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National Parks as Urban Economic Engines

August 7, 2014
Gettysburg National Military Park. © Dwight Nadig/ISTOCKPHOTO

Gettysburg National Military Park. © Dwight Nadig/ISTOCKPHOTO

Most Americans do not associate our beloved national parks with cities. In fact, urban areas are home to some of our greatest national assets. Parks such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, and the Statue of Liberty in New York City provide essential connections to our collective history, homes to some of our rarest plants and animal species and places where every American can go to find inspiration, fresh air, peace and open space.

Additionally, with 85% of Americans residing in urban areas by the year 2030, it is important that we value and support national parks in urban areas accurately. Of the 401 national parks in all 50 states, the majority of them are located in urban areas.  In the not-too-distant future, urban national parks may provide a majority of Americans with their first and only national park experience.

At present the role of urban parks in the national park system is largely undervalued. National parks provide hours of affordable enjoyment, historical education, and interesting destinations for international visitors who stay longer and spend more freely during their visits. This is especially important as cities work through economic downturns and trade deficits.

According to Forbes, National Parks are visited by nearly 300 million people annually, ranking them eighth among America’s top 25 domestic travel destinations. Near Philadelphia, for example, Gettysburg National Military Park is an important economic generator for the entire region. Over the past two years, it has welcomed more than one million visitors who have spent more than $72 million at local businesses. Park officials expect up to four times as many visitors during the battle’s 150th anniversary this year.

National Parks are the touchstones of our nation’s shared history and culture, span geographic region, ethnic background, age, economic circumstance, and political persuasion, and serve as anchors to greater urban park systems. And beyond that, National Parks are economic engines critical to supporting residential, commercial, and community development; for every dollar invested in National Park operations, $10 is generated for local economies.  And for every two Parks Service jobs, another one job is created outside the park.

National Parks contribute to the physical and aesthetic quality of urban neighborhoods and are valuable contributors to job opportunities, youth development, public health, and community building. National Parks provide affordable, safe, and inspiring places for people to play, exercise, and relax.

However, for all of these benefits, the National Park Service budget has been cut by nearly 8% or $180 million in today’s dollars compared to four years ago, and parks could see ongoing cuts for the foreseeable future. The National Park Service is suffering an annual operations shortfall of approximately $500 million. There are not enough rangers and other staff to care for our national treasures and serve visitors. Parks are falling into disrepair and becoming more vulnerable than ever to inappropriate development within their boundaries. Another cut would mean even fewer rangers, dramatic maintenance reductions, and almost certainly park and site closures.

Further, national parks are truly one of the last non-partisan issues left. They are popular across the full political spectrum: 92 percent of voters think that federal spending on National Parks should be increased or be kept the same.

Support for preserving the economic stability of our communities by protecting National Park budgets from further cuts is one of the wisest decisions a municipal leader can make.

Karen Nozik's Head Shot blogAbout the author: Karen Nozik has served as the Director of Ally Development and Partnerships at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Washington, DC since 2011.  In previous experience, she was Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colorado, and Director of Outreach for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, working with communities to preserve and transform unused rail corridors into trails.

How Pittsburgh Plans to Connect Two Thousand Young People to Health Insurance

August 4, 2014

This is a guest post by Patrick Dowd. Pittsburgh, Pa. is one of eight cities NLC has awarded funding to reduce the number of uninsured children.


Pittsburgh is dubbed one of the most livable and most affordable cities in the nation and is known for its vibrant neighborhoods, world-class arts scene, top-rated health systems and friendly residents. Soon, it could be known for being the first city in the country to achieve 100 percent health insurance enrollment of children and youth. Thanks to a major grant from the National League of Cities (NLC), the Steel City may make history.

