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Exterior of Phoenix Hall in the North Lawndale neighborhood.
Photo Credits: Jenny Merritt

Homelessness and housing instability greatly impacts a student’s ability to stay in school and achieve educational goals. The urgency of this problem motivated The Night Ministry to partner with three other local organizations to launch Phoenix Hall last year. Phoenix Hall is an innovative new residence for high school students experiencing housing instability in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. It is one of the first housing programs in the country, and the first in Chicago, designed to improve educational outcomes by providing housing for homeless students of a specific high school.

As homelessness remains a complex issue facing communities throughout the country, schools have become uniquely positioned to identify the emerging needs of struggling families. The number of children and youth experiencing homelessness nationwide more than doubled between 2006 and 2013, when 1.3 million public school students were identified as homeless.1 In Chicago, more than 20,000 students were identified as in need of housing during the 2014-15 school year.2 

Students who lack stable housing face challenges attending school regularly, completing homework, keeping up academically, and graduating. A nationwide survey of students struggling with housing instability showed that 42 percent dropped out at least once,3 and recent research has shown that young adults without a high school diploma were 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness, emphasizing the importance of education as a protective factor from homelessness later in life as youth transition into adulthood4

When faculty at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School recognized that seven to 10 percent of its students were experiencing housing instability,5 they felt the need to identify a long-term solution. Over the years, compassionate teachers, coaches, and administrators had been taking students into their homes when able, but a sustainable and scalable solution was needed. Community partners came together to develop an innovative initiative that could both provide support to families in crisis, as well as provide safety-net housing to students most in need and in danger of dropping out simply because of an unstable living situation. 

This initiative is truly a result of collaboration and partnership. The Night Ministry is a recognized leader in Chicago, providing a continuum of housing for youth ages 14-24, and the lead in the design and implementation of this program. Our partner, Youth Outreach Services, immediately began offering case management within the school to students identified as in need, as well as their families. Our funding partner, Empower to Succeed (an independent nonprofit of Old St. Patrick’s Church), raised funds for the initial operating funds and renovation of the residence which became Phoenix Hall. Meanwhile, North Lawndale College Prep provided vision and student leaders to help us understand the need and inform the process along the way. 

Phoenix Hall’s renovated kitchen area.
Photo Credits: Jenny Merritt

After two years of planning, engagement in the school and community, and renovation of a nearby single-family home in the neighborhood, Phoenix Hall opened in August 2017, ready to house up to eight students at a time. Staffed 24 hours each day by professional Resident Assistants and providing a family-like atmosphere with bedrooms, living space, meals, and study space, Phoenix Hall is one of the only programs of this kind, and the first in Chicago, where housing supports are provided for students of a particular school, with the goal of supporting and improving their educational outcomes through housing stabilization. 

Around the country, a handful of programs exist to support students struggling with housing instability. Most use a host home model, where families act as temporary foster home placements to a student while they remain enrolled in their school of origin. These programs generally work across school districts in more suburban or rural areas. Other programs work with homeless youth who have already dropped out of school, helping them to reconnect to education after stabilizing their housing. Phoenix Hall works differently by stabilizing housing before education is disrupted, therefore enabling academic outcomes to be strengthened as a direct result of the housing intervention. 

Each family we work with at Phoenix Hall is different. Some families are experiencing homelessness themselves and are living in overcrowded, doubled up situations very far away, and want their child to remain enrolled as a student at North Lawndale College Prep in order to ensure their education is uninterrupted. Some families have strained and tenuous relationships, and we can provide temporary respite to prevent a runaway or lockout situation. In this way, Phoenix Hall becomes a housing alternative while we work with the entire family to address the dynamics that led to the strained relationships as we work towards a successful reunification.

A few family relationships are very fractured due to incarceration of a parent or other serious issues such as mental illness or substance abuse, and we are working to prevent the young person from falling into system care. In rare cases, we have seen temporary emergency situations, such as a family becoming displaced due to fire, and a student needing temporary placement so that education is not disrupted while the family seeks relocation. In all instances, Phoenix Hall provides support and relief for the family while they work to become more stable overall.

Keeping ties to school and other trusted adults during these tumultuous times in a young person’s life becomes especially important. We see Phoenix Hall as a preventative approach: If The Night Ministry and its partners, through Phoenix Hall, can provide stable housing, keep students connected to school and other resources, and work with their entire family to steady other areas, we may just be able to prevent a permanent fracture and ensure graduation and a chance at a more promising future. 

Partnership with families as well as North Lawndale College Prep is integral to the success of Phoenix Hall. Students live at Phoenix Hall with the consent of a parent or guardian, and can stay as long as they need to while their family situation stabilizes and reunification becomes possible, or until they graduate and move away to college. A Student Housing Council at the school meets regularly to discuss the issue of housing instability, help break down stigmas, and inform the program design of Phoenix Hall.

The program’s impact is measured at the student and family levels, as well as school and community levels. Providing youth with safe housing will promote well-being for the entire community as the program creates collaboration across the neighborhood. Teachers, counselors, and school staff are able to focus on educational outcomes for students and create a supportive and safe school atmosphere. The Night Ministry staff is able to focus on connecting families, and students in particular, to a supportive network of community resources, facilitating and fostering healthy relationships, and building life skills. 

Students are in turn able to focus on their educational goals within a stable, secure living environment. Some measurable objectives include improved attendance and academic performance, increased graduation rates, as well as family reunification, and long-term housing and educational outcomes, such as college enrollment. 

