Baltimore, MD: Sustaining Investment in Disconnected Youth

Baltimore, MD: Sustaining Investment in Disconnected Youth
Baltimore, MD: Sustaining Investment in Disconnected Youth

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), working with the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute), planned a series of workshops and field trips to help local leaders learn more about reaching struggling students and out-of-school youth and expanding options and alternatives for high school-aged young people. This project, funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, supports the YEF Institute’s work engaging municipal leaders in building cross-system collaborations by providing hands-on professional development activities to mayors and superintendents, their staffs, and other local leaders engaged in efforts to reach young people who have dropped out of school, are out of work, or have been involved in the juvenile justice or foster care systems. This project offered local leaders an opportunity to participate in strategically designed and intensive workshops and field trips during which participants engage in substantive policy discussions with their counterparts in other cities and visit exemplary programs.

The second trip is the series to Baltimore, MD served as a convening of the Municipal Network for Disconnected Youth (MDNY) Steering Committee. The theme for the gathering was “Sustaining Investment in Strategies to Reengage Disconnected Youth” complimented by opportunities to see successful, long-term efforts in Baltimore to provide a wide array of educational and employment training opportunities to disconnected youth.


Opening Dinner Presentation

Betsy Brand, Executive Director, American Youth Policy Forum, and Clifford Johnson, Executive Director, Institute for Youth, Education, & Families at the National League of Cities, began by presenting a number of key themes and ideas to explore over the discussions and site visits. These included:

  • Create the vision that is easy and accessible;
  • Focus on community engagement to ensure this work is part of the culture and will remain despite leadership changes;
  • Establish a long-term commitment;
  • Secure support of leadership;
  • Promote cross-system collaboration;
  • Utilize creative funding and financing;
  • Collect appropriate data and information to understand the target population; and
  • Create systems and mechanism for accountability.

Cliff Johnson also discussed the milestone of the gathering as the first in-person convening of the MDNY Steering Committee, which had previously operated as virtual learning community. The goal of the Steering Committee, according to Johnson, “is to give us the best thinking and advice on how to take ideas nationally.”


Presentation by Dr. Alonso, CEO, Baltimore City Schools

Dr. Alonso began by stating “disconnected youth is a problem of the mainstream, not the margins.” He shared disheartening national and Baltimore-specific statistics around academic achievement, graduation rates, and transition to postsecondary education or careers. Considering the statistics, Dr. Alonso indicated that “the question of what to do must go beyond just disconnected youth and go into the mainstream.” He is working to move the conversation away from programmatic alternatives to “system reform,” especially since the numbers of Baltimore youth considered disconnected or at-risk are significant. He noted that systemic reform must be discussed simultaneously with sustainability and scalability.

Dr. Alonso discussed cross-system collaboration as a critical element of systemic reform and discussed some of the “hoops placed in the way of coordination” include privacy issues, funding, and data integration. From the Baltimore City Schools perspective, the school improvement solutions include quality teaching, rethinking school settings, and integrating community support both throughout the schools and for proposed changes to the schools. Dr. Alonso elaborated on one of his new initiatives, transformational schools, which are start-up schools that are granted autonomy to implement their own programs; these schools, in exchange, will be held accountable for school performance. Some of the first transformational schools were focused on alternative education, providing an opportunity to young people who upon entering 9th grade were significantly off track to graduation.

Participants asked Dr. Alonso about how he sought to integrate community support in his efforts to reform the schools. He described his outreach efforts, particularly to parents, that include community forums, partnerships with PTAs, and education around effective advocacy.


Roundtable #1 and Peer-to-Peer Working Groups

The first roundtable discussion, “How have cities sustained successful strategies and taken them to scale,” featured Karen Sitnick, Executive Director, Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, Baltimore, Steve Arcelona, Chief Deputy Director, Human Services Agency, City and County of San Francisco, and Judge Deanie King, Presiding Judge, Corpus Christi Municipal Juvenile Court. Discussants were asked to comment on the following questions:


Discussion Questions

  • What are the strategies that have endured and been successful?
  • What does sustainability look like?
  • What results have you seen for young people and for the city – what does success look like / how are you measuring success?
  • Elements / approaches that they’ve learned they need to use to sustain their strategies
  • Aspects of specific initiatives or strategies that serve as examples of key points regarding sustainability or success
  • What obstacles have you encountered and how did you overcome those?

Karen Sitnick led off the discussion by broadening the conversation from sustainability to continuity focused on alignment of goals and missions from mayor’s office, all city agencies, and collaborating partners. In her words, the “focus has to be broader than just a set of initiatives, but a coordinated effort to develop a pipeline of young people, future workers.” She went on to indicate that she believes the school system must be a driver of this effort as everything begins and ends with education.

The Mayor’s Office of Employment Development (MOED), of which Sitnick is the Executive Director, is an executive agency that coordinates and directs workforce development initiatives responsive to the needs of Baltimore City employers and job seekers in order to enhance and promote the local economy. In its thirty year history, MOED has traditionally had a focus on youth. Sitnick believes, “If we do it right with our young people, then I’d be out of a job!”

