Cities lead, but cannot go it alone

An extended conversation with NLC President Chris Coleman. Listen to an abbreviated podcast of this interview on NLC’s Sound Cloud account.


As the end of the year approaches, top 100 lists, year-in-reviews and “person of the year” recognitions are beginning to make their rounds. What are the year’s biggest themes in politics, culture and entertainment? How about for cities? Despite some notable challenges in cities across the country, 2013 has been a year marked by a gradually improving economy, improving city fiscal conditions and a sense that people are “rediscovering” cities and all they have to offer.

I was pleased to recently have a conversation about these themes with NLC President Chris Coleman, mayor, St. Paul, Minnesota. His experience as a mayor during some of the country’s most challenging times provides a unique perspective on the state and future of American cities. Below is the discussion we had on December 13, 2013.

As we’ve recently highlighted in our 10 Critical Imperatives Facing Cities report, cities are facing challenges – many of which are nationwide issues. In your perspective, what should be the role of cities in tackling some of our country’s toughest challenges, such as access to higher education, immigration and aging infrastructure?

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community. So whether or not they’re the primary lead on an issue such as higher education or even primary education, cities have to play a role. We have to get our kids ready for college, we have to make sure they’re successful in kindergarten through 12th grade and we have to understand the relationship between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening in the rest of the community. Whether you’re a mayor who has mayoral control over the school district or a mayor, such as me, who plays a significant role in the education process – that’s a critical issue evolving even more as an essential role of the city than it historically has been.

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community.

But for instance, you can say veterans issues are a federal issue, but the veterans are living in our communities – and too often they are living on our streets. Fiscal stability – obviously we are primarily in charge of our own destiny, but many of our resources are dependent on state and federal resources that are beyond our direct control. Every community is going to have a little different set of priorities within these 10 critical imperatives we’ve described, and may have some things that were not necessarily  identified as a top 10 issue. And there are going to be issues that may be best served by the federal government or the state government or the county government – but regardless of the issue, cities have a stake and an important role to play in creating solutions.

In our work at NLC, we’ve witnessed the powerful role of the mayor to act as a convener or an agenda setter. In these roles, are mayors able to push forward these “national” or “state” issues at the local level?

The strongest power we have is to set the table. When you do that and bring the right people into the room, solutions can be found to our challenges. I liken how we approach education to how we approach emergency management, which is no one department has to do everything or no one person has to do everything but when you’re in a room and you have a situation within your community, you say, ‘Okay fire chief, can you bring resources to bear over here?’ You’ll ask your police obviously to have their deployment set and you also ask your parks department what role they can play. You ask your public works department, ‘I need 5 trucks to block off this intersection,’ – or whatever it is.

In education, I view what we’re doing as convening an emergency operation center for our children. So we have the Mayor’s Education Leadership Team (MELT) in St. Paul, which has the superintendent, county board members, school board members, city councilmembers, service providers and philanthropic partners to say, ‘Okay, what do we need to do, is this covered, who knows about this issue?’ When you bring people together and do it in a way to direct it toward finding solutions – you can find those solutions.

We’ve increasingly seen city leadership recognized on issues such as education and veteran homelessness in the media. But at the same time, we see stories about bankruptcy, urban poverty and violence dominating news headlines. In your experience as mayor and as an NLC officer, how are cities faring in the current political and economic environment?

I’ve been mayor for eight years, about to go into my third term. In a lot of ways I’ve presided over some of the worst times, certainly economically, over these last eight years, which have been very difficult for the country and for our cities. I’ve also been fortunate to be mayor at a time when people are really rediscovering cities and deciding you know what, ‘I don’t want to live in an isolated enclave somewhere, I want to live where there is access to transportation, I want to live where I can walk to a restaurant, I want to live where it’s a five-minute commute to work rather than a two-hour commute.’ The vibrancy that cities provide, all the options – what used to be considered annoying challenges are now exciting opportunities.

Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity.

So I think there are struggles no doubt – you see the fiscal condition of Detroit – but also if you go to Detroit you see the regrowth of the core of downtown. Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity. I think one of the real challenges we’re going to face though, is to make sure that hope and opportunity is for all. We have to make sure those opportunities are available and those pathways are open for all.

What steps can cities take to create those  opportunities to make their communities more vibrant?

