Reality Tempers 'New Futures' Leaders' Optimism

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Three years after the Annie E. Casey Foundation committed $50 million to an ambitious five-year effort to raise student achievement and stem dropout rates, teenage pregnancy, and youth unemployment in five cities, project participants' initial enthusiasm and optimism has been tempered by a healthy dose of reality.

"This was the first time we had a five-year commitment and a sense of quite a bit of money to work with" to address youth issues comprehensively, recalled James Van Vleck, a retired Mead Corporation senior vice president and the chairman of the interagency collaborative overseeing the grant in Dayton, Ohio. "It made us think it was going to be a piece of cake," he said. But Casey Foundation executives and project leaders now admit that the "piece of cake" was much bigger and more difficult to digest than they had first imagined.

They recount story after story about how complicated it has been to coordinate the efforts of a wide range of youth-serving institutions, including schools and human-service agencies.

They talk about the difficulties of implementing change from the top down and of the price to be paid for not including educators fully in the process. And they tick off the problems that come with expecting results too quickly and now acknowledge that it will take much longer than originally anticipated to bring about lasting change.

"As we've sobered up and faced the issues," Mr. Van Vleck said, "we have found that getting collaboration between those players is a much more complicated and difficult game than we expected."

The "New Futures" grants were awarded in July 1988 to Dayton, Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Ark., Savannah, Ga., and Lawrence, Mass.

Collaborative organizations established under the grants were charged with developing a sophisticated management-information system to gather data on city youngsters and with setting strategies for reforming schools and coordinating services to more effectively aid troubled youths.

One city--Lawrence--was dropped from the project at the end of the second year, although the Casey Foundation continues to fund some related activities there. And officials elsewhere, while citing progress, acknowledge that their ultimate goals remain elusive.

"Anybody who doesn't admit to disappointment so far would not be realistic," Mr. Van Vleck said.

"An awful lot of things have taken longer to jell than we expected," said Ira Cutler, the associate director of the foundation and the director of the New Futures project.

Midway through the five-year timetable set under the program, evaluation data reveal only modest-and, in some cases, no-progress on key indicators, and improvements cannot necessarily be keyed to project interventions. (See related story, this page.)

In a draft paper under review for publication, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison concluded that none of the sites has set in motion school reforms broad enough to substantially alter the outcomes for at-risk youths.

In most cases, project officials say, agencies are only now naming the agreements needed to ease bureaucratic barriers that have thwarted progress in providing aid.

"New Futures has not yet fundamentally influenced many of the factors that cause failure among youth," concluded a midpoint project review by the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy.

'Starts and Restarts'

Project leaders, principals, teachers, and social workers in the New Futures cities sketch a scenario of a management structure that asked too much, too fast, and altered course too many times.

'The people who dealt with it on a front-line basis felt the most consistent thing we had was change," said Dale E. Frederick, one of three lead principals in the Dayton school district.

"We asked people to focus on a series of different problems, asked them to do it tomorrow, when there was no precedent for people doing this," Mr. Cutler said. "Each of the cities has had some false starts and restarts."

Lawrence was dropped from New Futures when it became apparent that the school department and the interagency board overseeing the project could not forge consensus. And officials in other cities, while reporting some success in forging collaboration and helping to mend the troubled lives of some youths and families, say systemic change is still many years away.

"This is tough stuff--it's not going to be a quick fix," said Kathleen J. Emery, executive director of the New Futures project in Dayton.

But many key players still feel they are on the right course.

"I don't think anybody thinks we are on the wrong track," Mr. Van Vleck said.

"What has changed," according to a new plan for the second half of Dayton's New Futures project, "is our understanding and acceptance that this is not a 5- or even 10-year effort, but a 15- to 20-year process of retooling and reshaping the youth-service system."

Program officials are hopeful that efforts to help cities gather extensive data on youths and that the dialogues that have begun, the agreements that have been forged, and the new plans that have been charted in recent months will reap long-term gains.

But while such accomplishments are "a big step forward," Mr. Van Vleck said, "I think we are going to continue to be frustrated with what we can actually measure."

Since project weaknesses and strengths vary from site to site, no one city is representative of the entire effort. But Dayton's experience sheds light on many issues observers say are likely to influence the course for New Futures cities in the next two years.