Sitnick listed a number of themes that she believes are part of Baltimore’s long-term success:

  • Advocacy and continuous support of caring adults
  • Access to multiple support services
  • Assistance in navigating the bureaucracy of the system
  • Case management with personalized success plans
  • Exposure to career development fused with work-based learning focused on soft skills
  • Academics that meet the young person where he/she is

In discussing how to measure return on investment, Sitnick suggested that you learn to tell the story of what would happen if your agency/services did not exists. Statistics might shed some light on indicators such as employment rates, teen pregnancy rates, rates of justice system involvement, or academic outcomes.

Judge Deanie King from Corpus Christi, TX said their mantra as they undertook a new effort to redirect young people who have gotten involved with the juvenile justice system was “don’t worry about scale, but prepare for it.” The Municipal Juvenile Court, of which Judge King presides, hears cases of youth ages 17 or younger charged with minor offenses such as curfew or traffic violations, which do not involve possession of illicit substances, public intoxication, petty theft, or mischief. Juvenile offenders and their parents are required to appear in court for all proceedings. Typically, these youth offenders are ordered into case management as a condition of deferred disposition.

Judge King attributes Corpus Christi’s success to their emphasis on data. They have built a data sharing system that allows the court to monitor a young person’s progress along a variety of indicators including school attendance. Data has been used as an advocacy tool to secure grant funding. In addition, Judge King highlighted that this work as been driven by “in the trenches” workers, not elected officials. Thus, allowing the effort to become systemic and not influences by politicians who often come and go.

Steve Arcelona, Chief Deputy Director, Human Services Agency, City and County of San Francisco, closed out the roundtable discussion by focusing on four areas that he believes have sustain efforts in San Francisco to serve disconnected youth: leadership, luck, finances, and willingness to change.  Similar to Judge King’s comment, Arcelona agreed that a champion who has access to elected officials, but can operate beyond the politics of the city can provide the necessary leadership for this work. In San Francisco, creative financing has increased Human Services Agency’s budget for this work from $200,000 to $2 million by expanding and centralizing services.

Observations from participants included:

  • Keep your message simply to help rally the troops
  • Champion in your city can really make a difference, especially when it is the  mayor

These thoughts as well as additional questions around sustainability with changing “players” in city and county governments and balancing the authority between government and community provided topics for discussion during the peer-to-peer working groups following the roundtable discussion.


YO! Center

The mission of the Youth Opportunity (YO!) Baltimore is to help young people receive the education and career skills training needed to become successful adults. Baltimore YO! Centers serve out-of-school Baltimore residents from 16 to 22 years of age at their two centers and numerous satellite programs. Participants had an opportunity to visit the Westside YO! Center meeting with students, touring the facilities, and learning about the myriad of programs available to support young people who were underserved by the traditional education system.

During the panel discussion with key partners, participants heard from Ernest Dorsey, Youth Opportunity Grant Project Director, Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, Sabrina Sutton, Special Assistant for Youth/Education, Office of Mayor Shelia Dixon, and Larry Dawson, Director of Youth Development, Family League of Baltimore City.

The Family League of Baltimore City is a local management board, which is a quasi-governmental agency that serves as a pass through for state funds focused on improving the well being of children and families. Dawson described the PACT Center, an evening reporting center that combines intense supervision with community-based services coordination for male youth, ages 14-17, which would otherwise be placed in secure detention facilities. The PACT Center is currently a pilot program and hosted at the Westside YO! Center. Dawson described the success of the PACT Center and proudly reported that no more than 15% of the participants had been re-arrested. He attributed the success the youth development model and on-site wrap-around services that the YO! Center is able to provide these young men.

Sabrina Sutton and Ernest Dorsey discussed the importance of building connections and promoting the work at the YO! Centers to ensure sustainability. Sutton discussed the mayor’s commitment to Baltimore’s young people and her efforts to ensure YO! has a dedicated funding stream in the city budget.  Dorsey complimented Sabrina Sutton’s effort to always ensure that out-of-school youth are part of all conversations at City Hall around youth, education, and families. He believes this “insider champion” has enabled YO! and the focus on out-of-school youth to become institutionalized in Baltimore.


Career Academy

Career Academy managed by and housed in the same building as the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development is an academic program for youth to work toward a high school credential (either diploma or GED) and obtain job skills along with employment experience. Trip participants had an opportunity to spend an afternoon with students, staff, and the myriad of partners working to ensure the Career Academy continues to be a successful springboard for disconnected young people reconnected with education and job training.

Callie Green, Career Academy principal, spoke passionately about Career Academy’s faculty and their relationships with external partners such as Job Corps and Skills USA through the Maryland State Department of Education. She described the joint efforts as critical to students success because “a diploma is simply not enough to be a successful employee.” Green also highlighted the Career Academy’s emphasis on youth development by bridging the world of academics with the world of work.



Trip participants spent the second day of our visit to Baltimore at CivicWorks, Baltimore’s urban service corps and an AmeriCorps program located at the Clifton Mansion. The mansion is the former summer residence of philanthropist, Johns Hopkins, which CivicWorks is working to restore to its “Victorian glory.” CivicWorks currently houses a variety of programs to serve young people include a Urban Service Corps, Americorps program, and YouthBuild. In addition, CivicWorks has been granted a charter to open a transformational middle and high school in the 2008-09 academic year.


