UW and community partners move forward on a project to improve life for Seattle children.

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King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he was shocked to see the percentage of youth who say they’ve contemplated suicide. Satterberg is part of a group of community leaders joined in an effort to do something to improve the lives of children in a coordinated, results-based way.

He was reacting to the kinds of statistics that prompted King County to create its Best Starts for Kids initiative, and for the city of Seattle to invest more in early education. More and more, community leaders are realizing that helping children and families can prevent a whole range of costly social problems and build stronger communities.

And now there is Communities in Action, which is focusing on two areas where improvement is desperately needed, mental health and violence.

Every other year the state surveys students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades, and last year in one area of Southeast Seattle, 18.7 percent of sixth-graders said they have seriously considered suicide. And 30.5 percent of eighth-graders said they had sometimes stopped their usual activities because they felt sad or hopeless.

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In the same survey, 30.9 percent of eighth-graders said they had been in a physical fight in the past 12 months and 28.3 percent of sixth-graders said they’d been bullied in the past 30 days.

The project intends to reduce those percentages using scientifically proven methods. It grew out of the Communities That Care model for fostering good outcomes and preventing bad ones for children, a system created by two University of Washington professors, David Hawkins and Rico Catalano.

Their system has been used around the world for years with verifiably positive results, and now it’s here in their backyard, with the University of Washington School of Social Work playing a leading role.

Margaret Spearmon, whose new title at the school is chief officer of community engagement and diversity, said last year was spent gathering data and bringing together community leaders from government, social-service agencies, schools, faith-based groups and more.

Wednesday morning the community leaders gathered at the New Holly Gathering Hall in Southeast Seattle to unveil the action plan they’ve put together.

They decided early on to focus first on Central and Southeast Seattle because that’s where the data showed the greatest need for prevention programs. Spearman said they created their own boundaries, Union Street to South 115th Street, and between Interstate 5 and Lake Washington.

Then they divided that area into five regions, each centered on a high school, Rainier Beach, Cleveland, Franklin and Garfield.

They found 168 programs serving children and families in the area that address some part of the priorities the project adopted (mental health and violence), then looked to see which programs had been evaluated and found effective.

Not surprisingly, they found a lot of programs aren’t rigorously evaluated, partly because they don’t usually have money for that. But a key part of the Communities in Action model is that every program, every tool has to be proved effective at getting the desired result.

They chose to start with three programs that have been proven elsewhere:

Guiding Good Choices, which increases family engagement and reduces the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs;

The Incredible Years, which reduces anti-social behavior and improves the quality of parent-child relationships; and

LifeSkills Training, which improves commitment to school and decreases drug use.

The programs address different age groups, and each is designed not just to prevent bad behavior but to also promote good behavior.

At Wednesday’s gathering, people who signed on as leaders and community board members discussed aspects of the project. Satterberg said the criminal-justice system sees the symptoms of mental illness but doesn’t have the tools for addressing it.

King County Superior Court Judge LeRoy McCullough agreed: “By the time they get to us, a lot of the damage has been done.”

Early next year, the project will move from planning to implementation, first in the area around Rainier Beach High School, where data show the greatest need. And as the project grows, those shocking statistics should begin to shrink. And we’ll have more children growing into adults who make positive contributions to their families and communities.