A Strategic Success

Karen Pittman
June 1, 1998

Seventy-eight: That will be the number of Beacon Schools in New York City once the third and largest class of Beacons opens this year. The number is impressive, suggesting a level of scale in publicly funded youth programs rarely reached in U.S. cities. The Beacons are one of the field's success stories of the 90s.

But the real story is in the strategy that led to this success, a strategy that opted to promote the goals and principles of youth development, and the organizations and individuals that believe in them. Why has it worked? Ten reasons:

The pitch — Basic. Youth centers were seen as a part of a comprehensive anti-drug and crime strategy for the city. Ten centers were proposed, and substance abuse prevention was not specifically promised.

The promise — Improved community inputs. Increases in safe and stimulating places for young people to go, possibilities to try and people to talk to in neighborhoods where the streets were the only after-school alternatives. Funding did not hinge on promised reductions in youth crime and drug use.

The partners — Public and private institutions, namely schools, CBOs and the Department of Youth Services (now Youth and Community Development). The institutions committed to broad-based development were the key players. Private foundations came in as quiet partners to support training, technical assistance and evaluation. The community came in to shape the programming. Social services, child welfare, law enforcement and health were brought in once the tone was set.

The partnership — Unusually well balanced. No single partner wielded excessive power. Schools provided space. CBOs provided the staffing and basic programming. DYCD provided management and funding. The Youth Development Institute at the Fund for the City of New York coordinated the privately funded technical assistance and evaluation.

The pacing — Fast. Ten in 1991, 40 by 1996, 78 by 1998. Going to scale meant starting big enough to capture attention across school districts.

The placement — Strategic. Placing positively pitched programming in the worst neighborhoods allowed the political process to work for expansion. Parents in less distressed neighborhoods clamored for Beacons.

The process — Community engagement. Young people, parents, residents, community associations and councils were engaged in planning. The broad blueprints were filled in by the community.

The politics — Never ignored. Positioning, and additional public systems funding and integration, were always goals. The diligence never let up — at city hall, in the school buildings, in the communities.

The public — Parents and the press seen as the ultimate sanctioners. The brand name, simple goals and one-per district plan gave the Beacons political capital and allowed the media to monitor, parents to advocate and the public to rally when the going got hard. Had DYS simply let 40 contracts for substance and delinquency prevention to 40 CBOs, the political prognosis might have been terminal.

Professional preparation — Principles, practices, planning. The CBOs brought uneven capacity and different visions to the task. Preparation was seen as critical for the development of a group of centers with different administrators but a common philosophy and feel.

Effectiveness, scale and sustainability are the troika of challenges facing the youth service field. Beacon Schools rate high on all three. They might not have won the triple crown had their crafters taken the traditional route: prove effectiveness, slowly increase scale and only then plan for long-term sustainability. Former DYS Commissioner Richard Murphy's team took the best of what is known, pitched it straight and planned for rapid but sustainable growth. The quality of Beacon Schools varies from center to center. But the number would not be pushing 100 under the Guiliani administration if these centers had to be established, funded and evaluated one at a time. This is the lesson.

Pittman, Karen. "A Strategic Success." Youth Today, June 1998, p. 55.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.