The NLC’s Cities Expanding Health Access for Children and Families initiative awarded Pittsburgh $200,000 to implement local outreach efforts to enroll its youngest residents in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The plan, called Healthy Together, will target two thousand young people who have been the hardest to reach and most difficult to enroll. The Office of the Mayor will lead the work and collaborate with primary partners: Allies for Children, the Consumer Health Coalition and the Allegheny County Health Department.

I want to thank the National League of Cities for this award, which is the result of a lot of hard work. We are going to use this program to reach 100 percent health insurance enrollment for our youth, and build a model outreach effort that other cities can duplicate across the country.

- Mayor William Peduto

To announce the news, Mayor William Peduto held a press conference in his office. Within hours, every major media outlet shared the story. Interviews appeared on CBS Pittsburgh, KDKA Newsradio, the Pittsburgh Business Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, WESA-AM and WPXI-TV, and social media messages spread like wildfire. #HealthyTogether reached more than 60,000 people on Twitter.


“We are excited about the initial buzz the grant created and plan to continue to engage the media,” says Allies for Children Executive Director Patrick Dowd. “However we know the key to the plan is to continue to build a strong coalition of elected officials, community leaders and child-serving organizations.”

“We realize that in order for this campaign to truly work, it must be led by the city and a mayor who priorities the health of our children,” says Nonprofit & Faith-Based Manager Betty Cruz. “That’s why we changed the direction of our initial approach during the application process. Upon receiving feedback from the National League of Cities, the Office of the Mayor worked with our primary partners on a plan that, over time, would build a sustainable model utilizing existing channels that can fold into the daily work of city government. This will hopefully bring about systematic changes to institutions serving youth.”


Mayor Peduto’s Healthy Together campaign combines two core strategies to move Pittsburgh to complete coverage for all children and youth. First, Healthy Together proposes outreach efforts in those communities where it is most likely that uninsured children reside. In the broadest terms, the underlying strategy of the campaign is to embed outreach and enrollment activities in efforts that already exist, like the opening of swimming pools and the rental of sports fields. Additional activities include marching band performances, roving art carts and movies in the park.

“The events have the potential of reaching hundreds of uninsured children living in the City of Pittsburgh,” says Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker. “These kids are five times more likely to have an unmet medical concern and three times more likely to not have access to prescription drugs, like asthma inhalers. Additionally, uninsured kids are 30 percent less likely to get medical treatment when injured. This grant will help expand health access to every child in every neighborhood, so they can enjoy their childhoods to the fullest.”

Second, the Healthy Together campaign will bring systematic change to the institutions already serving children in Pittsburgh, thereby creating a net to catch kids not identified through outreach efforts. Simultaneously, with the launching of the outreach campaign, the City of Pittsburgh, which employs more than 6,000 city residents, will launch an in-reach campaign to make certain that all employees’ children are covered with health insurance. This could be the first step towards a larger effort to require that all firms contracting with the City of Pittsburgh perform similar in-reach efforts.

“We are thrilled that the city is putting the health care of our children at the forefront of practice changes and policy discussions,” says Consumer Health Coalition Executive Director Beth Heeb. “This work will change health outcomes for kids and significantly enhance access to quality, affordable health care.”

At the same time, the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which serves 70 percent of the school age population of the City of Pittsburgh, will track a question on school enrollment forms, which asks if students have health insurance. Beginning in August, responses to this question will be electronically coded and shared with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The information will then be entered into a data warehouse. Every application for which yes was not answered will be referred to the Consumer Healthcare Coalition to be matched with quality, affordable insurance.


Outreach in the community combined with systematic change will not only help Pittsburgh cover 100 percent of children with health insurance, but will also foster a culture of coverage. This is especially important for the future of Pittsburgh as Mayor Peduto positions the city for population growth of 20,000 in the next decade. Having successful outreach strategies and systems in place to assist families, especially those new to the region, with finding affordable health insurance will be critical to the long-term health of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Throughout the enrollment campaign, Mayor Peduto will serve as a spokesperson, working with community members and community-based organizations.