What I think is interesting is that while cities are all different, there are some common threads that we can use to all learn from each other. We’ve started competing in a positive way to be the greenest city, or smartest city, or to be the most technically savvy, connected city. St. Paul was designated – our 55101 zip code – the center of the hipster universe. And I think that’s a good thing. So other cities are asking, ‘Why does St. Paul have the hippest zip code in the country – and why don’t we?’ Cities are competing for talent from across the globe – so how do we attract 20-somethings that are coming out of the best colleges and universities that have enormous sets of skills. How do we make sure we have a welcoming place for them?

I look at Denver, I look at Salt Lake City, I look at cities that are doing massive investments in transportation and think, we have got to move faster on this one because this is what people are looking for when making decisions on where to live. We still have some huge challenges but I think that the renewed energy and vitality of cities across the country is truly amazing and provides city leaders with great new opportunities to make their cities better.

As you look at the challenges and opportunities that face cities, in your year as NLC President, what are some of the things you would like to accomplish?

There are a few things.  First of all, just from the education piece – I came to the National League of Cities through the Institute for Youth, Education and Families – that’s how I did a real deep dive into the organization. They gave us technical assistance in building out an out-of-school time network we call “Sprockets” that provides continued learning opportunities for children during afterschool, weekends, and summer. Those are the technical skills and activities we can help cities develop at NLC. NLC is also working on a new partnership with the Department of Education to really look at some early learning and college readiness pathways for cities. That, I think, is really exciting. So I want to make sure we solidify NLC’s role in supporting cities in their education efforts.

Another important issue is resilient cities, given the already dramatic changes we’ve seen with severe weather events and the impacts of climate change. We saw all this in Northern Colorado, in Boulder and some of the other cities around Boulder that sustained some tremendous damage as a result of the heaviest rainfalls they’ve ever seen. If that was an isolated incident perhaps you’d say, ‘Well these things happen.’ But when you see these things happen time after time after time again – the Tornado in Joplin, Missouri that Mayor Melodee Colbert Kean faced in 2011, the effects of Hurricane Sandy – you can go across the country and see reports of these extreme weather circumstances happening if not every day, then every week.

I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities.

So we’re going to have to figure out two things: first of all, how do we help our cities meet some emission reduction targets? The Obama Administration has been helpful in providing some energy efficient block grants and some other tools that we have used to green our buildings to reduce our energy consumption – those things we’re going to have to continue. But we’re also starting to understand that cities are going to have to figure out: ‘Do we have capacity in our sewer systems to handle what used to be 500 year floods that are now happening every 7-10 years? Do we have capacity to respond to gigantic straight line winds, tornadoes, or any number of things?

When I first came into office, the grave concern we were looking at was a pandemic. That is still a real possibility and we are set up to respond to that, but I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities. We, as the National League of Cities really have to be a leader in that conversation, both on the reduction and the response side of it.

You recently testified on the importance of federal investment in transportation, touching on how you’ve benefited from being mayor of a city where all partners “rolled up their sleeves and got to work on building the infrastructure of a strong city and region.”  What type of support do cities and their partners need from the federal government to make their communities better?

First of all, city leaders have to understand what the real threats to their community are – and the real threats are not the next town over or upstate or downstate. The threats that we face in terms of the future vitality of U.S. cities are cities across the globe that are growing rapidly, where they are attracting talent from across the world. The overwhelming evidence is that people coming out of college or universities right now are saying, ‘I’m going to pick where I want to live first and then what am I going to do.

And so whether you’re a city of 50,000 or a city of a couple million, you have to figure out what are you going to do to make your community attractive to folks who have a lot of options. Even before I was mayor, I looked at Austin, Texas and their success. They had a lot of pieces that we had in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But they also had a thriving cultural scene – there was a “there” there. Look at Nashville right now – Nashville is going gangbusters.

It’s not because they don’t have challenges. Mayor Dean and Councilmember Steine in Nashville are doing incredible work on the education front and they’ve been a model for a lot of the stuff we’re doing. But they have a city that is becoming a huge draw for people across the country, if not the globe. So my advice to cities is to identify the three or four things they’re going to do and do them well to position themselves in  a 21st century economy, then look to others to support that.

The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go, so goes our country.

The reason I was testifying on the New Starts program, the reason why that was so important was because I’ve seen firsthand the impact of an investment in transportation in the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis – we’re six months out before the Central Corridor light rail line carries its first fare-paying passenger, and yet we’ve already seen $1.2 billion worth of investment. We have 7,500 units of housing underway or in planning along that line. We’ve seen businesses along University Avenue, where the line runs, that have been there for years, now reinvesting in their businesses and cleaning them up and preparing for the influx of customers.

