Mayor Jim Kenney wants to improve city services for children, and he’s created a new office to do it.

The Office of Children and Families will oversee existing city departments that serve kids, including the mayor’s signature pre-K and community schools programs, and will work closely with the School District of Philadelphia and other city departments to find ways to improve those services.

Kenney signed an executive order creating the office earlier this month, hours after beginning his second term, and appointed Cynthia Figueroa, who has served as the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) commissioner since 2016, as deputy mayor for children and families.

“When you think about the barriers that kids and families face, it’s not only going to be the academic achievement gap,” Figueroa said in an interview. “It’s what’s going on in the home that’s impacting the achievement gap that also needs to be addressed. So instead of doing those in silos, the best interest for our families in Philadelphia is to do that in a collective way.”

Kenney credits Figueroa with transforming DHS, and she will continue to oversee the department in addition to the pre-K and community schools programs funded by the city’s tax on soda and other sweetened beverages. Officials said the new office will find innovative ways for DHS and the School District to work together, expand the pre-K and community schools programs, and convene a so-called children’s cabinet of city leaders from different departments to improve coordination of all services that affect Philadelphia’s kids.

Figueroa said she hopes to push new ideas and big changes, so that by the end of Kenney’s second term, “people are coming to visit us to ask, ‘Wow, look at what Philly was doing, and look what we can bring to our city.’”

Figueroa will oversee a staff of 1,538 city employees — most of whom work for DHS — and will earn an annual salary of $206,000 as deputy mayor. She is transitioning out of her role as DHS commissioner. Kimberly Ali, currently a deputy commissioner of DHS, will become commissioner.

For Kenney, the move marks an effort to cement his legacy by ensuring the future of his pre-K and community schools programs in an official city department.

But Philadelphia is not the only city to take this approach to helping kids: New York, Boston, and some state governments have created children’s cabinets, and Figueroa has been in touch with leaders in those places.

“I think you’re seeing a movement toward really trying to coalesce policies and city departments toward serving kids and families,” said Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff.

Helping DHS work with the School District

When Figueroa began as the city’s DHS commissioner, she said, the services her department provided to kids were largely separate from the School District’s work — even though their efforts often overlapped.

“We would go to multiple meetings with the district and they’re like, ‘Can’t we just have one meeting with you guys where we cover all of this work?’ ” she said.

Coordination has already improved, Figueroa said, in part due to Kenney’s successful push to return the School District to local control. Now, it’s her job to expand those efforts.

One way to better serve kids, she said, is to coordinate DHS case management for kids in its system who attend Philadelphia public schools.

“We have case management work that happens out in the communities,” she said. “There’s so much more opportunity to further strengthen ... meetings and integration of [DHS and School District] staff and all other things that are really going to serve families better.”

An effort already underway is a $100 million contract for behavioral health services in schools, for which the Kenney administration coordinated with several departments and used feedback from teachers and principals. Engler said the city has issued a request for proposals, with plans to have a new streamlined system in place by the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“It feels like there are these big systems that are running,” Figueroa said, “and we’re trying to figure out efficiencies, so it feels a little bit like a start-up.”

Pre-K and community schools

The Office of Children and Families will serve, in part, to make pre-K and community schools “part of the fabric of what the city government does long term,” Engler said.

The pre-K program offers city-funded seats for children with private pre-K providers, and community schools are select public schools that have embedded social services specific to their needs and receive additional resources from the city.

The Kenney administration launched city-funded pre-K and community schools in 2017, after the beverage tax took effect. They were previously part of the Mayor’s Office of Education. The staff working on those programs will now be part of the Office of Children and Families.

Chief education officer Otis Hackney will retain his role and work within the Mayor’s Office, Engler said, handing off the beverage-tax funded programs to Figueroa.

The city is expanding its community schools program to 17 schools this year.

The pre-K program grew to 3,300 seats for the current school year. Figueroa said one of her top priorities is helping expand the program by an additional 1,000 seats in the next school year. Engler said DHS, which has a large staff to manage contracts, is well-qualified to help the city contract with pre-K providers as the program grows.

Engler said the Office of Children and Families will also focus on how to serve kids even before they reach preschool age, offering more resources for parents of children from infancy to age 5.

And Figueroa said she expects more ideas to follow.

“We have an opportunity to think much bigger,” she said. “It’s looking at the concept of what are the barriers and what are bigger issues for children and families that we can bring other departments together to really problem-solve from a data perspective.”