Partners include:

  • A+ Schools;
  • Allegheny County Children’s Court;
  • Allegheny County Department of Human Services;
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh;
  • Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh;
  • Enroll America;
  • Homeless Children’s Education Fund;
  • Latino Family Center;
  • Perry Hilltop Citizens Council;
  • Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children;
  • Pittsburgh Public Schools;
  • Pittsburgh; Squirrel Hill Health Center;
  • Service Employees International Union;
  • The Brashear Association;
  • Kingsley Association;
  • United Way of Allegheny County;
  • YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, Center for Race & Gender Equity;
  • Center for Social & Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh and Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

Healthy Together combines a healthy mix of government leadership and community partnership with a rich variety of activities. The goal is to ensure that Pittsburgh’s children will live healthily ever after well beyond the life of this grant.

Dowd 2012-010 High ResolutionAbout the author: Patrick Dowd is a key partner in the Healthy Together enrollment campaign being led by the City of Pittsburgh. His organization, Allies for Children, has worked in partnership with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in shaping the Healthy Together plan and will continue to be a thought-partner throughout the campaign. Patrick joined Allies for Children in July 2013 as its inaugural executive director.



Momentum Building as White House Celebrates Progress on Veteran Homelessness

August 1, 2014
Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference about the growing number of elected officials who have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Homelessness.

“The fact that right now our country has more than 58,000 homeless veterans is a stain on the soul of this nation,” Mrs. Obama said. “It is more important than ever that we redouble our efforts and embrace the most effective strategies to end homelessness among veterans.”

Launched at the White House last month, the Mayors Challenge now includes more than 180 local leaders, as well as support from four Governors.

Earlier in the week, the White House hosted local leaders from across the country to celebrate the success of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. A message from Dr. Jill Biden congratulated communities for housing more than 105,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable homeless, including more than 31,000 veterans.

The events come as cities participating in the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative make significant progress in improving the community systems serving homeless veterans.

Launched in March, the initiative is building on the successes and lessons of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. With technical assistance, cities are developing locally tailored systems to help identify the homeless, prioritize them for service, and place them in available housing that can support them based on their individual needs. In Washington, D.C., community stakeholders have already housed more than 200 individuals using their new system.

In addition to developing these systems, some other lessons of the initiative include:

  • San Francisco: The city is dedicating housing resources for veterans not eligible for VA services. In addition, the city is prioritizing veterans within the Public Housing Authority’s plan.
  • Boston: In announcing his participation in the Mayors Challenge and NLC’s Leadership Network, Mayor Walsh launched, a city hosted website where employers can offer jobs and landlords can offer units for homeless veterans.
  • Seattle: The city’s team has begun looking at how to work with surrounding jurisdictions to identify needed housing due to the high cost of rentals.
  • Baltimore: Obtained a $60,000 commitment from the city to use resources raised from the community to pay for move-in expenses, utility arrears, and other costs needed to place the homeless into new homes.
  • Detroit: The community is using staff from the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program to guide homeless individuals through the complex process of finding a home and the services they will need to keep it. These staff members are a part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

To help other communities learn about what is happening across the country to end veteran homelessness, NLC hosted a webinar with officials from San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Community Solutions, and The Home Depot Foundation. The webinar outlined four steps and five questions that local leaders can take to end veteran homelessness in their city.

All of these efforts are creating the change needed to end veteran homelessness by the federal goal of 2015, and end chronic homelessness in 2016. Communities are showing that ending veteran homelessness is no longer a dream, but a reality, one city at a time. To support cities, Community Solutions has launched Zero: 2016. Unlike previous efforts, cities must apply to be a part of this effort and have the commitment of key leaders.

To learn more about Zero: 2016 and have your city apply, go to

For more information on NLC’s work visit

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

The Healthy Kids-Happy Families Insurance Campaign: Garden City, Michigan

July 29, 2014

This is a guest post by Megan Sheeran. Garden City, Mich. is one of eight cities NLC has awarded funding to reduce the number of uninsured children.

