put a lot into marketing the program, ranging from regular blog posts on the city's website to an annual pep rally for International Walk and Roll to School Day. The pep rally brings out the community, including elected officials, and honors crossing guards. "We just feel that everybody in the city is a part of our program," Burnette said.

Jax Kids Book Club - Jacksonville, Fla.

The Jax Kids Book Club, launched in 2004 as part of the mayor's early literacy initiative, operates under the auspices of the Jacksonville Children's Commission and seeks to engage early learners in the excitement of reading and getting ready for kindergarten. The book club reaches more than 10,000 4-year-old children every year (more than 80 percent of 4-year-olds in Duval County) and provides them with books and associated learning materials. The books promote pre-literacy skills while teaching the children about their city and its history - from local bridges, beaches and rivers to museums, libraries, Timucuan Indians, military and more.

The free program is guided by a commitment across the community to making early literacy and reading a top priority. In addition to improving school readiness, the program provides parents with practical tools to help their children become early learners, instill literacy as a core value in the home and encourage daily reading with their children.

"Across the country, we're seeing a growing awareness of the importance of early learning and a variety of unique responses through emerging programs and partnerships," said Executive Director of the Jacksonville Children's Commission Linda Lanier.

Every child attending the book club receives a free reusable book bag filled with a set of 12 age-appropriate books about various historical, geographical and cultural aspects of Jacksonville, a coloring book, a set of alphabet flash cards, a T-shirt and a parent guide. Since the program started in 2004, almost 73,000 children have participated.

Since its inception, this public-private partnership, has been funded with a combination of city and private dollars. However, it is currently making the transition to a new model based entirely on sponsorship. This change will insulate the program from budget challenges faced by local government in the current economic climate.

55,000 Degrees - Louisville, Ky.

55,000 Degrees (55K) is a public-private partnership with the bold goal of creating 55,000 new college degrees in the city of Louisville by 2020. Achieving this goal would push Louisville into the top tier in educational attainment among its competitor cities. The program seeks to bring together education, business, faith, civic and community leaders and organizations in support of increasing education attainment, and thereby prosperity and quality of life. The program is part of the Greater Louisville Education Commitment, a long-term, targeted plan to raise education levels in the area.

"55,000 Degrees is Louisville's economic development strategy ... to create a skilled workforce and to bring more jobs to our community," explained Lynn Howard, of the Louisville Mayor's Office of Policy & Special Projects.

The name of the program refers both to the 55,000 degrees - 40,000 Bachelor's and 15,000 Associate's - the city is looking to generate and to the 55,000-degree temperature of a lightning strike, referring to the electric effect city leaders hope the program will have on the community. "It's really not a program, it's more of a movement," Howard said.

At the program's inception, participating stakeholders included eight presidents from nearby universities, local public school system leadership and the superintendent of Catholic schools, as well as business leaders. This group came together to promote what Howard calls a "college-going culture" in the city.

While Louisville has traditionally been a blue-collar town with a manufacturing industry, a study done in conjunction with 55K revealed that the vast majority of residents - 98 percent - had, at some point, been interested in attending college, but had been dissuaded by concerns regarding price and admission standards, usually around their sophomore year of high school. The study also found that about 100,000 people (of approximately 1 million living in the area) had more than 90 hours of college credits without a completed degree. "We have about the same number of people starting college as our competitive cities, but we don't have the same number finishing," explained Howard.

The program aims to raise college attainment from 30 to 40 percent of the population by 2020. In addition to Bachelor's and Associate's degrees, 55K also promotes certificates, with the goal of getting as many high school graduates as possible some level of post-secondary education or training.

Operation Phoenix - San Bernardino, Calif.

Operation Phoenix seeks to reduce violence through coordinated prevention, intervention and suppression strategies that address the factors leading to crime and violence. The project partners with the county, community-based organizations and the community itself. The specific goal of the program is a five percent reduction in violent crime every year.

When 11-year-old Mynesha Crenshaw, the unintended victim of a gang shooting, was shot and killed in her apartment while having Sunday dinner with her family in November 2005, it galvanized San Bernardino residents to address gang violence. The community held large meetings and marches to mobilize against gang violence in San Bernadino, then ranked the third most violent city in California with 58 murders per year. Community efforts coalesced with the mayoral campaign of then Judge Pat Morris, renowned for his collaborative problem-solving approach to crime. As part of his campaign, Morris presented an Operation Phoenix - an 18-point strategy for combating crime and restoring the community.

The program aims to reduce violence and crime by addressing their root causes, including chaotic family situations, gang dynamics, parolee reentry, school failure, disconnected neighborhoods and poverty. A 19th point, added in 2009, also addresses the availability of alcohol and drugs and their connection to youth crime.

Since Operation Phoenix went into effect in May 2006, the city has seen a 40 percent decline in violent crime compared to 2005; homicides have been cut nearly in half. Violent crime by juveniles has been reduced by a staggering 70 percent.

Health on a Shelf - Tupelo, Miss.

Health on a Shelf partners with Tupelo convenience stores to prominently display nutritious food and snacks in a special area of the store. All of the healthy snacks offered have fewer than 250 calories and no more than five grams of fat per serving. Each item is designated with a sticker indicating that it is approved by the Healthy Tupelo Task Force. Participating stores are also decorated with colorful signage marking them as a Health on a Shelf store.

The program was created by the Healthy Tupelo Task Force after the city failed to win top recognition as the "Healthiest Hometown" in the state from Blue Cross & Blue Shield. "One of the things we got dinged on was that our convenience stores didn't have an area that was designated for healthy snacks or healthy food items," said Hank Boerner, co-chairman of the task force."

Health on a Shelf groups healthy snacks and foods - including fruit cups, yogurt parfaits, salads, turkey and chicken sandwiches on whole wheat bread, granola bars, nuts, pretzels and baked chips - in one prominent display. The task force hopes that the simplicity of the program will ensure its longevity in the community and draw interest from an increasing number of stores. Last week, the program welcomed its fourth participant - a convenience store attached to a BP gas station.