Just like every student’s situation is different, the paths to success are each unique. Case Managers working in the school continue to work with 15-20 students at a time as part of the broader initiative, many of whom can be diverted from the residential program by providing the family with supportive services and other crisis resources. Since Phoenix Hall opened at the beginning of this school year, we have seen six students move into the house, and two successfully return home to their families. We will celebrate our first graduation this June. As students begin moving on to college, Phoenix Hall will remain a place that they can return to during summer and holiday breaks, if needed, as housing instability among students who live in dorms on college campuses remains a growing problem. 

It is our intention for Phoenix Hall to serve as a model for student housing in the community and beyond. Many local schools have contacted The Night Ministry with a desire to develop housing supports within their schools. As we learn from the first year of operations at Phoenix Hall, we hope to evaluate whether the model can be replicated or expanded to other neighborhoods and schools throughout Chicago. Early outcomes are promising in showing that stabilizing housing will indeed help students learn and succeed in school. 

Author Bio 

Erin Ryan has 18 years of experience in providing direct services and leadership in programs serving people in crisis, as well as community organizing and policy. She holds a Masters of Social Work and a Masters of Public Health, both from the University of Illinois at Chicago. As the Senior Vice President at The Night Ministry, she works to develop a more integrative approach to the agency’s programs and operations. In 2016, she led a strategic planning process for youth programs, and was proud to launch the innovative new Phoenix Hall program in August last year, a unique partnership that aims to improve the educational outcomes of high school students experiencing housing instability in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. 

Works Cited

1 US Department of Education. Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program; Non-Regulatory Guidance; Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Washington, D.C.: 2017. 

2 Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. HomeWorks: Stable Home + Stable School = Bright Future. 2015. 

3 Ingram, Erin S., John M. Bridgeland, Bruce Reed, and Matthew Atwell. Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools. Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates, 2016. 

4 Morton, M.H., A. Dworsky, & G. M. Samuels. Missed opportunities: Youth homelessness in America. National estimates. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 2017. 

5 North Lawndale College Preparatory High School, Records of the Students in Temporary Living Situations Program. 

The Present Situation

In Argentina today, multiple cultures and social realities coexist in a complex context in which the urban majorities ignore the existence of ancestral minorities who find themselves excluded from most of the basic rights.

This reality in which the social inequities between those who concentrate power and richness and those who lack almost everything are reflected in the differences between the large cities and the remote areas and the domination derived from them that has in the situation of the Native people exacerbated expression. 

The Native communities that inhabited these territories before Argentina´s birth as a nation, especially on the northern region and in Patagonia, are not yet fully integrated as a part of the Republic. Within a wide range between those who have obtained title deeds for their land and are no longer besieged by landowners around them, and others who are still harassed and denied the basic rights, it is a fact that the Argentinian society and the nation itself still bears a huge debt to these communities.  

In contrast with this reality, it is necessary to say that the Argentine Republic went through a general reform of the National Constitution in 1994, and within that renovation, on the 75th Article, Clause 17 referring to the attributions of the Congress, states: “The recognition of the ethnical and cultural pre-existence of the Native communities of Argentina. Granting the respect of their identity and their right to a bilingual and intercultural education; recognizing the juridical status of the communities and the position and communitarian property of the land that they have traditionally occupied; and rule the granting others that should be apt and sufficient for human development; none of which will be transferable or transmissible, nor will it be suitable for taxation or embargos. Assuring their participation on the management of their natural resources and other interests that affect them. The Provinces may share the exercise these attributions.”

This constitutional mandate comprehends and summarizes the provincial and national laws sanctioned that previously included international agreements signed by Argentina that rank as supreme law.  

Therefore, there is no doubt that as a nation we define ourselves as multi-ethnic and multi –cultural, and hence we should generate policies that facilitate and promote self-determination and full integration.

The Problem

However, this paradigmatic legal change has not been sufficient to solve the ancestral problems between the majoritarian society and the Native communities. It is true that some significant improvements have been accomplished, and it wouldn´t be fair to ignore the fact that most of the worst harassments and submissions are part of the past. But, nonetheless, the vast majority of Native communities, are still a part of the lowest and most neglected layer of the country.

The matter to solve, despite the fact that it is complex and traversing of multiple factors, requires no more and no less than complying with the Supreme Law mandate. That is the full integration of these communities to the body of the Nation; in a comprehensive way, that is with all the rights and all the obligations of the republic; respecting their diversity and their own conception of the world, such as granted to them by the Constitution.  

Not complying with such mandate, on the other hand, not only means that these citizens continue to live in inferior conditions than the rest of the inhabitants, but it is also the platform from where to argue, denaturalizing the spirit of the legislators, claiming that the Constitution sustains or validates extreme postures that collide with the fundamentals of the Republic.   This problematic situation requires urgent attention, since more and more often, the conflict and antagonism grows in scale and threatens social peace.

In short, this irregular situation constitutes a critical problem, and as such, it requires a broad vision, ample and innovative to be able to tackle it integrally, to make justice for those whose rights are still subdued. Additionally, it is required to establish clear rules, concrete and doable indicating “the how and the when,” and within which parameters we will live together in the cultural diversity, based in mutual respect, and in peace and harmony amongst all members of this great Nation. 

An Innovative and Efficient Idea to Tackle the Problem 

In order to put the Native communities in equal terms with the rest of the Argentine population, the members of those communities must be full actors and participate in the management of the territories where they live. Fully empowered with all the rights and obligations. To that extend it is not enough to recognize them as private associations, just as any other legal person or entity. It is necessary to recognize their existence as a portion of the state, embodying power within their physical location, respecting their self-determination, and their own way of seeing the world; and such ability requires considering them as public juridical entities, outside the governmental scope.