So an area that has been subject to disinvestment since the freeway went through in the mid-60s is now the epicenter of investment in the Twin Cities. And so if you have the partnership with the federal government to support some of those things, then our cities will be vibrant. The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go so goes our country. And if they understood that then they would be more willing to invest in our communities.

It seems vital to have a feedback loop to the policymakers in Washington because the leaders in our cities understand their communities best – they understand the threats, the challenges, and the opportunities. As you mentioned, we have seen how previous infrastructure projects have led to disinvestment– but you’re doing it differently. Your city is getting community input and the federal government is supporting that process.

A couple things happened in the construction of the Central Corridor, what is now called the Green Line. We were able to change the dynamic from D.C. saying here is how you’re going to build your line, to DC saying what do you need to make the line successful? That was a fundamental shift. The community fought for three additional stops that would serve the most transit dependent members along the line. It wasn’t until former Transportation Secretary LaHood and the Obama Administration said, oh this doesn’t make sense – it makes sense from a Washington perspective – but I understand now how it doesn’t make sense from a St Paul perspective so let’s make a change there.

The value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

The New Starts criteria that says were not going to just look at pure numbers and how fast you can move people from point A to point B, we’re going to ask how does this help green development, how does this help create economic opportunities, how does this help serve poor and disenfranchised communities. We still need a line that moves people from point A to point B and do it in an efficient time frame, but when you understand the value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

Bruce Katz has notably argued that we will increasingly see cities leading what he calls a “metropolitan revolution.” What are your thoughts on the future of cities? And what do you envision NLC’s role in helping to create that vision?

Bruce Katz and the folks at the Brookings Institution have done an amazing job of capturing in some ways and spearheading in others the kind of new look at cities – understanding that more than 75 percent of our nation’s economic output is coming out of cities, 80 percent of people are living in cities. That these global centers are not going through the federal government, but past the federal government to do direct city to city exchange.

It is a revolution and it’s a revolution mainly because it seems like we are going back to century old city states where the cities were the power. I don’t think that’s a great model in the sense that I hope Washington, D.C. will continue to make themselves relevant – but if they’re not going to make themselves relevant then cities aren’t going to stop moving forward.

This is one of the most interesting times in decades if not centuries for cities. What is happening here and understanding why cities existed in the first place, and why they matter, is really coming to the forefront as federal governments are becoming more and more stagnated. The creativity that occurs because three people are sitting at a coffee shop exchanging ideas, and how we exchange ideas with technology – there’s such an amazing revolution in terms of how people are reacting and exchanging ideas and creating things at a speed that we haven’t seen before. It’s an exciting time for cities. And I think NLC will be in the thick of it.

Phoenix Makes Historic Announcement About Veterans


On the streets of Phoenix, there are no more chronically homeless veterans.


Let that sink in for a moment.

There are no veterans in the City of Phoenix who have been on the street for more than one year consecutively or have had four episodes of homelessness in the last three years. That is the definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses for chronic homelessness.

Since the 1980’s, homelessness has been viewed as an intractable issue. Men and women huddled over grates in the depths of winter in Washington, D.C. are powerful memories that have stuck with me and compelled me to work on this issue. Now a major metropolitan city has demonstrated to the nation that we can end chronic veteran homelessness.

Many will say various iterations of “We’ll always have homeless people.”

Will we always have people who fall into homelessness? Yes, most likely. But mass chronic homelessness, particularly for veterans, is not something that has always been a fixture of American society. It has only been a persistent problem for around 30 years.

Poverty and homelessness are complex, multi-faceted issues that at a fundamental level are issues that will forever challenge cities. But chronic homelessness began manifesting itself as a result of the deinstitutionalization of public mental health facilities, a lack of affordable housing, and a lack of understanding of how to effectively tackle the issue on the part of federal, state, and local governments. Chronic homelessness among veterans spiked in the post-Vietnam War period, and there has been a continued increase in the chronic homeless veteran population since the Gulf War in the ‘90s and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How did Phoenix end chronic veteran homelessness? This accomplishment did not just happen. Far from it.