Numerical Goals

As at all the project sites, a collaborative organization was formed in Dayton to identify youth problems and barriers to service and to set goals for addressing them. The 20-member body, called New Futures for Dayton Area Youth, includes representatives of youth-serving agencies, the school system and teachers' union, community organizations, universities, hospitals, and businesses.

A nonprofit corporation, Community Connections, was formed to manage the social-services piece.

As in the other cities, the school-reform component is targeted at middle schools. The Nettie Lee Roth Middle School and the Wilbur Wright Middle School were initially selected as pilots, and the Kiser Middle School was added last year.

All three schools serve large numbers of students from poor, multi-problem families, and Wilbur Wright has the highest dropout, truancy, and juvenile-court-referral rates of any school in the city.

Broad goals set for the five years included raising to 80 percent the high-school graduation rate for students in the pilot schools from the district's estimated rate of 65 percent at the outset; lowering to 20 percent the dropout rate, which was 35 percent; reducing to 10 percent the teenage-pregnancy rate, which was 12 percent for the city; and raising to 80 percent the rate of youths considered "active"--employed or in school or the military--which was roughly 65 percent.

Year-by-year goals were also set for raising test scores, reducing expulsions and suspensions, and improving attendance rates. Elements of the plan included:

  • The "clustering" of core-subject teachers to coordinate activities for a common group of students.
  • Home-based guidance periods for greater interaction between teachers and small groups of students.
  • Interdisciplinary units designed to focus on problem solving. . After-school tutorial activities. . A fund for incentives, such as T-shirts, pizza parties, and outings, for improvements in achievement, attendance, or behavior.
  • Case managers, known as "community associates," for each student in the pilot schools to arrange support services and to track the student's needs through high school.
  • Youth-service centers at the pilot schools.
  • Full-time, school-based nurses.

Beyond 'Add On' Programs

The youth-service centers never materialized beyond the assignment of some mental-health workers and the temporary placement of some child-welfare and juvenile-court personnel in schools. The home-based guidance period was dropped this year.

Other interventions, while beneficial to some students, have not fundamentally changed the way schools work or addressed the root causes of school failure, project evaluations say.

'The biggest challenge is to move beyond the 'add on' nature of many of these initiatives," concluded the midpoint project review conducted by the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

The analysis conducted by the University of Wisconsin researchers noted that the extended-day programs, while offering enrichment and less formal teacher-student interaction, did not "serve as the foundation upon which more fundamental school changes might arise."

The interdisciplinary units also "served mainly as a break from business as usual built around field trips or other special events," added the researchers, led by Gary Wehlage, the associate director of the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools and the head of the school part of the New Futures evaluation.

The draft paper said working relationships and grouping practices linked with clustering, which began in Dayton prior to New Futures, have offered more support for youths with academic problems.

But "it has not yet led teachers and administrators to introduce new forms of curricula and instruction nor to establish in a systematic way more supportive relations with students," the paper said.

While making valuable inroads in "turning around" the lives of some youths, the case-management part of the project has also suffered from growing pains, observers say.

Plan Revised

Faced with the unpredictability of student mobility, limited budgets to serve youths with multiple needs, and pressure from the foundation to build stronger interagency bonds, the collaborative revised the plan in the second year to limit the ratio of caseworkers to students and to refer more of those identified as having problems to other service agencies.

Mr. Wehlage's paper also noted that, while helping to raise schools' awareness of the impact of family problems on achievement, community associates have not been in a position to sway policy.

"Case managers typically have been asked by the school to help students adjust to unquestioned institutional policies and practices," the paper concluded.

James Williams, promoted from deputy superintendent to superintendent of the Dayton schools in June, said he "had a lot of confidence in the project from the beginning." But he also had nagging doubts. Some of his reservations, he said, reflect "my frustrations about any at-risk program." Such programs, he said, often favor rewards over strict rules and discipline and require too many "labels"to qualify.

He also believes the project "took the wrong approach" in targeting middle-school students.

"If we're talking about long-term solutions," he said, "we must start at kindergarten or much earlier."

Mr. Williams met on his own recently with other agency leaders to discuss channeling existing funds to such interventions as health screening for young children and training for parents.

