Prosper Waco Initiative Report shows city growth in multiple facets

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Megan Rule | Opinion Editor

The 2016-2017 Prosper Waco Initiative Report was recently released, showing improvement in many initiative efforts throughout the community.

“I think because our whole role is to convene community partners to come together, just convening everyone together and the consistency of people coming to meetings and seeing how people collaborate is what I continue to get excited about,” said Christina Helmick, director of communications for Prosper Waco. “It’s fun to include a wide variety of the people involved, mixing in health care professionals with businesses and nonprofits shows our community is in great partnership.”

This is the second year an initiative report was published, and it looks at the progress that’s been made throughout the year with a community snapshot, Helmick said. According to the report, the initiative is built upon three pre-existing networks created to improve education and health and alleviate poverty in Waco. Helmick said they tend to use the same format each year to analyze data and see what has changed from year to year.

Some highlights from the report include 11 active working groups looking to advance the goals of the initiative, and $6.5 million of federal, state and multi-year funding from outside Waco secured through collaboration of initiative partners since 2015. In addition, there has been over 6,000 hours of brainstorming and implementing efforts in the community and over 30 members involved in the Prosper Waco Leadership Council to guide communication and the initiative.

Helmick said there’s progress in a lot of efforts, especially when looking at education and healthcare. The school readiness effort and the Waco Independent School District (WISD) Summer Internship Program both saw improvements in participation and people affected. Donna McKethan, director of career and technical education for WISD, also manages the summer internship program. McKethan said last year there were about 20 student interns participating, but this year there were 50 participants.

“I think what’s most exciting about it is that our students are finding out, ‘Why do I have to learn this and why is this important?'” McKethan said. “When they go to business partners, they’re starting to see that teachers are right and this is something they’re going to use, so they can put skills in action.”

The program is a paid summer internship that focuses on the academy in which the student spends their time in. Juniors apply for an internship and get matched up and selected by different companies in town. This allows students to see if this is the direction they want to go in or if they need to make any changes with their career plans.

This year more than 20 local employers provided internships for rising seniors from local school districts to complete an 80 hour internship, according to the report. McKethan said there were more students that applied than internships available this year, and encourages any local businesses that want an intern to contact her to get involved with this program.

The report also shows that Waco was one of four cities across the United States to participate in the first-ever City Health Dashboard. The dashboard breaks down various health indicators to the neighborhood level, according to the report.

Dr. Jessica Athens, assistant professor at the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine, said Waco was selected as the southwest representative city, in order to get geographical diversity. Athens said the geographic diversity, participation in the National Resource Network, the structure of the city governance and partnership with Prosper Waco made Waco a good choice to include in the pilot. Moving forward, there is funding to extend the City Health Dashboard to the 500 largest cities across the country to allow the program to continue to gather data from cities by using the same benchmarks and providing connection points for city health improvement.

“I think that this is something that has been muted for a long time. There have been different initiatives trying to tackle this from different angles,” Athens said. “This is really the first one that focuses on using, for the most part, the same data set across the cities so that there’s no inherent risk of bias or misrepresentation across cities.”

Helmick said there is a full-time collector of data collection and research that works with the different community organizations to collect data and put it into the internal system. With this data, the Prosper Waco Initiative is able to increase participation and put out reports. Helmick said data is looked at before every group meeting to have the reinforced idea that this is a continual process.

“No effort will magically achieve its goal because there is always a need to reach out and see how communities are doing, and pulling it back and seeing how it works for Waco,” Helmick said. “Partners look at it all the time. The data is incorporated into all meetings and discussions looking forward.”

Prosper Waco is an organization that aims to empower every member of the community to maximize their potential. Prosper Waco works with community partners to build upon the efforts of local leaders in the areas of education, health and financial security to keep moving Waco forward.

“The backbone is never Prosper Waco; it’s the Prosper Waco initiative,” Helmick said. “Our role is to convene community partners, so it’s really the work of the community that is doing this, and the initiative staff.”

This article was updated on Nov. 14 to reflect a fact error that was originally published. The original article attributed how Waco was selected for the City Health Dashboard with the criteria of Flint, Mich. but has been updated to reflect the correct criteria for Waco.

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