As discussed in previous blog posts and outlined in a case study earlier this year, Phoenix has had the perfect storm of bold leadership, an influx of resources dedicated to veterans, community collaboration, and partnerships among all levels of government using data-informed strategies.

Now is a moment that has never happened before. Phoenix offers a tangible example that others cities can replicate in order to end what can only be characterized as a national shame and a tragedy.

Cities such as Houston, Salt Lake City, and others are well on their way to joining Phoenix. Partners such as the National League of Cities, the 100,000 Homes Campaign, Community Solutions and The Home Depot Foundation are already at work to help spread these lessons.

During this season, when the less fortunate are on the minds of many of us, this accomplishment offers hope that there is a way to end a level of suffering that should never be felt by anyone, least of all by those who have served our country.

In 2014, we hope your city will join Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and others in what is truly an amazing race – the race to get to zero chronically homeless veterans.

For more information about what you and your city can do, contact me at

Watch Mayor Greg Stanton make this historic announcement on the MSNBC website.

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

Spotlight on Annapolis, MD: Kids and “Mids” Working Together

This article was written by Jennifer Jennings, Community Health and Aquatics Supervisor, Annapolis Recreation and Parks Department and originally appeared on the Healthy Communities for a Healthy Future website.


Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, is a vibrant city proud of its charming colonial heritage and home to the U.S. Naval Academy. The Annapolis Recreation and Parks Department (ARPD) strives to enrich the quality of life for Annapolis-area residents and advocate for healthy, active living by offering quality recreational programs and community facilities within an array of parks and natural open spaces.

Annapolis recognizes that children are the community’s most precious commodity and that joining forces can be a key strategy to maximizing resources. Throughout the years, ARPD and the U.S. Naval Academy’s Midshipman Action Group (MAG) have cultivated an incredible working relationship to better serve and engage kids in Annapolis.

In the summer of 2013, Annapolis was awarded a Play 60 Grant from the Baltimore Ravens for the children’s running program Annapolis Mighty Milers, an outreach program that engages some of the city’s most vulnerable populations in Annapolis, including schools in low-income communities. The 2013 program included nine elementary schools, with about 300 participants between grades three through five. Through the six- week curriculum, children learn proper running form and pacing as they build endurance. This year a nutrition/hydration segment was added to the program, “Eat Rite, Choose Rite”. After six weeks of training at their schools, all participants come together at the Annapolis High School track for a one-mile fun meet.

For the past two years, the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen (“Mids”) have volunteered their time to run and encourage the Mighty Milers participants as they endure their final segment of the program, a one-mile fun run. With smiles on their faces, decked out in Navy Gear, the Mids stand in formation with an American flag held high as the singing of the Star Spangled Banner kicks off the event. The enthusiasm and pure joy of the Mids working in the community is a sight to see! We’re not sure who had more fun, the kids or the Mids?

Annapolis is committed to the sustainability of this partnership and is taking the relationship further this year. As well as supporting the Mighty Milers at the one-mile fun run, several members of U.S. Naval Academy varsity athletic teams visited the participating Mighty Milers schools as guest coaches. They demonstrated athletic techniques from their individual sports while incorporating the fundamentals of the running program.

ARPD and the United States Naval Academy MAG will continue to cultivate a relationship based on the Let’s Move! initiative. The Mids were honored last spring with a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama. They took her message regarding Let’s Move! very seriously. Together the Annapolis Recreation and Parks Department and the United States Naval Academy Midshipmen Action Group can make a difference in the lives of Annapolis’s children and families.

The City of Annapolis’s Let’s Move! efforts have extended far beyond this partnership and include trainings for caregivers on healthy nutrition, a revamp of the ARPD vending machines to incorporate healthier foods and beverages, and a summer food service program. The City of Annapolis was honored in both November 2012 and November 2013 as one of the top Let’s Move! Cities nationwide by the National League of Cities and is currently ranked number 3 out of 400 communities participating in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.

Visit Annapolis’s Community Profile Page to learn more about their Let’s Move! efforts, or contact Jennifer Jennings, Community Health and Aquatics Supervisor, at

In Hot Pursuit of Qualified Immunity

Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

While a recent Washington Post article notes that the Supreme Court isn’t hearing as many cases as usual this winter, the Court has not been shy about taking qualified immunity cases.  Recently, the Court decided to hear two such cases and issued an opinion in a third case without oral argument.  The State and Local Legal Center will file an amicus brief in both of the newly granted cases.