This innovative manner of incorporating the native people within the mosaic of the province and the Argentine nation is a giant step towards the solution of the problem of matter. By doing so, just as we recognize as parts of the mosaic of the republic, the provinces and within them the different categories, such as first-class municipalities, second- and third-class and even small villages, there is no objection to include these new category of public entities, even if they are not a part of the government structure. As we refer to a certain province or municipality, we would denominate each of the territories under this new category by their name, i.e. Mapuche Community, or Guaraní Community, or Kolla Community. It can be done, it can be accomplished, and it is by no means impossible. Furthermore, one of the most recognized specialists on Constitutional Law, and undoubtedly the foremost expert on the 1994 reform, Dr. Germán Bidart Campos, expressed formal opinion saying this was the correct interpretation of the spirit of the Supreme Law. In order to study this proposal, in the year 2000 a forum of very well-known jurist experts, including Daniel Sabsay, Victor Bazán, and Juan Sola, meet in Junín de los Andes, Province of Neuquén. For three days, they debated and concluded that it was viable to enforce a law to make it possible for the Native communities to access the public (non-governmental) status. 

The proposal materialized by means of a national law, stating the possibility of this alternative; inviting the provinces to adhere to this system. A provincial law could also establish the possibility of granting the native communities “public (non-governmental) status” and regulate the terms and conditions that will be necessary, under such status, to participate and share the management of the resources allocated to their territory.

If this inclusion of the Native communities as formal actors were granted, provided they comply with the requisites and are prepared to bare all the obligations, the constitutional mandate would be fulfilled. This process towards complete inclusion should obviously be optional for the communities. Bearing in mind the level of development and organization, each case will require they need to be especially tailored to progressive enforcement towards self-management. 

The Main Issue: The Land

The core of the problem and the heart of the existence and subsistence of our Native communities is the possession and property of the land they occupy. From their essence to their economy and belonging, everything is closely tied to Mother Earth. Therefore, it is vital to find definitive and equitable solutions for each case, according to the spirit of the National Constitution. 

In Argentina, the Native communities that share the national territory experience a wide range of situations regarding the specific possession of the land where they live. Some have consolidated title deeds and others are not even legally recognized and don´t have a precise location. This diverse reality requires approaching the matter with determination and clear rules in order to arrive at definitive solutions to grant the beneficiaries of the rights enumerated on Article 75 Incise 17; only then, all the population of Argentina will be able to share the territory with juridical security and peaceful cohabitation.

In this regard, the national law No. 26.160 that declares the need to solve the land issues, was about to expire. However, acknowledging the fact that there is still a lot to do, the Congress has recently extended its enforcement. This is the platform from where clear boundaries, limits, and the extension of the rights recognized, must be defined.

The lack of agreements and the political use of the Native community’s issues has been the reason why, despite the fact that the reform of the legal framework took place more than 20 years ago, we have still not found the appropriate responses for the Native communities. Therefore, we are still in debt with them and, because of it, we fail in discouraging the abuses and absurd pretentions of those that are shielded behind these lack of definitions to impose their own vision, which by no means is what the Constitution states.    

It is certainly a complex issue, but on every province where there are Native communities, there are individuals and organizations well versed and informed, who can help define the problematic situations and acknowledge the progress made so far. The time has come to put in common, to agree on basic definitions clear and concrete, we need to establish which are the terms and conditions under which communities can be recognized as legal entities as per the legal system. It will require criteria unification, and for that purpose a Federal Council that include the provinces, in order to establish uniform standards for all the territory; and to ensure that the question will not be opportunistically used for political reasons. Furthermore, these agreements are indispensable to avoid opposite responses at provincial and national level as it has been happening, and hence facilitating scenarios of confusion and contradictions that are used with political opportunism.  

The national government has resolved cases, regardless of the opinion of the provincial government, and in such environment, those who have in mind objectives far from the principles and intentions of the constitutional amenders, sow their extremist ideas. 

Back to the proposed solution, it is true that each case has singular characteristics. However, for the most part, we foresee no great difficulties. In fact, in the Province of Neuquén for example, the majority of the officially recognized communities have communitarian title deeds of their land. In the case of Chorriaca, a small village included in the provincial mosaic, the Mapuche community owns the land and manages the village, both by their ancestral rules and as a part of the governmental structure.  

Other type of logistical problems that are not related to the respect of the granted rights also exist in particular places, but these are juridical questions that require more complex solutions that will have to be analysed case by case. The conflicts where violent attitudes verify have a very different genesis. They raise from extremist positions that are not reconcilable with the spirit of the supreme law and carry the vices referred to, they are a small minority, yet, they are the ones that the media will cover and hence, what the public hears about.


Finally, it is worth insisting that establishing clear and uniform rules about which are the lands and territories that should be recognized as communitarian property of the Native communities, as per the National Constitution; and what are time limits necessary to grant certainty to a claim.   

Only then, unsustainable absurd positions will be disregarded, such as those extremist statements, claiming that their self-determination as Native communities situates them in a position to deny their belonging to the Argentine Republic. Therefore, it becomes urgent to clearly define these concepts to solve this ambush.  

Once we are able to distinguish clearly, which Native Communities are the ones referred to by the Constitution when granting special rights in order to protect their culture and vision of the world; we will grow as a nation. Only then, can we go forward to the next step, i.e. the purpose of this article -- the recognition and inclusion, respecting self-determination, of the Native communities of Argentina.

Author bio

Germán Pollitzer, was born in Buenos Aires in 1952. He is a lawyer and has lived in the Argentina Patagonia since 1982. In 1979, together with other young fellows, he created Fundación Cruzada Patagónica, an NGO dedicated to education and integral development of the rural communities of the west side of Patagonia.

Dr. Pollitzer was a member of the Power of Justice of Neuquén, until 2016, when he retired as General Auditor of the Province.

