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Strengths, Weaknesses of Casey Program Detailed

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A pathbreaking effort to change the way schools and agencies work with at-risk youths failed to boost the numbers of young people who stayed in school, got jobs, and avoided early pregnancies, a new study shows.

But the Annie E. Casey Foundation's ambitious New Futures program encouraged more agencies, educators, and citizens to cooperate in ways that may someday help turn those numbers around, the study concludes.

When the Baltimore-based Casey Foundation launched New Futures in 1988, it was one of the most comprehensive efforts to combine school reform with a mandate to meet family needs more coherently. (See Education Week, 9/25/91.)

The foundation committed a total of $50 million to five cities over five years to form local governing bodies that could craft policies to respond more effectively to troubled youths.

The study, conducted by the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy, sheds light on many of the roadblocks that impede efforts to bring people and agencies together to strengthen families, schools, and communities. It also illustrates the difficulty of taking on human-services reform and school restructuring at the same time.

Too little was known about collaborative strategies when New Futures began, the study maintains. It also says the guidance Casey provided the cities was not always appropriate to local needs.

In addition, the study concludes, the New Futures framers underestimated the difficulty of forging consensus across a wide swath of institutions, much less changing how they do business.

"People were in retrospect quite naive about what they could accomplish," even with significant funding and support from top officials, said Gary Wehlage, the associate director of the Center on the Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Mr. Wehlage directed the study's school-reform part.

More Time, More Measures

The report from the social-policy center says it may take years for efforts like New Futures to reap the dramatic results the project initially sought. But it also stresses that poor performance in terms of dropout or employment rates does not mean that significant steps were not made in changing the status quo.

"People are going to read the bottom line that dropout and teen-pregnancy rates did not decrease, but that is not the end of the story," said Cheryl Rogers, a senior associate at the center. "The New Futures experience showed that communities can make substantial inroads by forming new collaborative groups."

The study also concludes that the severity of the problems facing cities and young people demand the kind of broad-based collaboration the project encouraged.

In the draft of a separate report on New Futures, the Casey Foundation recommends that funders set longer timetables for planning, implementing, and refining their strategies. It also stresses the need to allow more time before expecting results and to gauge success using a broader range of long- and short-term guideposts.

The foundation also argues that even more comprehensive coalitions will be needed to address deep-seated problems of poverty, housing, crime, and joblessness.

Significant Steps

Under New Futures, the foundation initially awarded grants of from $5 million to $12.5 million to Dayton, Ohio; Pittsburgh; Little Rock, Ark.; Savannah, Ga.; and Lawrence, Mass. Lawrence, which failed to reach consensus on how to proceed, withdrew after 18 months. It was later replaced by Bridgeport, Conn.

Although the grant period ended in 1993, the foundation encouraged each city to extend the project and gave an additional $1 million over two years to Savannah and Little Rock.

The collaborative bodies set up in each city were required to match the Casey money dollar for dollar. They were also expected to set up case-management services to coordinate and personalize aid for young people. Another central feature was to develop sophisticated information systems to track student outcomes.

Among the other findings of the social-policy center's evaluation are:

Annual dropout rates did not improve and in fact worsened over the five-year grant period.
The cities made measurable gains in improving students' performance on standardized tests. But the achievement gap between black and white students remained wide: black students fared much worse than white students.
None of the cities was able to reduce its rates of teenage pregnancy and parenthood. But the proportion of sexually active teenagers declined, and the reported use of birth control increased over all.
None of the cities showed an increase in the number of high school seniors accepted for college or who had lined up full-time jobs. In both areas, those percentages fell by the fifth year.

The study emphasizes that the New Futures data corresponded to national trends during that period, which was marked by an economic recession.

Conflicts and Cooperation

But the study also cites conflicts that arose between schools and human-service providers with differing expectations. Both camps also had trouble moving beyond "add on" programs that helped many individuals, but did not change systems.

The evaluation stresses, though, that collaboratives in every city made significant progress in raising awareness about the problems of at-risk youths, forming rich data systems, and creating a new body of knowledge on collaboration.

The social-policy center also says New Futures forged cooperation between people and groups who had never worked together before. Besides helping families, the report says, these steps have paid off in other ways, such as the creation of a comprehensive neighborhood center in Savannah and stronger efforts to combat gang violence in Little Rock.

The social-policy center and the Casey Foundation both suggest that local players must be more involved than the original New Futures design allowed.

Casey Foundation officials suggest that New Futures at times was prematurely and unfairly judged. But they concede they did not communicate their vision well enough or build enough "interim benchmarks" into the process to help the sites keep on track.

Policymakers have struggled, though, to determine which kinds of changes in communities and families are likely to augur long-term success, noted Lisbeth B. Schorr, the director of the project on effective services at Harvard University. "That's what people doing social science and evaluation in this field should be devoting a lot of their energy and wisdom to."

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