Qualified immunity is important to local government officials because it serves to balance the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly with the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability.

Government employees can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional or federal statutory rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”  In short, qualified immunity is intended to protect “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

In Wood v. Moss pro- and anti-President Bush demonstrators had equal access to the President as his motorcade arrived in Jacksonville, Oregon.  But when the President made an unexpected stop for dinner, Secret Service agents moved the anti-Bush protesters, who were closer to the restaurant than the pro-Bush demonstrators, about one block further from the President than the pro-Bush demonstrators.   The anti-Bush protesters sued two Secret Service agents, claiming they violated their First Amendment rights by discriminating against them because of their viewpoint.

The Ninth Circuit denied the agents qualified immunity; they concluded that the agents engaged in viewpoint discrimination but did not focus on whether it was “clearly established” that the anti-Bush protesters could not be moved further away from the President than the pro-Bush demonstrators.   The Supreme Court will decide whether the lower court evaluated the qualified immunity question in this case too generally.  The Court will also decide whether the anti-Bush protesters have adequately claimed viewpoint discrimination when there was an obvious security-based rationale for moving them:  they were closer to the President.

In Plumhoff v. Rickard, police officers shot and killed Donald Rickard and his passenger after Rickard led police on a high-speed chase. Their families sought money damages, claiming the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force. The officers argued they should be granted qualified immunity because their use of force wasn’t prohibited by clearly established law. In this case the Court will decide whether the lower court properly denied qualified immunity by distinguishing this case, which arose in 2004, with a later Supreme Court decision from 2007. The Court also will decide whether qualified immunity should be denied based on the facts of this case. Rickard wove through traffic on an interstate connecting two states, collided with police vehicles twice, and used his vehicle to escape after being surrounded by police officers, nearly hitting at least one officer.

In Stanton v. Sims the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to grant qualified immunity to a police officer who kicked open a private gate, which hit the homeowner, while in “hot pursuit” of someone the officer thought committed a misdemeanor.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that it was clearly established that a police officer may not enter someone’s property without a warrant while in “hot pursuit” of someone suspected only of a misdemeanor and deemed the police officer “plainly incompetent” in his actions  The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

Dropout Reengagement Extends Reach in 2013, Pursues New Heights in 2014

At its second national meeting in 2012, the NLC Dropout Reengagement Network set out a number of ambitious goals for itself. These included extending the outreach of the Network further; creating a sense of urgency around the need for reengagement; continuing peer learning; informing federal policy; providing students a voice; and demonstrating impact through narrative and numbers. One year has passed, and the Network can point to accomplishments on all these fronts! But before I dive into that good news, consider this vignette from Boston – the city that hosted our first Network convening two short years ago.

April Mae Smith dropped out of Madison High School in May, 2012. April briefly enrolled in the Re-Engagement Center (REC) to earn enough credits to become a senior that fall. But her heart wasn’t in it and she quickly dropped out, moved to Rhode Island to live with her boyfriend, started doing drugs, became pregnant and ended up homeless. Fortunately this interlude was relatively brief, and by fall 2012, April was looking for a way to turn things around so she could provide a better life for herself and her child. “I decided I wanted to graduate before my son was born,” says April, now 19. When April returned to school, she again turned to the REC. She delivered her son this June and about the same time, earned her diploma from the Boston Adult Technical Academy. Now she is enrolling in nursing school with assistance from REC staff. She credits the program with helping her get back on track. “The REC staff always told me if I needed help, to just ask,” April says. “I learned a lot more there than what I would have learned in the classroom. When I graduated, I was one of the top students.”

With that shining story of personal progress in mind, the Network’s 2013 convening in Los Angeles now opens — extending participation and purpose beyond reengagement to and through college, thanks to co-sponsoring partnerships with the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) and Zero Dropouts. Once again, the number of self-financed participants in the convening has doubled, such that what was a Network is now on the verge of becoming a movement.

This is not just a year of accomplishments; this is a year of clarifying nationwide results and impact. Network members reached agreement around a few common measures, and voluntarily submitted data compiled by NLC interns and Matt Mendoza of the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC). We learned that centers in 14 cities made initial outreach to more than half of those on dropout lists.  More than 10,000 young people received referrals to education options from a reengagement center or program, and for 6,000 of those youth, centers received confirmation of enrollment. Of those enrolled, 73 percent completed a full additional year of school or graduated.