By Dwight Burdette, via Wikimedia Commons

By Dwight Burdette, via Wikimedia Commons

Our nation thrives when the health of its smaller communities is good.  Access to health insurance for vulnerable populations, importantly children and families, is crucial in securing a better future for us all.  The city of Garden City is well aware of what makes a great community and has committed to strengthening its resident’s awareness and enrollment in Michigan’s low cost or no cost insurance programs.

Garden City, MI: In a Nutshell

Garden City is a small city with a lot of heart located in southeast Michigan, just a 30 minute drive from downtown Detroit.  Its residents are hard working and service-oriented people.  The city’s community leaders are always working hard to meet the needs of those people living within the city limits and beyond.  As the city’s motto states, it’s “A Great Place To Call Home”.

Getting a Plan in Motion

Garden City is one of the eight cities awarded the National League of Cities grant and technical assistance to support the city leader’s efforts to educate and enroll those residents that are eligible for low cost or no cost health insurance.

A Task Force, made up of community leaders, was organized to carry out the planning phase of the healthcare initiative named the Healthy Kids-Happy Families Project.  Numerous community leaders signed on to be involved with the project including representatives from the school district, the local hospital, and the city government.  The Task Force is a shining example of the commitment and passion this community’s leaders have for the well-being of those residing in their city.

The goal of the Healthy Kids-Happy Families Project is to enroll 100% of Garden City children and adults who are eligible for the Healthy Michigan insurance program but are not currently insured.  During the preliminary stage of program development, it was found that 10% of children in the city were uninsured and eligible for Healthy Michigan (roughly 633 children!).  Clearly, this number doesn’t include the many parents and family members that are also uninsured but are eligible for a Healthy Michigan plan.  It has been estimated that a large percentage of the city’s population will be positively influenced by this project.

Meeting the Significant Healthcare Need in the City:  A Two-Pronged Approach

Prong One

Healthy Kids-Happy Families Project is to increase awareness and knowledge of the Healthy Michigan, the state’s low cost or no cost insurance program.  Majority of residents surveyed during the planning process reported the reason they were not signed up for Healthy Michigan was due to the complicated and time-consuming process of enrolling.  It was important for the initiative to incorporate an educational dimension; therefore the residents of Garden City would be informed about their potential eligibility for Healthy Michigan, the potential benefits this would offer to their individual families and how simple it can be to enroll.

Prong Two 

The Project will offer enrollment assistance to those residents who qualify for the Healthy Michigan insurance program.  The key to this enrollment assistance is that it be offered by trusted community members in trusted community locations such as in schools, the community center, and at the local hospital.  A new city department, the Community Resource Department (CRD), will carry out the day-to-day workings of the project.  City staff and volunteer community members will be the “boots on the ground”, going out into the community and offering one-on-one personal assistance to adults and parents during the application process.

The Project will be in operation year round, apart from the initial campaign, to offer those individuals who have enrolled continuous form assistance and help with choosing a healthcare plan, select a local primary care physician and schedule their first well visit appointment.  It is crucial that these families and individuals do not fall through the cracks once they are found to be eligible for Healthy Michigan.

Increasing Health Insurance Coverage in Garden City: The Benefits

According to the National Center of Children in Poverty, children have higher health-related school absentee rates, affecting educational attainment and future employability (Present, Engage, and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, 2008).  Parents of these children experience the challenges of coping with an ill child; employee absenteeism to be home with a sick child that causes lost wages and negatively impacts a parent’s ability to maintain consistent employment (C. Teng,, 2013).  The Health Kids-Happy Families project will reduce the number of uninsured children in the city, thereby improving school attendance and educational attainment; preventing their parents’ from the threat of falling into a debilitating financial crisis.

