Back to School: How Are Children’s Cabinets Making a Difference in a Challenging Landscape

“We know that we need to change the dialogue in the public square. …[I]nstead of asking how do schools safely reopen, the question I think should be reframed to ask what should our community be doing that will help support schools in safe operations. I think there’s a subtle but distinct difference that is important because we need to move that responsibility outside the school house walls and out into the community if we’re actually going to wrap our arms around the problem…. I think we’re capable of changing the conversation, and in Kansas, we’re seeing it play out in real time.”


– Melissa Rooker, Executive Director, Kansas Children’s Cabinet & Trust Fund


Even in the best of times, our systems of government and community supports must “Build Forward Together” to provide equitable structures for working families to provide economically while their kids are safe, cared for, and learning. Amid the current crisis, our collective ability to meet the diverse needs and circumstances of kids and families will determine whether young people have the opportunity to thrive—not just barely survive—through these difficult times and moving forward.

To achieve these outcomes, coordinating capacity plays an essential role. State and local children’s cabinets powerfully show how coordinating bodies can support positive outcomes for children and youth—especially amid dynamic challenges. By leveraging and cohering people, money, and data across systems and sectors, they help to both get a handle on and meet real-life needs.

Coordinating bodies are a key to strengthening connections across school leaders and community partners to fully support kids, a shared goal for the State & Local Children’s Cabinet Networks, Aspen, and the Forum as a whole. In July, Aspen Institute released How Governors and Mayors Can Support Schools, So Schools Can Better Support Students to suggest concrete actions for leaders. In August, we brought Aspen together with children’s cabinets—both longstanding and brand new—to share experiences of how the rubber hits the road, delving into not only what they do to connect people, money, and data but also how they provide critical capacity.

See below for our top 5 takeaways from the joint dialogue across the State and Local Children’s Cabinet Networks* featuring Melissa Rooker, Executive Director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet & Trust Fund, and Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet advisors Rob Watson, Kylynn Grier, and James Watson.


Coordinating capacity is the “secret sauce” behind responding effectively to crisis. Growing that capacity over time cultivates the ability to respond effectively to crisis through relationships, shared expectations, communication, and trust.

As Melissa Rooker described, “In Kansas, I really feel like we were better equipped than many that I followed because we'd already shaken up our institutions. We were already putting strong cross-sector collaboration into practice, and we were already thinking in terms of big, bold, systemic change. Our strong collaborative relationships between the state agencies has really helped us as we coordinate the state's emergency response.”

Hear Melissa summarize the Kansas Children’s Cabinet & Trust Fund and how its ongoing work provides the foundation for current responses.

Despite having only weeks of experience as a cabinet, Poughkeepsie still galvanized a robust COVID response across sectors. As Rob Watson shared, “We're excited that our cabinet's co-chaired by our mayor and our superintendent of schools. In our community, the mayor and the superintendent really worked in their silos for decades and really bringing them together is an exciting part of this work. We have a wide ranging executive committee, everyone from the faith sector to civil society. Five local college presidents including places like the Culinary Institute of America, Vassar College Marist. Community colleges are counted, the executive sits on the cabinet and also state elected representatives.”

Hear Rob on how the Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet used its early groundwork to rally stakeholders around urgent needs.

The lived experiences of children, youth, and families matter for long-term planning and for meeting needs in unexpected crisis. Coordinating infrastructure helps all systems understand families’ needs holistically—and shows families that their full experiences are recognized.

As Kylynn Grier noted for Poughkeepsie, “A lot of what we were able to achieve had everything to do with the fact that we had an executive committee and we were all at the table across sectors and able to really think about what programs do exist, what's real time information that folks need to know?”

Hear from Kylynn Grier about getting the most relevant, actionable information to all families.

Melissa Rooker explained how Kansas’s Our Tomorrows story-mapping tool, which launched in 2019 to inform the state’s five-year strategic plan for early childhood, now enables families across the state to communicate real-time challenges to guide the state’s COVID response.

The cabinet's role has been to serve as a connector and a convener, we have helped to gather information in real time by reopening the story gathering tool. Our Tomorrows now has a prompt that asks for input, tell us about something that has affected your family in the last week so that we are getting real time stories of what's happening and we scan those stories and we do some analysis and then we share out information with policymakers across a variety of settings as called for. So it's been helpful as we are setting goals for CARES Act funding or different types of emergencies relief and procedures that we need to put in place.”

Hear from Melissa how Our Tomorrows and other outreach shaped Kansas’s Blueprint for Early Childhood strategic plan.

Government resources rarely cover all of the need, and even allocated resources take time to reach children and families. Tapping into community partners can bridge the gaps that otherwise stall progress.

Melissa Rooker shared, “We've engaged with new partners in Kansas. Our Department of Commerce has stepped up to use their economic development incentive programs to help prioritize childcare.”

James Watson described that, in Poughkeepsie, “IBM has a strong base locally, and we were able to work with their community team to work closely with some IBM volunteers to develop a virtual tech Help Desk to support students and families as these devices were going out into the world.”

Hear from James Watson about braiding together public and private resources to overcome bureaucratic hurdles.

Meeting urgent needs isn’t the same thing as building sustainable solutions that create a better “new normal” for the future, including capacity to meet the next crisis. Identifying strategies for long-term improvement and transformation includes starting with focused initiatives, such as the individual success plans and universal digital access that Poughkeepsie is pursuing.

As James Watson described, “some of the early wins [around digital learning] really seeded some kind of more strategic, kind of higher level thinking about digital learning and some kind of broader community conversations around universal broadband access and really tackling the digital gap in a systemic way. And what emerged out of that was one of our cabinet member organizations, which actually our local Youth Build affiliate, took the initiative to start to do some deeper research into Wi-Fi Mesh Networks and public Wi-Fi networks that different cities have taken on and they are spearheading a Poughkeepsie community Wi-Fi project that already is putting equipment out in the community that is opening up free Wi-Fi to the community.”

Also, hear from Rob Watson how the Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet is using individual success plans to drive longer-term change.


Resources from the webinar:


* This dialogue was conceived as part of the LCCN summer series and expanded to include participants in the State Children’s Cabinet Network. The LCCN is co-sponsored by the Children’s Funding Project, the Education Redesign Lab, and the Forum for Youth Investment.