In addition to recruiting the national meeting co-sponsors, we looked for strategic outreach and leveraging opportunities. This led to reengagement discussions at high policy levels in the U.S. Department of Education and with members of the rapidly growing Gateway to College National Network. Education Week chose reengagement as the topic for a special pull-out section, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided just-in-time support for publication of the new NLC Municipal Action Guide on reengagement, released this week and already drawing media interest.

The Network continues to grow from the ground up, thanks in large part to ample practice sharing. Chicago launched three reengagement centers. Washington State’s Open Doors initiative grew from 3 to 22 programs. Washington, DC commissioned a feasibility study, and plans to launch its center in April, 2014. The California Assembly formed a Select Committee on Addressing Out of School, Unemployed Youth, and in Congress, Rep. Jared Polis’ office completed drafting of the first ever federal reengagement bill – suitable to serve as an amendment to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As the Network and new partners gather in Los Angeles, opportunities abound to discuss where to go next. One focus area to carry over from last year and build upon: propelling former dropouts forward into options to gain postsecondary credentials. A perennial issue involves using the demand for reengagement to drive creation of many more high quality school completion options. And the “new GED” and GED alternatives waiting around the corner in 2014 surely pose challenges for the broader “ecosystem” of alternative education.

Yet the past three years show that this is a Network that constantly reaches for new heights. So with those heights in mind, I look forward to pursuing these questions:

• What shall the Network do to advance the federal policy ideas built into the draft Polis legislation?

• What other states could emulate Washington and spread reengagement programs via state policy and local determination? (Massachusetts, Oregon, California – are you in the house?)

• What city or district – or coalition of districts – in partnership with Community-Based Organizations, will reprogram resources to expand alternative schools rapidly?

• Who will follow Los Angeles’ inspiration with the Workforce Incentive Fund, to identify and use a federal funding source to expand reengagement locally?

• How will we sustain the census of reengagement programs, and continue to add precision to our counting of results?

* Are the more experienced members of the Network ready for an external evaluation of their effectiveness and impact?

• How will the 21 cities involved in the high-profile Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund tackle the need for reengagement capacity?

• What other philanthropies will join the CS Mott and Annie E. Casey Foundations to lend their support to advance reengagement nationwide?

Andrew Moore
About the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families.  Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

South Carolina Nonprofit Pioneers a Model for Teaching Children in Need

Scampering into the cafeteria at 2:30 in the afternoon, children at Chicora Elementary School in North Charleston, South Carolina begin to cluster themselves into groups on the cafeteria floor.  Monday through Friday, 1 in 3 students excitedly enters the transformed space gushing with energy.  On the surface, this looks like your typical afterschool program — the kids eat string cheese, drink from juice boxes and chatter loudly while gearing up for an afternoon of hands-on projects, games and homework help.

However, the WINGS for Kids program advances learning in several pivotal ways which diverge from everyday classroom material.  Every element of the program has a carefully planned curriculum with objectives that aim to build social and emotional skills in their young participants, such as identifying feelings, regulating emotional responses and predicting the consequences of one’s actions — all taught in the guise of fun.

By including these fundamental skills into its programming, WINGS for Kids joins several other afterschool programs across the country in teaching Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to advance children’s long-term success in life.

Social and Emotional Skills Help Students Overcome Hardships

SEL is the process through which we learn to recognize and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships and avoid negative behaviors.  It is the process through which students enhance their ability to integrate thinking, feeling and behaving in order to achieve important life tasks.  The International Bureau of Education, from the International Academy of Education, also defines social-emotional skills, or “emotional intelligence”, as “the set of abilities that allow students to work with others, learn effectively and serve essential roles in their families, communities and places of work.”

The inclusion of social and emotional skills as small daily reminders in every aspect of the program’s afternoon serves larger programmatic goals for the  WINGS program.  The organizers believe students possessing strong social and emotional skills are better able to overcome the hardships in their low-income neighborhood, as well as learn more in school and ultimately become better workers, friends, spouses and parents.  The WINGS motto: “Soar more, struggle less” further illustrates these beliefs.

These children, who are socially and emotionally intact, can make better decisions, and learn to be  responsible for their own behavior.  However, for many of our readers as well as the nation’s parents, social and emotional learning is merely a label given to a curriculum without a clear understanding of the barriers it addresses and the student outcomes it produces.