In addition, the local hospital is currently challenged with a high rate of Emergency Room visits by uninsured families for non-emergency issues; majority of these visits go unpaid, causing tremendous financial burden on the hospital.  Also, when the Emergency Room is busy with non-emergency issues, true emergency treatment is often delayed.  Reducing non-emergency use of the Emergency Room will benefit the community greatly, financially and otherwise.

Garden City: Setting a Course to Thrive!

The City of Garden City’s Healthy Kids-Happy Families project is going to enrich its community immensely.  Being an example to other communities of what can happen when city leaders come together for the sole purpose of cultivating healthier outcomes for families and individuals and in doing so enriching the nation as a whole.

Megan-Sheeran-Garden-CityAbout the author: Megan Sheeran is a limited licensed Master of Social Work and is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work.  She recently returned to the City of Garden City as the Community Resource Coordinator and will be organizing the day-to-day tasks for the Healthy Kids-Happy Families Project as well as coordinating many other community support program.



To Thrive in the 21st Century, America Must Be a Nation of Resilient Cities

July 29, 2014

One of the key priorities for the Resilient Communities for America campaign (RC4A) has been to urge federal leaders to support local resilience through meaningful policy changes. As we reflect on the first year of this campaign it is clear that our message, which has been endorsed by nearly 200 local leaders, is being heard. There is much more to do, but in a time of political polarization and Congressional inaction, this campaign is building genuine consensus and support for executive action on preparedness and resilience.

In November 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order to create a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. Of the local officials that were appointed to advise the President, over two-thirds were RC4A signatories, a clear recognition that the leaders who joined this campaign are among the most credible voices in the nation on this issue.

But the RC4A signatories sitting on the President’s Task Force are not the only ones having their voices heard in Washington. In May, recommendations from the ‘Resilient Communities for America Federal Policy Initiative’ were delivered to the Task Force. This document was prepared by surveying RC4A members and soliciting input during two workshops. It includes nine policy recommendations broadly embraced by the local leaders that make up the campaign.

Even before the formal recommendations of the Task Force were released, several of the RC4A policy recommendations were incorporated in legislation and new agency programs. Two notable highlights are proposals that would increase local control over transportation funding and a new $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition.

First, RC4A recommended greater flexibility for local governments to utilize transportation funding and related federal resources to enhance resilience. Multiple proposals, including the President’s GROW Act and the Senate’s proposal to reauthorize MAP-21, have included important changes that reflect this objective.

Additionally, the RC4A Federal Policy Initiative recommended that the federal government increase awareness of resilience related activities, make available new sources of funding and enhance coordination between federal agencies. In June, the administration announced a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition that builds upon Rebuild by Design, a program coordinated by HUD with the assistance of agencies such as the Department of Transportation, Small Business Association, Department of Labor and many other agencies that had already been brought together in the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force.

In order to thrive in the 21st century, America needs to become a nation of resilient cities, towns and counties, and that is the message that the Resilient Communities for America has been striving to promote. That when storms strike our coastal communities, droughts persist in valuable agricultural land and economic fragility threatens industrial centers, all Americans share in the cost. That the fate of America is determined by the success of its local governments.

There is much to be done to advance federal-local collaboration on resilience, and despite a slow-moving and divided Congress, progress is evident as  the federal government increasingly responds to and champions local leadership.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for Sustainability at the National League of Cities.






How Cities Address Tough Challenges Through the Power of Service

July 28, 2014

This is the first article in a multi-part series from the National League of Cities (NLC), the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Cities of Service on the national and community service movement and its impact on cities and towns nationwide.


By Kathryn Rotondo (cityyear), via Wikimedia Commons

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the U.S., we like to bemoan the civic disengagement we see all around us: the people who don’t vote, volunteer, or take an avid interest in current events. And by we, I really mean me, as I wrote a blog post on this topic less than a month ago. But like most things, the state of Americans’ engagement in the community is truly a matter of perspective.