'Blue in the Face'

But beyond his doubts about any one initiative, Mr. Williams voiced a deeper frustration about involving players from outside the schools in formulating education policy.

"Everyone is saying they can run education except the people who can do it," he said. "You can't just pull a group of people together from the community to try to tell educators what to do."

That approach, he maintained, runs counter to school reforms aimed at giving individual principals and teachers more autonomy.

"I'm trying to get rid of bureaucracy and we're building bureaucracy," said Mr. Williams, adding that he has aired his concerns with other members of the collaborative.

"I've fussed and argued until I'm blue in the face for four years," he said. "I would leave those meetings frustrated, with headaches."

While still "committed"to seeing through a new plan drafted for the remainder of the project, Mr. Williams said he would not stake his school district's success on the outcome of New Futures.

"I'm not running the school system based on the Casey grant," he said. "My interest is in 50 schools; I'm not looking at [only] two or three."

Push for Implementation

While other players in the New Futures initiative cast it in a more optimistic light, many issues raised by Mr. Williams surfaced in interviews with foundation and community leaders, parents, teachers, and social workers.

A common reason cited for why the program has not made more progress is that it moved too quickly.

"They wanted to see some positive numbers registered immediately," said Mr. Frederick, a lead principal overseeing the New Futures pilot schools in Dayton.

Susanne A. Weaver, a parent who serves on the New Futures collaborative, said pressure to put plans in place rapidly precluded a "total buyin" from parents, teachers, students, social workers, and other grassroots players.

"There wasn't the luxury of sitting back and letting it grow and really sharing," she said.

Jewell K. Garrison, executive director of Community Connections, said community associates entered schools two weeks after being hired.

"We went into the building ill prepared for what the building had to offer," she said.

In Dayton and other project cities, officials also observed that teachers were not well prepared to collaborate with the social-services liaisons.

Donald Crary, executive director of the New Futures project in Little Rock, said "we ran into quite a bit of conflict" with teachers who wondered: "Who are these people and what are they going to do?'"

Ms. Emery, the executive director of the New Futures project in Dayton, said one pilot school there recently began working with the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., to develop a school-restructuring plan.

"If we could rewrite history," she said, "we would have done that the first year."

In Little Rock, too, noted Mr. Crary, "there was such a push early on to get this thing up and running. ... It's only been in the last year that the collaborative's been able to step back from that enough that it could really start looking at institutional reform."

"If we had used at least the first six months to plan and to do a lot of the bridge-building and coordination that we had to struggle with through the first year," added Otis Johnson, executive director of the board overseeing New Futures in Savannah, "I think it would have been much smoother."

In hindsight, said Douglas W. Nelson, executive director of the Casey Foundation, "We would have probably given a longer initial planning period."

"We made it more difficult, in the interest of using the urgency of the moment and the excitement of commitment, to include and get ownership at more levels," he said.

Top-Down Approach Cited

As a result, project participants say, New Futures was orchestrated by the foundation and collaborative with little initial input from teachers, principals, and social workers.

The project organization essentially put a program together and wound up "giving it to the workers and telling them to go with it," said Robert French, a member of both the Dayton school board and the New Futures collaborative.

"As the foundation got more involved, its initial posture of 'You tell us how you want to do these things' changed and became 'Here's how we think you ought to be doing that,'" Mr. Frederick, the Dayton principal, said.

Dayton has a "pretty good history" of collaboration at the policy and executive-leadership level, Ms. Emery said, but less attention was paid to assuring collaboration among "the folks who work with the kids."

"It's a real tricky juggling act," Mr. Cutler of the Casey Foundation said. "You want to include everyone you possibly can; on the other hand, it gets unwieldy if it's too big."

Many also agree that schools should have been more involved.

"We knew our school was going to participate in this program, but none of the decisions as to how things would be done involved the people who were going to be working with the students on a day-to-day basis," said Anita E. Jones, an 8th-grade math teacher at Roth Middle School. "We did not adequately involve teachers in framing the program, and that was a mistake," Mr. Van Vleck of Dayton said.

Officials in other cities acknowledge similar missteps.

"There was very little conversation or buy-in obtained from the local school building," Mr. Crary of Little Rock said.