Social and Emotional Challenges Hinder Student Performance

In order to better cater to students’ holistic development, SEL was implemented to cater specifically to children who faced challenges in their home and community much like many of the youth participants at WINGS for Kids.  Many of these children came to school hungry, stressed, abused, distressed and were bullied or served as the school’s bully. Children, who live under these circumstances, have been proven to experience academic difficulties such as the ones WINGS attendees were experiencing prior to the program’s inception.

As a proponent of social and emotional learning systems, Dr. Maurice Elias, a child psychologist and leading expert on SEL from Rutgers University, explains the dangers of omitting social-emotional programs from our children’s classrooms in one of his published reports.  He maintains that many of the problems in our schools are the result of social and emotional malfunction from which too many children have suffered and continue to bear the consequences. Children in class who are beset by an array of confused or hurtful feelings cannot and will not learn effectively.  These youth are frequently identified as the students who filter into schools from low-income neighborhoods and underprivileged areas.

Yet there are many non-supporters of SEL who protest that this type of learning must be done outside of and separate from traditional schooling.  Dr. Elias states that these ideals are misinformed, harmful and may doom us to continued frustration in our academic mission and the need for teachers who must increasingly dedicate valuable classroom time to behavioral damage control and repair, rather than constructive classroom instruction and student engagement.

These insights from experts have alerted educators to the critical value of holistic education, which involves the stimulation and training of both a child’s cognitive and developmental functioning.  By strengthening and increasing social-emotional educational opportunities, we will increase our children’s capacity to learn, give them the tools to aspire to personal and professional achievements and enable them to experience personal satisfaction.  By organizing the educational environment to focus on holistic development as opposed to just cognitive growth, students’ academics/ school involvement will also increase as they are individualized, personalized and made to feel as if they belong to the fabric of their school.

SEL Advances Positive Student Outcomes

Allowing WINGS to again serve as our prototype, the program’s structure of inclusive conversations addressing emotions and real life experiences, group enrichment activities and the presence of socially/emotionally adept teachers, WINGS is able to facilitate students’ holistic advancement.

Along with being an innovative beacon within the social and emotional learning community, WINGS also strives to be a resource to other programmers by providing free SEL incorporated tools, guidelines, activities for afterschool programs and other related material.

If you have an interest in incorporating these materials into your own program or know of other initiatives which may benefit from WINGS supplemental materials, please visit the Wings resource page on edutopia. As for community partners who wish to make the complete transition into the SEL world and are looking for implementation strategies, the edutopia website also houses materials for starting an afterschool SEL program.

blog-photo-marleynaMarleyna currently serves as an intern on the Afterschool team at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. If you wish to contact Marleyna, email her at

Detroit Needs Mr. Orr and Mayor-Elect Duggan

The lawyers and pundits will scour every word in the ruling by Judge Steven Rhodes declaring the City of Detroit eligible for bankruptcy. Truth be told, I’d probably find that exercise exhilarating!

In the end however, it’s not the ruling from Judge Rhodes with which I am preoccupied. Nor am I particularly concerned with what Mr. Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, will ultimately present in terms of a plan of adjustment for the city. Rather, I am thinking about January 1, 2014, when Mayor-Elect Mike Duggan and five new city council members take the oath of office and assume their responsibilities to the citizens to Detroit.

Mr. Orr of course has all the power to do what he believes is appropriate to address the fiscal crisis in the city. Judge Rhodes has given him considerable latitude so long as the entire fabric of the recovery plan is reasonable and just in the eyes of the court, especially where pensions are concerned.

But what power does Mayor-Elect Duggan have? More precisely, what power will he have after January 1st? If you answered, “no power at all” you would, I think, be wrong. While Mr. Duggan may indeed have little in the way of decision-making power he nonetheless was ELECTED to office as were five new councilmembers. More to the point, Mr. Duggan reasonably believes that he and his colleagues on the council do indeed have an important and significant role in the management of the city’s recovery.

True leadership grows out of commitment, passion, vision, perseverance, and teamwork. There is every indication that Mr. Duggan and Mr. Orr, former law school classmates, will make an effort to work together. Success for Detroit requires that the cold-blooded management decisions that are the purview of Mr. Orr are tempered by attention to the best interests of actual residents in Detroit – residents represented by the elected political leaders – Mr. Duggan and his council colleagues.

Brooks, J.A. 2010

About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development and Infrastructure and is also responsible for leading the International Programs.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.