You can fret over the just under 2/3 of Minnesotans who don’t volunteer, or you can rejoice over the 37.7% of Minnesotans who choose to devote a portion (or more) of their free time to serving others. Whereas last month I chose to focus on engaging those who have not been active in traditional forms of civic participation, today I want to celebrate that latter group, the people of all ages, regions, and walks of life who have chosen to serve their communities.

As NLC’s members know, local communities are stepping up to the plate to make tangible improvements in people’s lives. In many ways, the national service movement has stemmed from a similar place. People, including many young people, have an intense desire to take matters into our own hands, to put our boots on the ground in our own cities and towns in order to address everything from climate change to the high school dropout crisis.

This passion for problem-solving is seen everywhere from the church that holds a food bank for community members in need, to the local businesswoman who clears her calendar every week to make time to read with children at the neighborhood elementary school. And, increasingly, it is being seen in the form of organized volunteering through both federal programs including Senior Corps and AmeriCorps, and local programs such as mayoral offices of civic engagement or service.


By Liz Roll (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.), via Wikimedia Commons

This more coordinated approach to volunteerism has given rise to “impact volunteering” – the idea that regular citizens are capable of making measurable differences in our communities in response to focused goals. It more fully incorporates volunteers into the operations of cities and towns, making them not just individual actors, but a part of a concrete vision for community improvement.

By including volunteers in an overall strategy, impact volunteering acknowledges their power, recognizing the vital, but often underappreciated role they play. It also allows city leaders to determine which needs are most acute in their communities, and gives cities a low-cost, high-impact tool to address those needs.

National service is another vital resource that city leaders are increasingly using to address critical challenges in a focused, strategic way.  More than 400,000 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members serve at 60,000 locations in 8,500 cities across the country, tackling pressing challenges including tutoring and mentoring underserved youth, removing blight and increasing public safety, and helping communities recover from natural disasters. AmeriCorps members multiply their impact by recruiting and managing other community volunteers – more than four million last year alone.

In Baltimore, Md., the significant number of individuals suffering from substance addictions was identified as a critical issue facing the community by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Recognizing the key role that volunteers can play, and with support from Cities of Service, the mayor launched the “Recovery Corps initiative,” in which 100 volunteers, themselves recovering from addictions, are placed in recovery centers in order to help guide others through sustained sobriety.

In existence only since 2011, the Recovery Corps volunteers have already worked with 603 individuals to help them “enter, stay in, complete, and/or manage recovery after treatment,” in addition to having “provided support services or linked individuals to support services in 1180 instances.” Despite being a low-cost, volunteer-based program, the Recovery Corps is having a measurable impact in the city of Baltimore.


By vastateparksstaff, via Wikimedia Commons

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has worked to strategically engage citizens in addressing local challenges, particularly in the areas of education, food security, community revitalization, and youth engagement.  Mayor Nutter has made extensive use of AmeriCorps VISTA and other AmeriCorps resources to increase citizen engagement and volunteer impact.

In 2013, the City of Philadelphia launched PowerCorpsPHL, a workforce development initiative for Philadelphia’s young adults that uses AmeriCorps as a vehicle for job training and skills development.  While serving as AmeriCorps members, participants support Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department in planting trees, revitalizing public land and preserving the City’s watersheds.

Given the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers and the emergence of the Millennials, there has never been a better time for cities to embrace community and national service. These two populations, not to mention those in between, are an incredibly rich resource for our communities; by making strategic decisions now, cities will be able to harness the service movement like never before, leading to truly transformative change in our nation.

Over the next few months, CitiesSpeak will feature blog posts from NLC, Cities of Service, the Corporation for National and Community Service and city leaders as we showcase the power of service and the concrete steps that can be taken in order to ensure that your community benefits from this movement.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University and an AmeriCorps alum who served with City Year New York from 2010 – 2011.




From Low-Skilled to College-Ready: Building Pathways for All Youth Who Drop Out- Part 4

July 28, 2014

This is a guest post by Peter Kleinbard. It is the fourth in a series on dropout reengagement drawn from the case studyFor Young Adults Who Drop Out: Pathways Or Merely Stops Along The Way?

