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County report paints portrait of Valley

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In recent years, Sonoma has been recognized by one or another reviewing entity as the nation’s first Citta Slow city, one of America’s friendliest cities, one of its most romantic cities, a best Fourth of July city, and on and on.

But most Sonomans might argue that none of those titles define their town.

Which could lead to the question: Just what is a true portrait of Sonoma? Recently, county officials have provided some kind of answer.

It’s not a simple answer and it’s filled with contradictory and paradoxical components, but if all the pieces are assembled into a statistically accurate and comprehensible whole, a picture emerges that begins to define the town in ways not seen before.

That picture, formally titled “A Portrait of Sonoma County,” was unveiled Wednesday evening before a packed meeting at the Sonoma Valley Grange.

The answer provided is embedded in a year-long statistical analysis conducted by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services (DHS), leaning heavily on research already completed by Measure of America, a nationwide survey of health, education and living standards, census tract by census tract, all across the country.

The ultimate purpose is to create a Human Development Index, or HDI, to show the quality of life in every neighborhood, ranked from 1 to 10, with 10 indicating that a community has fully realized its potential.

The nationwide HDI averaged out to 5.07. For California, the rating was 5.39 and for Sonoma County it reached 5.42.

Asian Americans, as a racial group, ranked 7.10, whites ranked 6.01, African Americans ranked 4.68 and Latinos came in at 4.27.

Broken down for Sonoma Valley, the highest HDI is the census tract labeled Downtown Sonoma, with a level of 6.95, and the lowest is in the tract called Fetters Springs/Agua Caliente West, with a rating of 3.41.

Those two tracts make for a stark comparison when compared side-by-side.

The Downtown tract is 14.4 percent Latino, has school enrollment of 86 percent, a median income of $42,835 with 53 percent of the workforce in management occupations and an average household size of 2.1 persons.

The Fetters census tract has a Latino population of 66.4 percent, with 68 percent school enrollment, median earnings of just $19,444 and an average household size of 4.5 persons.

An even more dramatic comparison was revealed when two schools from sharply different neighborhoods in Sonoma Valley and Petaluma were compared side-by-side.

Grant Elementary School in Petaluma was composed of 82 percent white students, 7 percent Latino and 11 percent other, and just 10 percent of the students come from a disadvantaged background. Only 2 percent of Grant students were English-language learners, 75 percent were proficient in English, 78 percent were proficient in math and 83 percent were proficient in science.

By contrast, El Verano School, in the Springs, has a 76 percent Latino population, 18 percent white and 6 percent other. Fully 80 percent of El Verano students come from a disadvantaged background, 67 percent are English-language learners, and their English proficiency was measured at 21 percent, with 27 percent proficient in math and 40 percent proficient in science.

Noting these results, Brian Vaughn, who is director of health policy, planning and evaluation for DHS, made one of the evening’s most salient observations. “Education,” said Vaughn, “is the biggest single driver to reduce disparities between neighborhoods.”

Throughout the statistical analysis, patterns emerged defining how one demographic quality influences another. Life expectancy figures provided a real surprise.

Spread across Sonoma County, the HDI analysis revealed that men live an average of 78.9 years, 85 percent of whom have at least a high school diploma and have a median income of $34,000 a year.

Women, by contrast, live to be 83 years old, have a high school diploma rate of 89 percent, but have median income of only $26,000 a year indicating a persistent, if not surprising, disparity in women’s wages that triggered an eruption of hisses from the audience.

But what was surprising was the fact that, despite dramatic differences in education and income, Latinos live significantly longer than whites.

In that Downtown Sonoma census tract, life expectancy is 80.4 years, while in the Fetters Springs tract it is 81.8 years.

That difference, Vaughn explained, is a result of the “Latino health paradox,” which reveals that Latinos smoke less, drink to excess less and have stronger family ties and social support.

Another surprise that exploded a prevalent myth revealed that white and Latino ninth-graders have nearly identical high school graduation rates four years later. But where they diverge sharply is in early school years, when 41 percent of white students read proficiently, compared to just 7 percent of Latino students. As a result, the combined reading proficiency data places Sonoma Valley with the lowest rating in the county, at 21 percent.

The statistics are many and diverse, but they all point to places where discrepancies exist between neighborhoods and where, according to 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who also addressed the gathering, action can be taken to level the playing field.

“We want to achieve our goal of being the healthiest county in California by 2020,” she said, admitting that it may be ambitious, but it’s “incredibly important.”

Next steps involve more meetings to inform the public, and community organizations about the date and the steps that can be taken to reduce disparities, helping communities absorb the data and share efforts to address the issues revealed, and then, promoting opportunities for action and the funding needed to make it happen.

The entire report is available online at measureofamerica.org/sonoma/. Organizers have promised that more meetings will be scheduled and announced in the weeks ahead.