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Q&A: Chris Watney

A check-in with the president and CEO of the Colorado Children's Campaign.

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For the past 13 years, Chris Watney has been with the Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC), and spent the last six as its president and CEO. She joined the organization after a career in politics, where she worked at the Department of Justice for Attorneys General Janet Reno and John Ashcroft and was first inspired to focus on child welfare and education.

Every spring, the CCC publishes its report, Kids Count in Colorado!, a comprehensive collection of data about how well our state and its systems are serving our most vulnerable population. I recently sat down with Watney to discuss the most recent legislative session’s impact on her organization’s work, what’s ahead, and how she and the CCC are striving to improve the lives of all of Colorado’s kids.

5280: The busiest part of your calendar parallels the legislative sessions and the school year. How do you spend the summer months?

Chris Watney: Summer is a fun time because we get to visit communities and have conversations about what’s going on behind the numbers. It’s also when we share our Kids Count data. We break it down by county, and people love it when we visit them and do a deep dive on it. We visit some of the same communities each year but always try to add new ones as well.

How did you land at CCC in the first place?

I’ve always felt really strongly about the underdog, and I was drawn to CCC because of its focus on kids. Janet Reno always spun her policy speeches toward children’s issues, and it planted a seed for me about prevention over punishment. I also worked on the Oklahoma City bombing case and spent a lot of time thinking about what made Timothy McVeigh into the person who did what he did. He wasn’t born evil, but it was a series of progressions that turned him into the person who committed those crimes. I got really interested in studying the paths that lead to that.

I also have master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Northern Colorado and a very small private counseling practice. I really think that’s important because at CCC we work on policies and making changes at the systemic level, but my practice allows me to sit down with someone and hear their stories. It’s my personal check-in about the broader work we do at CCC.

Your focus at CCC has always centered on children in poverty, along with health care and early childhood and K-12 education. What are the links between these issues?

Family economics is an umbrella issue. Poverty in a family affects every other element of a child’s life. Some communities have persistent or generational poverty. Places that have figured that out often have better safety nets in place such as health care clinics or childcare. Where we’ve seen communities struggle is often because the recent “suburbanization” of poverty has made this issue new to these places, so they might not have as many safety nets set up. For example, on average Douglas County has always been one of best places to be a kid, but it has seen its poverty rates increase in past decade. And one of the highest percentages of childhood poverty in our state is here in Denver. Our community is becoming very economically divided, but there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily see it every day. A lot of people are doing really well here, and it often covers up those who aren’t. When I give Kids Count presentations, the rural communities usually have a pretty good handle on their economic issues. It’s people in urban or suburban areas who are more shocked that such a level of poverty persists in their cities.

What were some of the highlights of the past legislative session?

The Pay for Success model passed. These social impact bonds allow for outside investments in measures such as early childhood education that have usually been funded by government. Colorado is one of first five states to have it.

We also were pleased that we held onto strong K-12 standards and assessments. There has been a lot of conversation and misperceptions around Common Core. This year we really laid the groundwork that Common Core is an important set of standards that gives a lot of freedom to allow schools and districts to figure out how to meet the requirements. There was debate around getting rid of statewide standards (PARCC) in favor of local alternatives. But we think statewide standards are important because they give you great data to compare.

These tests create a level playing field and ensure that students can be compared to each other in an apples-to-apples way. Once parents really understand what the data is about, they usually want it, too. There will be some pushback when the data comes out later and it shows that some kids aren’t doing as well as their parents thought. But having that data is really important. The more kids opt out of these tests, the less rich our data is, and the struggling kids are the ones who tend to get left out.

What do expect will be the primary issues for you in the upcoming legislative session?

Now that the standards and assessments are in place and we’ve made so many policy changes in education, teachers and students are being pushed to do a lot of things differently. We’ll start to hear about what works and where the policies might need to be adjusted. But we need to make sure we’re using every opportunity to helps these districts that are doing good work, because if we don’t we’re going to go backwards.

What other related issues are you beginning to explore?

We think a lot about family, friend, and neighbor care. You can’t say it’s not quality care, but we don’t know for sure. We need to think about ways to get kids into more licensed childcare, while also instructing caregivers who aren’t interested in getting licensed how we can help them provide higher-quality care. Every year we get more brain research that says ages zero-to-three are when we get all our neural connections. I can’t blame parents for getting whatever childcare they need to keep their job, but for kids who can’t be in a licensed care setting where they have those requirements, what are they getting from zero-to-three, and what are those ramifications for a lifetime? It’s not that bad things are happening to these kids; it’s that not much is happening. If we can reach into those homes and say, Did you know about this?, we should be able to help more families.

Editor’s Note: 5280′s Publisher, Remy Spreeuw, is the chair of the CCC board.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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