Profiles in Education:
Lawrence Mandell, President & CEO, United Way of NY Targets Education
Lawrence Mandell, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, has a master’s degree in social work. “Being a social worker and running United Way have not always been the case. We were a fundraising organization first. Now we focus on community.” His focus is to “influence what happens in the city in the area of helping the poor.” He muses, “People see social workers as having big hearts and soft heads. We have to be more hardheaded” and get “measurable results.” And that is exactly what United Way of New York City is now doing under the stewardship of Mandell.
Long associated with a unique and highly successful model of raising funds directly from employees of a wide range of companies through regular payroll deductions, United Way has traditionally funneled the money to hundreds of non-profit agencies for the fight against poverty. In an attempt to be more effective and more involved, three years ago United Way became focused in its choice of fund recipients and goals and expectations of measurable results. Five areas of concentration were established: education, homelessness prevention, access to health care, building economic independence, and strengthening NYC nonprofits. At least one annual major initiative in each area was promised. United Way administers the initiatives by choosing community-based organization partners (CBOs), setting goals, ensuring all parties meet responsibilities, and assessing results. Referring to the crucial job of recognizing good partners from among many applicants, Juanita Ayala, senior director of education, says, “We are big time marriage brokers with lots of potential spouses.” Education, which has been a United Way focus since 1991, has several exciting and sorely needed programs including Community Achievement Project in the Schools (CAPS) to stem the dropout rate in city high schools, Quality New York to ensure school readiness, and a small pilot program that addresses disruptions and safety in schools. “The top priority in all education initiatives,” explains Ayala, “is to reach children in temporary housing, or shelters, and then those in foster care or group homes, and finally, victims of abuse or neglect.”
CAPS focuses on poor attendance as an indicator of future dropout, an epidemic which has reached 47 percent in New York City public high schools. School dropouts have poor job prospects and can be a financial burden to society. Recognizing that underlying problems can create barriers to attendance, last year United Way worked with the New York City Department of Education and 55 community organizations in 114 schools to implement intensive counseling, family involvement, and academic support. Fifty percent of potential dropouts (those who had missed between 27 and 75 days of school) remained in school. Mandell explains the success citing his organization’s ability to “take it to scale,” or manage large and broad programs. “What we’re doing is more and more informed by best practices. We rely on smart people in the field who seem to have the most effective models.” Praising the CBOs, Mandell notes school improvement initiatives have typically taken place only within schools. “There has not been a voice for schools interacting with their communities.” The CBOs have been crucial because “they represent a different culture than what goes on within the school. They often look more like the kids and make the students comfortable…The school is stronger if local grass-roots organizations interact with it.” Enhancement programs designed to strengthen academic achievement and contribute to personal growth supplement CAPS. A literary and arts initiative brings artists-in-residence to participating schools and sponsors a student showcase at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. A science talent initiative funds school science departments and encourages school science fairs. Improved attendance has been greatest among students who participate in enhancement programs.
Quality New York was established to meet a glaring need. Only five percent of New York City’s licensed childcare centers met national accreditation standards. Recognizing the value of early childhood development and education readiness, the United Way initiative provides training, technical support, and consultation to improve centers and increase the number of accredited facilities. In another initiative, a pilot program in the Bronx, Safe Schools, Successful Students, adult members of a school community are trained to deal constructively with disruptive students. Rather than resorting to often inappropriate measures such as suspension or transfer to a psychiatric facility, staff is trained to knowledgeably address the needs of students with behavioral issues, often with the assistance of skilled social workers and mental health experts.#