"We made a fundamental mistake in not bringing in principals in the original planning process," Mr. Johnson of Savannah said.

Barbara Zeimetz, a former interim director of the New Futures project in Lawrence and now the deputy director of the city department of training and development, suggested that failure to garner the full backing of the school system contributed to the breakup of the project there.

School officials in Lawrence resented acting "at the behest of what they saw as people coming in from the outside," she observed.

There was also tension in some New Futures cities over how project resources should be spent.

In Lawrence, "principals had a certain set of expectations as to what the Casey dollars were to bring about... which weren't necessarily the same as what the Casey Foundation had," noted Pat Karl, program coordinator for the Lawrence Youth Commission, which is carrying out parent-training and youth-career activities still funded by the foundation.

The foundation was focused on systemic change and "wanted to see the model be successful before expanding it to all schools," she said, while principals "saw the need for day-to-day and immediate resources for their kids."

"The pull between those two attitudes was never resolved," she added. At the other sites as well, some also suggested that sometimes teachers lacked the time, if not the will, to devote to the undertaking.

"Even good teachers are essentially retreating to their own rooms and trying to do the best they can," Mr. Van Vleck of Dayton said.

'Whip-Sawed Around'

Cheryl Rogers, a senior research associate with the Center for the Study of Social Policy, also noted that "there was no real concerted, sustained staff-development program" to bolster teachers' role in reform.

The Center for Leadership in School Reform led some institutes for school staff members and offered more intensive training, she said, but those plans "got caught up in the bureaucracy."

Leading players in New Futures also acknowledge that the numerical project goals were unrealistic.

"More of us know today that those projections were beyond what we could realistically expect to achieve in the original time frame ," Mr. Nelson of the Casey Foundation said.

"I don't think anybody would deny that the measures set out at the beginning were not particularly appropriate," said Sue Elling, the executive director of the Dayton-Montgomery County Public Education Fund and a member of the collaberative's schoolsuccess committee.

"We tackled some very large systemic problems at a time when major agencies and systems are being challenged internally and externally," said Nancy K. Schiffer, the group vice president of the United Way of Dayton and a board of directors member of Community Connections.

"Constant evaluation" and re-evaluation of project components also resulted in frequent policy shifts, Mr. Frederick of Dayton observed.

"We were always responding to ... either the collaborative or the foundation," he said. "It was illustrating for teachers who were not understanding why the changes were occurring."

Others suggest that elements of the social-services component were not given enough time to work..

"We would have our plans organized and be ready to move, and the staff would respond, and then they'd have to switch gears and go in a different direction," Ms. Schiffer said. "The staff was feeling whip-sawed around."

'Dearly Needed Partner'

Mr. Cutler of the Casey Foundation maintained that the foundation "always saw two roles for case management "one directed at forming ties with individual students and one aimed at forging links among agencies.

"Maybe we didn't communicate the latter as much," he said.

An April 1990 status report on Dayton from the Center for the Study of Social Policy said the shift in the community associates' role at first "caused some confusion and anxiety" among school staff members and families, who feared it would limit associates' contact with students.

Besides serving as counselors and role models, the community associates "also spent considerable time as teacher aides, helping out in classrooms, in the halls and lunchroom whenever they could," the report said.

The associates gave teachers "a partner they dearly needed," Ms. Garrison of Dayton's Community Connections said, and provided a base of sustained support for families.

"One of the things [troubled youths] need to prosper is a consistent adult--the families and students were given that promise," she said. "We had to go back to them every year with different interpretation of that promise."

Ms. Weaver, the parent serving on the New Futures board, also cited personnel shifts that hindered program continuity. The Wilbur Wright Middle School, for example, has had three principals in three years.

Competing Systems

New Futures personnel also concede that getting the various systems to collaborate was far more time-consuming than they expected. "The first couple of years [were spent] trying to establish trust, establish boundaries, and come up with a common ground to operate on," Ms. Garrison of Community Connections of said.

While school personnel were sometimes wary of outsiders, social-service personnel also described the rigors of working within the schools--a traditionally closed system.

"Involving people who look at issues from a different perspective has been difficult--and developing a level of trust between two sometimes competing systems," Ms. Garrison said.

Others hinted that not all members of the collaborative were equally receptive to joining forces.

