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Not From The Government, Here To Help

September 17, 2013

By Howard Husock

First of a series about the 2013 Manhattan Institute Simon Prize and Cornuelle Award winners for social entrepreneurship

It was ten o’clock on a Saturday night when Monique Jaramillo, then a tenth-grader at Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver, made an unusual call. Could her "teacher-mentor" meet her at a local coffee shop to help her study for her chemistry exam? She needed the help—and needed to study someplace other than home, where a raucous party was going on, led by family members involved in dealing drugs. If the call was unusual by most standards, it was not unusual for the program known as Colorado Uplift, one of four winners of the 2013 Richard Cornuelle Prize. "Uplift," as its staff and the students whom it helps call it, looks to its staff of teacher-mentors to be a regular part of the school day at the 28 Denver schools in which it works—and also expects them to be on call 24/7. The program—established in Denver in 1987 and now being slowly and carefully replicated in four other cities—calls for its staff to be a deep and regular presence in the lives of its students, the vast majority of whom are low-income Latinos. It has created the means to establish such relationships with some 4,800 Denver public school students this year—from fourth grade through high school—and more than 30,000 over the life of the organization. The organization is the product of the vision of one man: Kent Hutcheson, who returned to his native Denver in 1981 after nearly a decade overseas with Campus Crusade for Christ, International, where he worked mainly in the Philippines, helping to establish a program to bring medicine to the squatter camps that had sprung up around Manila’s infamous garbage dumps. Upon his return to Denver, Hutcheson observed some conditions in that city’s poor African-American neighborhoods that he feared might lead to Third World–style disorder. So he set out on the course that would lead to Colorado Uplift. This onetime high school football star—voted Colorado’s single best player (the Golden Helmet award)—called on a still-intact network of friends and admirers, many of whom had gone on to found successful businesses. At first, Uplift was to be a job-training and placement program, focused on preparing young adults for the social norms of a workplace and placing them in the firms of the organization’s financial backers. Hutcheson quickly switched course, after concluding that "we were only helping the ones who would have been okay anyway" and watching others crash and burn once on the job. A chance encounter with a high school principal convinced Hutcheson that starting earlier was the key. Over time, that would mean working directly in the lowest-performing Denver public schools and eventually starting in the fourth grade. The program would center on for-credit elective classes focused on character development, toward which guidance counselors would steer students known for fighting, absenteeism, and troubled family backgrounds, often including parents involved in criminal behavior. Classes would come to be complemented by "adventure" outings (including that first snowboarding trip in a state well-known for winter sports), a summer day camp, and, crucially, ongoing relationships with teacher-mentors—the same people whom students know as their class teachers—outside school.