He was a W. K. Kellogg Foundation International Fellow, an Ashoka Fellow, and a Eisenhower Exchange Fellow, his quest on every case, the situation of the Native people. He was legal advisor to many Mapuche Communities in the Province of Neuquen and brought forward several of their claims for the communitarian title deeds of their land.

In 1989, he was elected as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Men of Argentina” and in 1990, he was presented with the Forrest E. Linder Memorial Award. In 2001, he published a book called: “Legal Framework for the Indigenous Communities of Argentina.” Dr. Pollitzer also delivered many training courses for several organizational and legal matters for different Native communities and he organized exchange visits between Mapuche young members of the Namuncura Tribe and Crow people from Montana, U.S.  

Executive Summary

As a long-standing parenting education organization, Families First is always looking to innovate in order to address challenges and improve its service delivery. Thus, it recently transformed its program model to provide three times more hours of support for each participating parent. While necessary to accomplish the intended outcomes of stronger parent-child relationships and increased parental access to social supports, this shift to longer-term programming requires a greater commitment from parents facing poverty and related stressors. In turn, this creates additional pressures on parent recruitment and retention strategies.

In collaboration with Social Venture Partners Boston’s expert consultants, Families First’s staff has addressed the undeniable challenge of retention head-on by incorporating the unique voices and leadership of parent participants. The comprehensive five-tiered strategy described in this article is already showing promising recruitment and retention results as we assess parental needs and experiences throughout the program.

The Value of Comprehensive Programming and the Issue of Retention

Research is clear about the positive effects of parenting education on the success of children facing adversity. Parents who have adequate knowledge, skills, and support networks are uniquely positioned to encourage their young children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, resulting in greater physical and mental health throughout each child’s lifespan. 

However, there are many factors that determine whether a parenting education program is capable of achieving strong long-term outcomes. Best practices in the fields of early childhood development and family engagement have shown that the most successful programs: 

  • Help parents transform knowledge into new skills
  • View parents as partners in the work
  • Encourage peer support between parents
  • Help parents achieve their personal and family goals
  • Collaborate to provide interagency care (Caspe, Margaret & Lopez, 2006)

In order to execute these elements, it is imperative that parents are engaged in a parenting program for a substantial number of hours (ideally more than eight) over several months. Yet in today’s busy world, commitment to longer programs presents additional retention challenges.

Quality parenting education programs cannot be successful unless parents are recruited to participate and then retained. But when parents are experiencing multiple adversities, they are less likely to begin and stay with a program, for myriad reasons. Meaningful and effective strategies are needed to combat these issues.

The difficulty of retaining participants is not unique to parenting education programs; rather, it is a universal challenge faced by community-based human service organizations in cities and towns around the world. 

An Innovative Retention Strategy within the Power of Parenting Program

 At Families First, we have taken cutting-edge research and best practices in the field -- combined with our organizational knowledge and data from almost 30 years of experience in running parenting education programs in the Greater Boston area -- to create an innovative program model that is directly tackling the challenge of retention. 

We hope that the strategies described here will guide other organizations to engage more deeply and successfully with the individuals they serve, leading to better outcomes and efficiencies across the sector. 

Families First’s retention strategy has been deeply embedded in our new comprehensive, research-based Power of Parenting program model. This program gives parents the knowledge, skills, and support networks they need in order to build healthy, nurturing relationships with their children during the important early childhood years (birth to age eight). 

Power of Parenting offers more than 20 total hours of parenting education and support over the course of 16 weeks. This represents a sea change for the organization, as our former model varied widely but offered an average of eight hours over five weeks. 

After running pilots of this program, Families First’s evaluation team shared two key findings: (1) parents who completed the program experienced strong outcomes in the areas of parenting knowledge and skills, resilience, and social connections, and (2) only 27 percent of parents completed two-thirds or more of the program sessions. 

With these findings in mind, we decided to devote significant resources to cracking the code on parent retention within a longer-term model. Our renewed goal was to ensure that parents gained knowledge and skills from the program while also building a lasting network of parenting support. In addition to revisiting reports and research on successful retention strategies, we held focus groups and interviews with parents to hear from them directly about what was keeping them from attending the program. 

Furthermore, we have worked with a variety of partners -- schools, childcare centers, health centers, and other family-serving organizations -- for decades. While some of these organizations have been very successful with family engagement, others have not. Now we have incorporated learnings from successful partner organizations, as well as the experiences of partners who found family engagement to be a major challenge. These voices were absolutely vital in shaping the future of the program. 

The improved Power of Parenting model launched recently, in the early fall of 2017. It includes the following five components that have already shown increased -- and more meaningful -- parent engagement results, and, as a result, improved retention in the program. The quotes under each section represent the voices of parents whose feedback influenced this retention strategy. 

Parents at Urban Edge in Roxbury, MA during a pilot of the Power of Parenting program
Photo credit: Kara Delahunt

1. Interactive Curriculum that Builds Skills and Relationships

“I came for the information, but I got to know and really like the Parenting Educator and the whole group.”

Power of Parenting includes seven interactive, research-based parenting workshops that guide parents to build their knowledge of parenting and child development. The curriculum has been revamped to provide more concrete strategies, solutions, and skill-building activities, which make this knowledge actionable. 

Parents are encouraged to try specific strategies at home and return the following week to share their experiences. This removes the ambiguity of some parenting education curricula (i.e., “how do I actually apply this knowledge with my child?”), and we have found that parents are more excited to return when they are given opportunities to report back to the group.

To round out this aspect of the strategy, three discussion-based Parent Café sessions (developed by Strengthening Families™) are offered in the place of workshops every few weeks. These sessions provide a full 90 minutes for parents to work in small groups and take the lead, share their challenges and successes, and build social connections. After implementing these sessions, more parents reported being excited to come back and see each other -- and we have found these social relationships to be a major force for retention. 