"Some of the agency people will not acknowledge that they have their own barriers," said Kathy Arquilla, supervisor of Community Connections at Roth Middle School.

"You have to try to work through all those differences to build a common language, goals, values," Ms. Emery, the executive director of the New Futures project in Dayton, said.

Second-Phase Plan

Despite the missteps and the disappointments, most involved with the effort say they are prepared to continue the process.

"We are more convinced than ever that we are struggling to do the appropriate thing," said Mr. Van Vleck, the Dayton New Futures collaborative chairman.

"I think we're on the right track-not to get great results in the next two years, but to putting a system in place," said Mr. Williams, the school superintendent.

Mr. Frederick, the lead principal, said the pilot schools have been much more involved in planning the project's second phase.

"They listen to us and hear some of what we have to say," said Mozelle Garcia, a vocational-education teacher at Roth Middle School. "If you can convince them this is for the good of kids, they will think about implementing it."

Mr. Nelson, Casey's executive director, also said moves by the foundation to transfer more authority to New Futures cities have increased the "degree of ownership, understanding, and participation."

A plan for the second phase of New Futures in Dayton calls for "creating a bottom-up, building-based reform effort," with interventions tailored to each pilot school.

A component has also been added assigning six case managers to work intensively for two years--between the 8th and 9th grades--with 200 chronically absent students at risk of dropping out.

In addition, the schools are putting in place "youth-service intervention teams" of school health and counseling personnel, administrators, and community associates, and a team of "service brokers" from youth agencies is being formed to help bridge barriers and ease referrals.

In June, 11 agencies serving youths and families in Dayton and Montgomery County--from schools and human-service organizations to the juvenile courts and police-signed interagency agreements establishing liaisons to help bridge barriers. They also agreed to participate in cross-training.

The Casey Foundation, meanwhile, has told New Futures cities that it is willing to extend for up to two years the five-year time frame for spending the grant money, and that it will offer some additional funding "for those with the greatest momentum at the end of the five years," Mr. Nelson said.

'Learn as You Go'

Many who played central roles in New Futures maintain that mistakes made along the way have been part of the learning process.

"New Futures was always meant to be a demonstration to see how this works," Ms. Emery, the executive director of the New Futures project in Dayton, said.

"It was sort of a connect-the-dot process--learn as you go," Ms. Garrison, executive director of Community Connections, said.

The initial missteps and shifts, observed Mr. Nelson of the Casey Foundation, were "a symptom of the evolution of the kind of commitment" needed to spur meaningful change.

"The kind of difference we're going to need to make for poor kids and their families absolutely requires such an innovative and unprecedented scale of effort that lots of them are going to fail," he said. But "nothing is going to make the difference short of that kind of effort."

Foundation and other project officials also praised the project for bringing new attention to youth issues and setting in motion a mechanism for long-term change, and teachers and caseworkers recounted student success stories.

"I've seen kids turn around academically ... and families realize that they can do so many things for themselves that they were not aware of," Ms. Arquilla, also of Dayton's Community Connections, said.

"We found kids who could not see or could not hear" or lacked clothing and food, Ms. Garrison said.

"We helped kids not to run away from home, got families into treatment, and worked with kids who were suicidal or drug dependent," she added.

Ms. Jones, the teacher at Roth, said community associates had more success reaching parents "than we would have just on our own" and made them "more aware of services in the community."

"I don't always know who to get in contact with," said Carolyn Pacely, whose community associate arranged tutorial help for her son.

Many say the effort has also improved interagency communication.

"Before New Futures was initiated, those conversations weren't happening," said Ms. Elling of the Dayton-Montgomery County Public Education Fund.

"Top leaders are coming together on regular basis, they haven't given up,... and they haven't yet alienated the school systems," said Ms. Rogers of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Because many indicators on which New Futures is being judged involve schools, Mr. Cutler of the Casey Foundation said, school systems in the project cities "have felt particularly in the spotlight."

"Each of them in various ways at various times either welcomed or resented all that attention," he said.

Nonetheless, he added, school superintendents and school-board members '"have been consistently at the table and very much involved when they could walk away."

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Pages 1, 12-13, 15

Published in Print: September 25, 1991, as Reality Tempers 'New Futures' Leaders' Optimism
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