Perfect Marriage, 21st Century Style

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

While the recent presidential election generated much heated discussion about the institution of marriage, the youth work field has quietly harnessed energy around the issue of institutional marriage: new kinds of committed, long-term partnerships that are changing education and youth development practice across the country.

Notable examples include CBO schools, which are public schools operated by community-based organizations; New Century High Schools, which are small public high schools designed and operated by innovative educators working in partnership with at least one community agency, such as a youth development organization or cultural institution; and community schools, which offer extended hours and extended services by partnering with one or more community resources.

Over the past decade, these and other experimental relationships have produced important lessons for the fields of education and youth development. Perhaps the single most important lesson – one similar to the cardinal rule governing the other kind of marriage – is to choose the right partner. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Schools and CBOs have learned that finding the right partner depends on being clear about the goals of the union. In today’s “No Child Left Behind” environment, some schools seek partners that are adept at increasing students’ academic skills by engaging them in challenging after-school activities. For others, the highest priority is locating partners who can assist students with non-academic needs (such as medical, mental health and social services) that can substantially affect academic performance. Many full-service community schools find one or more partners who can address all of these issues.

Consider the case of Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, an unusual public school operated by the New York City Department of Education in partnership with the nonprofit Comprehensive Development Inc. (CDI). The school focuses its efforts on two high-need student groups: recent immigrants and former dropouts. Its principal, Howard Friedman, started 14 years ago with a worthy vision – to create a school whose structures, hours and programs would “accommodate the students, not vice versa” – and a clear goal: “Everything we do has to be directed toward helping kids get a high school diploma.”

The school’s enrollment of 800 is composed of 480 recent immigrants, ages 17 to 22, and 320 youths who were not making it in other types of high schools.

True to its name, the school operates night and day, all year long, Sunday through Thursday, with review classes on Friday to help students prepare for state exams. This “double utilization” caters to the realities of the youths’ lives, which include significant employment and childcare responsibilities. One critical ingredient, Friedman says, is that both staff and students come to the school voluntarily.

Also unusual is the nature of this high school’s partnership with CDI, which was created to comprehensively address the needs of the night and day school youths. “There’s a lot of altruism and largesse out there,” says CDI Executive Director Greg Cohen, “but schools are not well organized to accept it. We decided to create a nonprofit partner and found a successful model in The Door, another New York City youth agency.”

Cohen’s background in housing and community development complements the skill set of his colleagues from the education field. Under Cohen’s leadership, CDI board and staff members have recruited 150 volunteer tutors to work at the school, as well as 25 peer tutors; created an in-house student support center; and spearheaded a fund-raising campaign to build a science lab on the school’s top floor. Cohen calls the last accomplishment a “crowning achievement.”

Community outreach has led to student internships at the nearby Hospital for Joint Diseases and in the Laboratory Animal Research Center at Rockefeller University. The partnership’s staff makes sure that each youth has an individualized plan leading to graduation and, if appropriate, college.

The success of the collaboration is due in no small measure to the inspired leadership of Friedman and Cohen, who speak with one voice and, as sometimes happens in the most enviable of marriages, like to finish each other’s sentences. This lively discourse obviously has its roots in a youth-oriented vision, hours of joint planning and the school’s recognition that it needed a strong youth development partner.

“We’re both very patient and we don’t take much personally,” Friedman says. “This allows us to focus on the kids and do everything possible to help them succeed.”

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.