Each program is facilitated by a Families First Parenting Educator, all of whom have expertise in fields such as psychology, social work, and education, as well as deep roots in the communities we serve. In order to help parents build relationships with each other, Parenting Educators use their advanced facilitation skills to create a comfortable environment and engage parents who may be reticent to participate at first. Moreover, because of the increased number of program hours, parents are able to build strong relationships with their Parenting Educator. This keeps them coming back, and some parents even stay in touch with Parenting Educators long after the program ends.  

With these elements in place, the program sessions are interesting, engaging, and enjoyable for parents, all of which creates a strong foundation for retention. 

2. Action Teams at Partner Sites

“I was excited to join the team and bring parenting education to my community because I know how powerful parenting is.”

When service providers unite around common issues, programming becomes more effective and efficient, and the outcomes achieved are more sustainable (Drummond, 2007). Families First works in partnership with other family-serving organizations to bring the Power of Parenting to parents where they are already receiving other services. Partners include community development corporations, early education providers, and other social service networks. This format removes barriers to attendance for many parents, such as transportation or unfamiliarity with an agency.

Before the Power of Parenting program begins at a partner site, an Action Team is created to develop, monitor, and execute a recruitment and retention plan. The participation of Parent Leaders on this team (see #3) is strongly encouraged to maximize outreach efforts. The team plans engagement activities and tasks in accordance with program goals and the partner organization’s capacity, and Families First provides materials for outreach to potential participants. Retention activities executed by this dedicated team include follow-up calls, emails, and text messages targeted to parents who have been absent from the program. 

3. Parent Leadership Training

“It’s not just for my children; it’s for all the children.”

Due to the program’s unique and collaborative group dynamic, certain parents have graduated with a strong drive to help other parents in their communities, and we have seen leaders emerge naturally. This pattern inspired a new Parent Leadership Initiative, which is launching this year. Through this initiative, parents receive leadership guidance and professional development, as well as a monetary stipend for connecting parents in their community to the program, reminding peers of upcoming sessions, and assisting program staff during the sessions. 

Furthermore, their voices are elevated in this role. They can join Families First’s new Advisory Council and/or serve as Parent Ambassadors by speaking at community-wide events to engage other parents. They also provide key feedback and support to make each program stronger. 

4. Mobile App and Text Reminders

“I like how I can communicate with the educator and the other moms… we can have a group chat about our kids.” 

Last year, Families First began experimenting with the use of a mobile app, where parents could find information and videos related to each session. We recently incorporated a new “Forum” tool, through which Parenting Educators and parents can engage in further discussions about each week’s content. Corresponding to the interactive curriculum, the app reminds parents to try new strategies during the week and allows them to ask questions as challenges arise. Their personal experiences are valued and their voices are heard as they share tips and respond to their peers’ parenting concerns. In turn, the Parenting Educator receives real-life data to inform how parents in his or her program are progressing.

Each forum is restricted to the parents in a certain program, which promotes trust and creates a safe environment that is not often found among other online tools. Safety and privacy promote trust and deepen relationships. And when parents communicate throughout the week, they are more likely to come back to the next in-person session. Lastly, we have begun to send text message reminders. Parents’ feedback shows that the texts are effective in helping them remember to attend sessions.

5. Community Resources and Meaningful Incentives

“I didn’t finish high school, so it was hard to find a good paying job. But my son was my motivation.”

When parents are facing a multitude of adversities, their receptivity to parenting education programs may be overwhelmed by other needs. The presence of, or referral to, stable and supportive services can help. In many ways, the partnership-based model fulfils this need. Partner organizations may provide housing services, employment or financial training, early care and literacy programming for children, or access to nutrition and health services. With comprehensive support for the whole family, parents are more likely to have the capacity to commit to a longer-term parenting education program. 

To supplement these services, we have reworked our own program’s incentive structure. Our new Partner Relationship Manager is focused on listening to parents and understanding their personal and family goals in order to shape the incentives that we provide for graduating parents.

New incentives for program graduates include up to three experiential course credits at Urban College of Boston, graduation attire from Dress for Success, college and career guidance from Match Beyond, and family memberships to local museums. As opposed to monetary incentives, which are commonly used in the field, parents have told us that the new incentives we offer are more valuable because they are longer-lasting -- they help parents pursue personal and professional goals or experience new things that their children will remember for a lifetime.

Proven retention strategies such as offering childcare and meals have always been part of our programming. Recently, we have built upon our partnership-based approach to offer two-generational programming at select sites. For the past three years, Jumpstart has provided early literacy programming for children while their parents participated in our programming at Urban Edge housing developments in the under-resourced communities of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. Parents reported that this was a major motivation to keep coming back, as they knew the time was beneficial for their children -- and their children were excited about attending each week. 

Indicators of Progress

In order to ensure successful retention, Families First begins with choosing the right partners for our program. Our team created a Site Assessment Rubric to determine a partner's readiness and fit for the program, including their current level of family involvement and communication with families as well as existing resources and capacity for family services. The rubric results, along with Action Team meetings, help Families First better support selected partners to recruit and retain parents in the program. A post-recruitment survey is also given to partner staff in order to ensure their satisfaction and improve Families First’s recruitment processes.

From parent participants, Families First consistently monitors weekly attendance to analyze trends and identify when individual parent follow-up is needed. At the end of each program, parents are given a survey that is closely tied to the widely-accepted Protective Factors framework, developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. 

The survey includes a combination of questions based on the Nurturance subscale of the Child-Rearing Practices Report, a validated measure, as well as additional questions related to parental resilience and social connections. The majority of the questions ask parents to rate how true each statement was for them before and after the program. For example, one statement reads “I express my affection by hugging, kissing, and holding my child,” while another reads “I use other parents for parenting ideas and strategies.” Positive change in these areas strengthens each parent’s relationship with their children and their community, which ultimately increases their ability to support their family’s long-term success.