Low skilled to college ready - for blog

“It is not a time like when I was a teenager I could go to McDonald’s … impress a manager, fill out the application, and I had a job. …But now…I have to consistently show [youth] they can’t get discouraged. They still have to keep trying… And that’s my fear. Frustration and despair.”            -Ralph (Counselor for Site B).

Ralph’s comment highlights the heightened risks for young adults who have dropped out in today’s difficult job market and the importance of helping them, not only to get a job, but to avoid the consequences of “frustration and despair” that can lead to high-risk behavior. This post, the last of a series, focuses on how to identify the elements that build high-quality programs.

Outcomes, such as employment and postsecondary placements, are necessary when assessing the quality of programs, but they are not adequate. Given that programs have different approaches to selecting participants and reporting results, outcomes will have different meanings about effectiveness. A site that chooses to work with youth who have serious obstacles to success may be doing a good job even though it may not produce as many outcomes or as rapidly as one that works with those who are nearly job-ready.

In assessing programs, much depends also on the purposes of the organization making the assessment. Those seeking to build the field – to improve opportunities for young adults in their city or region area – will want to extract lessons from the operation of a program for wider application, rather than merely counting results. When this is the objective, it is important to look broadly and thoughtfully at how programs actually work.

When I assess programs as a funder or program manager, I begin by identifying elements that I can readily observe: Does the number of young adults present match the number the program claims to serve? Do participants attend designated activities and do they participate actively? Do staff members demonstrate by their activities and comment on engagement with participants?

Do program leaders state clearly the relationship between what the site offers and how participants are expected to benefit from it? Their ideas should be consistent with what we know about what works for young adults. (See, for example, The National Employment Coalition’s PepNet site.) Often, “youth development” is cited as an approach. What does that mean? It means combining caring support with high expectations, and assuring that young people have a voice in setting their goals and assessing the program. Staff and participants should express awareness that these ideas are present in the program and that they experience them.

Support should be reflected in how frequently and the manner in which staff speak with youth who are on their caseloads. Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization, explained in their research that across all ages and program types, supportive relationships with staff appear to be the most important reason youth stay in programs.

Students should be able to state their goals and say where they stand in their quest to achieve them. They must trust that their aspirations and feelings are understood and responded to by staff.

The program structure – for example, a sequence of increasingly demanding classes and training experiences- must reinforce good practices such as regularly scheduled assessments to determine whether youth can ascend to more demanding classes and/or work experiences as they gain skills and understanding.

While most programs have databases, utilizing them to help guide and improve program activities can be uneven. An observer should ask: Is staff updating information about student attendance and scores, and are there counselor notes that highlight growth and emerging issues? Do staff and leaders consult and use this information in their work with participants?

Coherence: It is important that young adults get the same messages from all staff and that everyone is pushing in the same direction. To assure that this occurs, staff members who interact with the same young person must consult among themselves so that there is a common understanding and approach to addressing problems and supporting strengths. In Afterschool Centers and Youth Development, authors B.J. Hirsch, N.L. Deutsch, and D. L. DuBois describe Collective Mentoring – the idea is that all staff working with the same young person consider themselves responsible for his/her progress and consult regularly. In my observations, the ability of staff to interact face-to-face on a regular schedule increased the depth and frequency of consultation about participants.

Leadership: Considering limited space, I will not address the ways that leaders contribute to program quality, nor the role of hiring, orientation and supervision practices. However, these issues are explored at length in the program descriptions in the full paper.

Peter KleinbardAbout the Author: Peter Kleinbard is a graduate of Yale University. From 2001 until 2010, he was executive director of the Youth Development Institute, a national intermediary based in New York City. He also founded the Youth Transition Funders, an affinity group for foundations. To comment on this blog or related issues, write:



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