Roundtable #2 and Peer-to-Peer Working Groups

The second roundtable, “How can cities leverage success to benefit new strategies?,” featured Brian Lyght, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Jennifer Maconochie, Boston Police Department, and was moderated by Marion Pines, Sar Levitan Center at Johns Hopkins University. Each discussant described lessons learned from their diverse efforts to provide services to disconnected youth.

Pines described her efforts to create Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE), one of Baltimore’s first innovation high schools aimed at serving at-risk students who lacked academic skills to ensure on-time graduation. As an innovation high school, the founders had the ability to select their own principal, faculty, and curriculum in addition to receiving some seed money from the school district and private foundations to plan out the school. Pines proudly announced that ACCE would be graduating its first class on Saturday, which see believes is sending a message to the city of Baltimore that “it can be done…you can reconnect disconnected youth.”

Pines opened the floor to the other discussants by asking them to comment on how to maintain funding and political will in successful programs. The following questions were also used to frame the conversation:


Discussion Questions:                                                                      

  • How do you best leverage goodwill/success from one initiative to address another important need?
  • How do you protect the resources/attention that was focused on the initial endeavor?
  • Under which circumstances would you recommend that cities enfranchise an external intermediary?
  • What is the role for external partners, including philanthropy?  How best to think about “filling in” after seed funding runs out?
  • Give an example and describe the relative importance of establishing and maintaining a broad vision under which successive strategies may fall?
  • How best to overcome: Mayoral transitions,  tough budget years

Maconochie reflected back on participants’ conversations over the past day and a half and asked “but what about the people?.” She articulated a number of factors that she felt were critical to the successful gang violence prevention work (Ceasefire) in Boston including:

  • Persistency and consistency from the staff involved
  • External validation
  • Flexible dollars
  • Balance of vision and crisis management
  • Buy-in at all levels
  • Shared responsibility
  •  Understanding of context

Lyght described the foundations efforts to support programs and advocacy that will move “systems to be more responsive to poor children and their families.” Lyght went on to describe the foundation’s more mature initiatives:

  • Family to Family Foster Care Reform
    • Efforts in 17 states to improve child welfare outcomes by advocating for more children to remain safely with their own families or a family-like connection and by providing opportunities for redesigning and reconstructing foster care systems.
  • Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative
    • Sites across the country have drastically decreased the average number of kids in detention each day, increased the use of community programs to support kids, reduced the rate of kids who fail to appear for their court hearings, and seen fewer kids arrested again before their trials.
  • Plain Talk — Adolescent Reproductive Health
    • A neighborhood-based initiative aimed at helping adults, parents, and community leaders develop the skills they need to communicate effectively with young people about the consequences of early sexual activity.

Sustainability, according to Lyght, must be considered from day one along with ensuring that you have all of the right partners around the table.


Peer-to-Peer Working Group: Where do we go from here?

Building upon the discussion during the first peer-to-peer working groups on day one, participants received a summary of the identified elements for sustaining success (LINK). Participants were given an opportunity to add additional elements and then asked to rank the elements by importance.  The emerging areas of importance were:

  • Relationships
  • Champions/Leadership
  • Data

Vision/Agenda/Goals came in a very close second. Participants then went on to brainstorm ways in which NLC IYEF could support their sustainability efforts.


Lessons Learned

Participants gained firsthand knowledge of Baltimore’s success through the visits and sessions with key city leaders. In addition, participants were able to learn about similar work in their colleagues’ cities and share their own success and challenges. Below is a summary list of the some of the important lessons learned from our site visits and peer-to-peer discussions:

  • People, particularly partners, will galvanize public will
  • Research and Communications around best practices are critical
  • Having access to the right kinds of information
  • Step back from time to time and pull out the lessons learned
  • Aim high, don’t limit expectations
  • Share a sense of urgency
  • Shared values reconnect people to why we are doing this work in the first place


Background Material on Disconnected Youth

  1. Connected by 25: Improving the Life Chances of the Country’s Most Vulnerable 14-24 Year Olds
  2. Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities Are Reconnecting Out-Of-School Youth
    Baltimore, Maryland
    A mayoral commitment to out-of-school youth leading to partnerships with the private sector and many community-based organizations
  3. Beyond City Limits: Cross System Collaboration to Reengage Disconnected Youth
  4. Education Commission of the States—At-Risk Students and Dropout Prevention
  5. Leave No Youth Behind: Opportunities for Congress to Reach Disconnected Youth
  6. Federal, State, and Local Roles Supporting Alternative Education
  7. Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men
  8. Campaign for Youth
  9. The Silent Epidemic

    Other Reports of Note

    1. Boston: Too Big to be Seen: The Invisible Dropout Crisis in Boston and America
    2. Chicago: October 2006 presentation by Melissa Roderick
    3. Philadelphia: Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000 – 2005, and Turning It Around: A Collective Effort to Understand and Resolve Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis. 
    4. Portland, Oregon: Connected by 25: Real Results for Young Portlanders


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.