Parents are also asked about their satisfaction with the program, which provides insight into the aspects that motivate them to keep coming back. For programs that are currently running, as of week four, 88 percent of parents who came to the first week have returned compared to 57 percent during the same week in last year’s programs.  

A Unique Approach

Families First’s partnership-based approach puts us in a strong position to eliminate barriers to attendance for parents. When parents have to travel to a distinct location to receive parenting education -- versus their local school or community center -- transportation can be a challenge. Furthermore, accessing parenting education from a separate provider while receiving other supportive services elsewhere can be overwhelming. A streamlined partnership-based approach enables parents to participate in our program where they are already congregating to receive other services -- or even right where they live.

We have also seen the unique benefits of training and supporting a corps of expert Parenting Educators to carry out our programs, as opposed to utilizing a train-the-trainer model. 100 percent of partner organizations gave our Parenting Educators the highest possible rating, and parents’ positive feedback often centers on their relationship with the Parenting Educator. As mentioned above, these relationships keep parents coming back each week, which is key to retaining parents for the duration of our programming.

As the organization invested a great deal of time and resources to develop the Power of Parenting curriculum, our Parenting Educators are offered regular trainings and ongoing support from our staff in order to ensure fidelity to this curriculum. This level of consistent program quality is attainable because of a model that supports the training and growth of this select group of educators. 

We consider our Parent Leaders and Ambassadors to be important advocates for our programs and we utilize their voices in other agency endeavors, such as our annual fundraiser. Families First also recognizes the need for a balance between engaging and supporting Parent Leaders -- enabling them to “own” the work and develop as parents within their community -- while also relying on the expertise of our trained educators. 

Even when parents’ official role is complete and the programs are over, Parenting Educators have been known to be invited and attend graduates’ personal milestone events such as GED ceremonies. This relationship makes us unique because it moves the organization beyond traditional recruitment and retention efforts and is a confirmation of our longer-term impact.

Sustainability through Diverse Funding

Traditional revenue streams, including private and corporate foundations and individual donors, are fueling the Power of Parenting program. We have heard from several Boston-based funders that improved attendance and retention will strengthen our case for support, and we anticipate increased funding as our evaluation data begin to show more progress in this area. 

Meanwhile, the organization is moving in a direction that will diversify our revenue mix by increasing earned revenue. Partner organizations have always paid modest fees that help to secure their commitment to the work while offsetting some costs. The Power of Parenting program, with its value-added components of partner and parent leadership support, is appealing to a new tier of community partners. 

New partnerships with larger service providers will offer an avenue for both reduced costs and increased revenue. For example, by working with one organization that has five program sites, we will create efficiencies in our use of staff time for partnership-building and maintenance. It is also more likely that the recruitment and retention strategies that worked at one site will work at another site within each agency’s network. Parent Leaders and Ambassadors from Child Care Center A can provide support and guidance for Child Care Center B’s launch, as well. Furthermore, we anticipate that adding a comprehensive parenting education program across all sites will increase a partner agency’s competitive advantage for their own funding.

A Strategic Growth Plan Ensures Continued Success

The success of the Power of Parenting’s recruitment and retention strategy is, in many ways, driven by the Action Teams, composed of parent, partner, and staff representatives. In particular, the new role of Partner Relationship Manager is key to scaling the program, so growing the capacity of this position within our organization is an important next step. 

Scaling is also most successful when there is a clear set of standards identifying the “readiness” of the partner to launch the program in their community. Our Site Assessment Rubric has proven invaluable in this regard. It has helped us identify community partners with the appropriate resources (i.e., high capacity for parent engagement) as well as the potential to grow efficiently. Scaling within this type of partnership model also lends itself to accumulating consistent data as we continue to evaluate our impact in the community. 

With robust resources, appropriate staffing, and an efficient partnership model, Families First is able to successfully improve parent recruitment and retention to maximize the impact of the interactive, research-based Power of Parenting program and increase positive outcomes for families.

Families First’s trajectory follows the recommendations of researchers and leaders in the field as well as the voices of our own clients and partners who have an acute knowledge of Boston’s unique challenges and opportunities. As such, our team hopes that the successes we have realized in the area of parent retention will inform other agencies, practitioners, and policymakers who are seeking out the strongest methods for ensuring the health, well-being, and resilience of our local families and neighborhoods.

Works Cited

Caspe, Margaret, and Elena M. Lopez. "Lessons from Family-Strengthening Interventions: Learning from Evidence-Based Practice." Harvard Family Research Project (2006).

Drummond, Jane. “Parent Support Programs and Early Childhood Development: Comments on Goodson, and Trivette and Dunst.” Parenting Skills (2007).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2016).

Author Bios 

Susan Covitz MSW

Sue is Families First’s Executive Director. She has held leadership positions with the organization for more than a decade, serving as the Director of Strategic Partnerships, Director of Outreach and Education, and Deputy Director. Prior to joining Families First, Sue served as the Executive Director of Greater Options for Adolescent Lives and has more than 20 years of experience in non-profit management, coalition building, and community organizing. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Haverford College and a Master of Social Work from Boston College. Sue is the parent of two college-age daughters and participated as a parent in Families First workshops when her children were toddlers.

Jill Brevik MS

Jill is the Associate Director of External Relations at Families First, and she has been with the organization since 2014. Prior to this, she was part of the financial development team at the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. Jill began her career in nonprofit management after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Vermont and traveling to Southeast Asia where she volunteered with several education-based organizations. Upon returning, she joined Boston’s nonprofit community to use writing and storytelling to help local populations in need. Jill also received a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management from Northeastern University, and she is the proud mother of a two-year-old son. 


