Ben Romo loves his job, but can’t wait to start the next one.
For the last seven years, Romo has headed the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s Center for Community Education. At the end of November, however, he’ll begin his new job as executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. The retiring First 5 director, Pat Wheatley, has served since the organization was established as a result of voter-approved Proposition 10 in 1998.
“My experience here at the County Education Office has been life changing for me,” Romo told Noozhawk. “This is the most amazing group of people I’ve worked with in my career.”
Under his leadership, the Center for Community Education has tripled in size and services have increased for programs that include Santa Barbara Partners in Education, AmeriCorps Literacy Tutors, volunteer recruitment, and transitional services for homeless and foster youth.
“We’ve really expanded because people have seen our ability to use investments well and effectively, and build a system of support for the future,” Romo said.
But he says his work has made him realize how difficult the schools’ jobs are since poverty is so prevalent.
“We as a society put mandates on schools that distract them from their primary job,” he explained. “More and more, we expect them to act as social workers.”
Romo is moving from a K-12-centered job to one with a prenatal-to-preschool focus, which he’s experienced firsthand with his daughter Ruby, who is now 5 and attending kindergarten.
“There’s no way to experience what it takes to raise a child except to do it,” he said.
At any given time, there are about 35,000 children in Santa Barbara County from newborn to age 5. According to Romo, one in five of them is living below the federal poverty level of $20,000 income for a four-person household.
First 5’s mission is to support those children and their families through health, family strengthening (case management), early education and child care.
The 0-to-5 age range is the first and best chance to positively affect the life of a child through adulthood, Romo said. Chances to succeed can increase exponentially with family support and a good learning environment in that time.
“In 1978, when I was 5, two-thirds of the available jobs needed a high school diploma,” he said. “Now, two-thirds of the available jobs require a bachelor’s degree, or an associate’s degree, or at least some college.”
Santa Barbara County’s social services system is made up of government, public education and nonprofit organizations, but the agencies don’t always align. With his experience at the County Education Office, Romo said he hopes to help increase direct services to the high-need populations.
In today’s world, the challenges are so daunting that they need to be met as a community, and no one group or agency can solve the problems alone, he said.
First 5 already has strong partnerships with schools, nonprofits and other organizations, including the countywide THRIVE program.
It provides stipends to preschool teachers for professional development and has helped many child-care centers gain national accreditation. In fact, Santa Barbara County now has 32 accredited centers, up from six in 2003 — 21 percent of the total services available. That’s compared to a statewide average of just 4 percent, Romo said.
Transitional kindergarten is providing a cost-effective alternative for parents who can’t afford preschool, and will hopefully introduce more students to the classroom early, he said. Getting access to child care for poor families is crucial too, since they can’t work if they have to take care of the children all day, he added.
Romo knows about the value of human capital, and hopes to broaden the community engagement and involvement in First 5.
“The ‘fund us and we’ll fix it’ mentality” won’t work anymore,” he said. “It needs to be a community-based approach.”
As a quasi-independent government agency, First 5 receives taxpayer and philanthropic dollars.
One of Romo’s primary roles will be making sure that money is spent with maximum efficiency and maximum outcomes, he said. First 5 uses an evidence-based approach and a lot of data to back up its programming, so it can change course if something doesn’t work.
“Every single dollar we spend has to be spent with maximum efficiency and maximum outcomes,” he said. “If we want requests for additional support to be credible, we have to prove that we’re yielding an excellent return on those investments.”
Romo begins work as First 5 Santa Barbara County’s executive director on Nov. 26, and will be training with Wheatley — whom he has known since 1998 — for three weeks to make the transition to the new job.
Meanwhile, at the County Education Office, Michelle Magnusson, the organization’s volunteer coordinator and program development and accountability manager, will serve as acting interim director while the replacement process gets under way.