Unprompted, students with whom I met made it clear that they regarded Uplift teachers as the parents they wished they had. As Monique Jaramillo—the student who once called for chemistry help and is now an Uplift teacher-mentor herself—put it: "You need someone who cares whether you’re successful." The high school students themselves are called upon to mentor Uplift’s elementary school students (known as "Little Lifts"). One Uplift high school senior said to me, "You have to really act the way you say you should act. If you meet one of the younger kids in the neighborhood and you’re smoking, they’re going to say, 'I thought you said not to smoke.’" The adult teacher-mentors are part of a full-time staff of 34. Many stay in touch with their students even after high school graduation; most live in the same neighborhoods as the kids they’re helping, and students routinely show up on their doorsteps at odd hours. The teacher-mentors see their role as offering counsel during crises and also as being models of, as one staff member put it, "what a good family is like; how a husband speaks with his wife; what it’s like to have a conversation at the family dinner table." A quarter of all Uplift staff were once Uplift kids themselves. They are decidedly not likely to be professional social workers, many of whom apply for Uplift positions and are turned away. This is an organization, like Teach for America and many charter schools, that looks for young staff who are willing to help the most disadvantaged kids believe that there is no point in seeing themselves as victims—the phrase "you are not a victim" is used repeatedly in class and in conversation. The staff teaches them that building a better life takes such virtues as discipline and respect. Along with habits of effective study, not blaming others for setbacks is emphasized in class. As with all the programs recognized by the Manhattan Institute’s social entrepreneurship awards, the results look to be positive and significant. Uplift reports that, of those students who remain in the program three years or longer, some 90 percent graduate from high school. The overall, system-wide graduation rate is just 58 percent. Uplift reports that 86 percent of the same "three years or longer" group go on to postsecondary education: four- or two-year-colleges, trade schools, or vocational programs. But one can make too much of numbers. This is a program that is doing a lot of good. Current and former students as well as staff offer sincere and convincing emotional testimonials. Jaramillo, the first in her extended family to graduate high school, tells hair-raising stories of sleeping with a butcher knife out of fear of her own father, of routinely fighting in school (when she didn’t "ditch"), and of her assumption that "only white people" could aspire to settled lives and good jobs. A guidance counselor’s push into Uplift, she says, led her to believe that she could reach "the other side of the rainbow." Indeed, she has: Jaramillo is now an Uplift staff member. She is married to a small businessman ("my husband owns his own FedEx route"), is the mother of two, and is a college graduate (an associate’s degree in business administration). Moreover, she views her own transformation and success as an example for her 26 nieces and nephews in Denver, whom she believes she has pointed away from lives of drugs and crime. This is a story of how the culture of a neighborhood can change for the better when key people set different examples. Although Uplift is in the public schools, it is supported entirely by philanthropy and has no contract with the school system. This is a matter not of convenience or coincidence but of principle. Uplift accepts no government funding of any kind. "You simply can’t count on it continuing to be there, and there are always strings attached," says Hutcheson. Intent on pursuing its own approach, Uplift will not even accept United Way funds. It can afford to refuse these funds because of a deep and varied base of donors in the Denver business and foundation communities, led by the Anschutz Family Foundation and the Daniels Fund, which funds college scholarships for top Uplift graduates. Uplift’s business board, stresses Richard Saunders, head of a local commercial construction firm, leads to vigilance about costs, which average just $1,000 per student per year (including students of all ages, some of whom receive less intensive services). A $4.5 million fund-raising drive aims to deepen the Uplift’s involvement in middle schools—and to help provide the resources for it to advise those in other cities looking to establish or expand Uplift-style programs. There are currently four such programs: in Orlando, Phoenix, Portland (Oregon), and New York (a fledgling program of 200 in the Bronx). In all cases, notes Hutcheson, Uplift is responding to the enthusiasm of "local champions"; it does not seek to own and operate programs elsewhere but, rather, to inspire others—as well it should.

About the Series:

Since 2001, I’ve helped direct an awards program at the Manhattan Institute that recognizes top social entrepreneurs—those who develop effective and original approaches to dealing with social problems and who rely mainly on private funding and volunteers to see their ideas to fruition. They are leaders of our civil society, doing the things that government can’t do—or can’t do as well. We grant up to five $25,000 awards, named for the libertarian thinker Richard Cornuelle (who coined the term "independent sector"), to promising, growing programs. An annual $100,000 lifetime achievement prize, the largest such award for an American nonprofit leader, is named for William E. Simon, the investment finance pioneer and U.S. Treasury secretary, whose book A Time for Truth sounded an alarm about the growing dependence of nonprofit organizations on government funding. Simon Prize winners have included Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone; and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN. All award winners direct organizations that they founded themselves—and that rely minimally, if at all, on government funding. They are more than just "points of light," however: many seek to extend their reach, whether by growing larger and branching to other cities, or helping others to start similar organizations elsewhere. Award winners are nominated by donors who have seen the nominee’s work firsthand, and they are selected by a panel that includes: Les Lenkowsky, professor of philanthropic studies, Indiana University; Adam Meyerson, president, the Philanthropy Roundtable; William Schambra, director, Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal; Anne-Marie Burgoyne, former program officer, Draper-Richards Foundation; Cheryl Keller, independent foundation consultant; and James Piereson, president, William E. Simon Foundation. This year’s award presentation will take place in New York City on November 5. Here, and in weeks to come, I will profile this year’s award winners.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/09/17/americas-best-social-entrepreneurs-2013-edition-i-mentoring-done-right-in-denver/

 

 
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