Executive Summary

We know social capital and civic engagement are powerful drivers of opportunity and upward mobility. So how can we build these networks in low-income communities using tools in our world today?

My former middle-school student Brian was murdered in North Philadelphia a few months ago, a victim of gang violence. Alia, another former student of mine, is the first in her family to earn a college diploma, graduating this past spring from the University of Pennsylvania. She has accepted a prestigious internship in Washington, D.C.

The tragedy of Brian’s murder is palpable; his story is too common in North Philadelphia. But so too is Alia’s story. She is not the first to be catapulted from her circumstances by parts grit, luck, and immense talent. Due to her success, Alia is not really able to go back home, because home has few networks of opportunity for her.

Reflecting on my eight years teaching in and leading KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, Brian’s murder and Alia’s graduation have both had the same net impact on North Philadelphia. They are both tremendous losses to the future prospects of their community.

Those of us engaged in social innovation leadership aim to spark new opportunities so that the least among us can succeed. But our tireless efforts are not creating sustainable intergenerational networks that build and improve entire communities from within.

In 2013, with these frustrations brewing, I moved back to the Boston area with my wife and two daughters. We sought a “village” to help raise our children; my parents still live in Cambridge, and my sister had returned as well.

I immediately confronted a city of economic extremes. Boston is a city of tremendous innovation, education, and wealth. Yet, its residents face the greatest income inequality of any city in the country. Life expectancy in predominantly African-American Roxbury is 58.9 years. Just up Massachusetts Avenue the inequity is painfully clear: life expectancy in the more affluent and white Back Bay neighborhood is 84.2 years. A difference of 25 years in just a few blocks.

For more than one year I met with hundreds of Bostonians from across the city for one-on-one conversational meetings. Among those struggling, two themes emerged. First, taking extra shifts at work or second jobs resulted in a trade-off with family time and community participation. Second, Boston had no shortage of programs and resources for low-income residents, but networks of information about organizations were difficult to access and often disconnected from people who would benefit.  

Low-income communities face not only wealth, achievement, and life expectancy gaps, but also a profound civic engagement and trust gap as well. The mechanisms for getting to know neighbors and working towards the collective good are not as strong as they once were in tightknit intergenerational communities. Yet still, my conversations reinforced that:

  1. We are Social: No matter where in the world we live, we strive to interact and share with each other.
  2. We are Aspirational: Virtually all of us want what is best for our families and our futures, and these interests drive many of our choices and behaviors.
  3. We are Interdependent: Our fortunes are linked to those around us, which means we have a vested interest in the community network outside our front door. 
  4. We Are Wired: For good or bad, we are connected to new technology. 

Using these observations, I launched Union Capital Boston (UCB) in 2014. UCB is a loyalty program that rewards families with low incomes for taking actions that support their own goals while also strengthening community and civic life. 

Membership in UCB is a simple but powerful value proposition. We spark individual opportunities by rewarding members for volunteering at their children’s schools, participating in adult education classes, attending healthy living programs, and more. These engagement activities connect people with new organizations, networks, and opportunities.  

We have more than 1,000 members who have signed up to use a simple web application to find, track, and earn points for their community engagement. Points are then converted - not into free coffee or movie tickets -- but into Visa gift cards. Members earn $200 a year on average to use however they see fit. In total, our members have earned over $300,000 since we launched just three years ago. As a non-profit, we raise our money philanthropically. 20 percent of our revenue comes from mission-driven community institutions, such as schools and health centers, that partner with us to increase their member engagement and well-being.

UCB members’ average unemployment rate when they join is 22 percent. Boston’s overall unemployment rate as of August 2017 was just 3.6 percent. We have run two independent analyses measuring UCB member unemployment and the results have been fascinating:

  • Two years in a row, analyses show a 33-percentage point decline in unemployment for our members, compared with when members first joined UCB, from 22 percent to 15 percent. Our most active members reported an even higher decline.
  • UCB members with a high school education or less were nearly 20 percent more likely to be employed after one year with UCB than a member who just joined.

Is this because of our small cash reward? Clearly not. It is because we offered a new invitation to connect with community networks, get involved, and invest in improving our neighborhoods.

James, an early member, earned UCB Points by becoming more involved at his daughter’s middle school. He earned a $200 Visa card which he used to pay off parking tickets at city hall and get the metal boot removed from the wheel of his car. With his vehicle back, he was able to drive to a higher paying food services job and better support his daughter's education.

Jalia paid off her credit card bill. Claudia traveled with her family to New Hampshire for their first vacation in more than a decade. Julie bought a new pair of prescription glasses. Nancy bought school supplies to donate to her daughter’s school.

A member notes, “UCB has improved my life by sharing information about activities, programs, and community resources that benefit my family. I feel a part of a network of people that want to make a difference in our communities.”

“UCB has invited me to create change,” declares another member, “not just talk about it.”

“Union Capital members participate in a weekly Network Night gathering to make connections, share resources, and build social capital.”
Photo Credit: Eric Leslie

How have we achieved these results? I believe it is our compelling new invitation for civic engagement. We reward the tradeoff we have to make to step out into public life. We recognize the self-agency and networks we all need to land job interviews, support our kids in school, keep each other safe, and live healthier, more informed lives. Among UCB members we see increases in voter registration, stable employment, and greater outcomes for kids, factors which lead to more joyful, connected lives.

We know from research that greater civic engagement correlates with statistically significant declines in unemployment. We also see what happens to communities when social capital declines, when resources are scarce, when injustice pervades, and trust erodes. Brian and Alia are the pilot lights that remind me of the losses we all suffer.

At the conclusion of Evicted, the powerful book by Matthew Desmond, he quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, “It is difficult to force a man out of himself and get him to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state. But if it is a question of taking a road past his property, he sees at once that this small public matter has a bearing on his greatest private interests.” Desmond himself continues, “It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautify a playground, or running for school board.” (p. 294) 

Union Capital Boston is a 21st Century strategy designed to address Tocqueville’s understanding about individual interests and the greater affairs of the whole. UCB’s vision brings online operational infrastructure together with community practices for real-time, real-place human networks and exchange.

Visionary Black leaders organized a bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama in 1955 without text messaging or Twitter. They built a durable network of trust and relationships that we too often lack today. Imagine what we can create with today’s technology when we refocus on building public relationships and reimagine our shared public spaces as incubators for networks of opportunity.

Brian should not have died at nineteen. Alia should not have to leave her neighborhood in order to prosper. The systemic oppressive realities dictate these outcomes. By reorganizing and energizing a new network for civic engagement I believe that our collective outcomes, both individual and communal, can improve. It is the social networks we cultivate together that build sustainable pathways of power and opportunity.

Author Bio

Eric Leslie

Eric Leslie is the founder and lead organizer of Union Capital Boston -

Works Cited

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  • Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishing, 2016), 294.

Right now, two out of three Philadelphia school children enter the 4th grade unable to read at grade level, a critical milestone in the development of any child. Those failing to meet it are more likely to stay and even fall further behind in future grades, as classroom instruction shifts quickly from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn. 

Low achievement. School dropout. Joblessness. Research shows clear correlations between all of these and failing to read by 4th. 

We as a city must do better. And now there are clear signs we are doing just that. 

With Philadelphia’s youngest readers posting standardized reading scores that outpace state gains for the first time, we’re showing what’s possible when we come together and embrace our collective responsibility to give all of our children their best shot at success.

The citywide Read by 4th coalition, convened and managed by the Free Library of Philadelphia, was founded on the principle of shared responsibility. Comprising more than ninety organizations, we are parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, researchers, pediatricians, community organizers, faith leaders, overseers of parks and rec centers, neighborhood shop owners, nonprofit organizations, grocers, launderers, barbers, stylists, and countless others.

While our near-term goal is to more than double the number of entering 4th graders reading at grade level by 2020, our ultimate goal is give every Philadelphia child the same chance to succeed in school and life as strong readers. We know key levers for achieving this end goal are kindergarten readiness, regular attendance, quality instruction, and out-of-school enrichment. Using solid research on these levers and lessons learned from the field, we’ve carefully crafted strategies tied to bold ideas that encourage us to activate every available resource. But what’s energizing the nation’s largest early literacy initiative is not new policy and programs but the most affordable and universal resource of all: the love shared between grownups and their children. There’s nothing socially innovative about this type of love; indeed, it makes humanity possible. The innovation comes, however, in its targeted application to reading.  

Since Read by 4th’s launch, we’ve been telling grownups that “your child’s love of reading begins with you,” to emphasize the transformative role we each can play. This “we” can mean virtually anyone who cares about, and can connect with, children and their families. We know a family’s love for their children can be transformed into the secret sauce for building their children’s ability to read. And we know that without tapping into this magical resource, we could still make gains in school readiness, attendance, out-of-school enrichment, and quality instruction -- but reaching our ultimate goal would be nearly, if not completely, impossible.  

To tap into a family’s love for their children, we share with parents how much spending time with their children counts, from infancy through schooling. (After all, our children spend more than 80 percent of their time outside of school.) And we remind them that it doesn’t take extra money, time, special expertise, or even great reading skills on their part. In fact, research shows that when we make more room for teachable moments in our everyday interactions with the children we love, we help them achieve the developmental payoffs and leaps in reading that we seek. 

Parents can now get free teachable-moment tips through Ready4K and Vroom (a texting service and app, respectively), which can help build reading skills from infancy onward. Later this year, we’ll be encouraging parents and other loving grownups to make a “Reading Promise” to a child they love.

We’re jump-starting good habits early by letting kindergarten families know every day counts, from start to finish, and giving elementary school principals tools to support school attendance. We’ve joined forces with teachers to help everyone understand their child’s reading level and how to find books that are the right fit for their child. It’s now easier than ever to find summer programs that include reading enrichment as part of their overall programming. 

An ever-growing number of Philadelphians are helping to bring to life one of our core mottos: Reading Is Everywhere. Philadelphia is now home to nearly 400 “book nooks” in unexpected places, like laundromats and corner stores. Neighborhood barbers and hair stylists are offering discounted haircuts to any child who reads them a book while seated in their chair. Faith groups are proudly announcing to their entire congregations the names of families whose children are achieving in school. 

Plans are underway to pilot reading adventures in popular neighborhood groceries that mix in conversation starters throughout their store signage -- right at kids’ eye level. 

We’ve made it central to our community organizing around reading that we applaud everyday Reading Heroes and identify, recruit, and support neighborhood Reading Captains and school-based Attendance Ambassadors. 

The clarion Read by 4th call-to-action -- mobilizing public will and harnessing a family’s love -- is happening at a time when our mayor has run on a platform promising to expand and improve early childhood education; school district leadership is investing heavily in the coaching and support of teachers to build a track record of steady academic improvement within our schools; and funders of all kinds are committing new resources to the cause. Meanwhile, our network of nonprofit organizations is working to identify and implement the best practices from around the country in order to ensure that families in Philadelphia can access high quality early childhood education and out-of-school time programs that are integrating research-based literacy interventions.

All of this amounts to creating the kinds of experiences as a community that can significantly improve the reading skills of-- and hence lifelong opportunities for -- all children who grow up in Philadelphia. 

Imagine settling for anything less.