Magazine menu

Wed, Jan


This article describes how Congreso, a Philadelphia multiservice nonprofit serving the Latino community, recognized the strength of its service delivery model and community trust to lead community partnerships in multiplying educational opportunities for youth and adults. Historically, Congreso made high-quality human service delivery its core business. But as the organization grew and funding diversified, no one model clearly defined the organization’s service delivery across multiple programs. Congreso developed a service delivery model (Primary Client Management℠) to strengthen collaboration among 300+ employees working in 50+ diverse programs that would result in increased coordination and better service to participants enrolled in multiple services.

Congreso’s self-assessment also inevitably identified service and resource gaps that pointed to broader partnerships opportunities. Leading with its strength, Congreso used its trusted reputation in the community to introduce new partners who provide needed services Congreso could not offer efficiently alone.

The shift toward better internal service integration and broader-scale partnerships allowed Congreso to simultaneously strengthen and extend its “core business” —human services delivery—within multiple partnerships. As a result, Congreso provides human services to over 14,000 unique clients annually with a smaller budget than might be expected for a large, multiservice agency.

Congreso’s Mission

Congreso primarily serves the neighborhoods of Eastern North Philadelphia where a high concentration of the city’s Latino population resides. The organization’s mission is to “strengthen Latino communities through social, economic, education, and health services; leadership development; and advocacy” (Congreso de Latinos Unidos 2011a). Poverty and its complex relationship to education, employment, health and family stability have been well documented. A few statistics illustrate the complexity of the relationship:

  • In Philadelphia, 61 percent of Latinos live in poverty (Congreso de Latinos Unidos 2009).
  • Nationally, Latinos are 25 percent less likely to earn high school diplomas than their non-Hispanic white peers (Congreso de Latinos Unidos 2009).
  • At 13.8 percent in 2008, the Pennsylvania Latino population had the highest unemployment rate of any measured race or ethnic group, more than double the average for Pennsylvania (The Reinvestment Fund 2009).
  • Growing by nearly 60,000 individuals between the 2000 and 2010 census, the Philadelphia Hispanic/Latino population outgrew all other racial and ethnic groups combined (U.S. Census Bureau 2001, 2011).
  • One-third of the population without health insurance in this country are Latinos (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005).
  • The community in which Congreso works has many cases of lung disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, asthma, heart disease and mental health conditions (Congreso de Latinos Unidos 2011b).

Historical Unemployment by Race—State of Pennsylvania

Source: The Reinvestment Fund 2009

Population Change by Ethnicity and Race — 2000 to 2010 : Philadelphia County

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2001, 2011


Started in 1977 by local Puerto Rican activists seeking social and economic opportunity for the expanding Latino community in Philadelphia, Congreso had large goals of community empowerment but limited resources and programs to accomplish them. In 1979, Congreso received a $15,000 grant from the City of Philadelphia to offer bilingual drug and alcohol counseling. Additional services and funding followed as Congreso began building its reputation as a provider of human services in health, education and employment in the community.

In the 1990s, Congreso enjoyed unprecedented growth and recognition. A wider circle of funders and policymakers took notice. Congreso’s growing reputation required greater accountability. Congreso made organizational changes to streamline decision-making and better meet professional standards of service delivery, and financial and data management.

In 2001, Congreso began receiving large-scale federal grants and launched a major capital campaign for its new headquarters. At the same time, the organization focused on developing its ability to collect, analyze and report data to guide client services, assess programs and improve accountability.

In 2007, Congreso’s Board of Directors and executive leadership took a hard look at organizational data that showed both the persistence of many of the social problems that inspired Congreso’s grassroots beginnings and the promise of using data to inform new approaches to old problems. Complex social problems—public health needs, unemployment, poor education—cannot be solved by a single program, organization or system working alone. Change depends on collaboration and broad-scale sector partnerships that recognize each partner’s strengths and limitations. For example, data showed that as Congreso grew, so did the challenge of integrating services internally and fulfilling expectations that Congreso served as a one-stop shop for all the community’s social needs. A closer look at the data revealed that employees and programs often worked in isolation without considering the client’s well-being beyond the presenting problem. On a larger scale, Congreso leaders realized that to reach excellence, the organization needed to define those services it could deliver as the best in the field and seek partnerships for those services other organizations could provide better.

The Assessment: Identifying Areas of Excellence

Congreso’s self-assessment confirmed the organization’s commitment to high-quality service delivery in support of greater client self-sufficiency. Specifically, Congreso identified its strengths in education, workforce development, health and wellness, and family support services. Congreso also identified client management as a “core business” and created a service approach – Primary Client Management℠—to improve the quality of resource sharing and referral among 50+ client managers and set performance standards for service delivery across agency programs.

Among the four service areas, education stood out as central and became the focus for delivering Primary Client Management services within broader partnerships. Congreso identified specific youth and adult client education outcomes including high school graduation, GED or alternative high school graduation for high school dropouts, and a two-year college degree for adults. Primary Client Management supports each outcome by giving clients access to Congreso’s full range of health and family services.

Instead of trying to offer all necessary education services itself, Congreso used its trusted reputation to introduce and strengthen existing organizations in the community. Congreso decided to partner with Pan American Academy Charter School to create a community-based elementary school that integrates Congreso’s human service delivery on-site. The Pan American partnership seeks to reduce the high percentage of students who later drop out of high school in Philadelphia.

Congreso also recognized a commitment to re-engaging current dropouts with GED and alternative high school opportunities through partnerships, again offering human service support aimed at the unique needs of these students.

Finally, Congreso aimed to make post-secondary education more accessible to community adults by partnering with Harcum College, an existing and accredited college that opened satellites in the Congreso community. Harcum at Congreso students earn an associate’s degree with the option to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The partnership keeps costs low and provides a personalized learning experience supported by Congreso’s Primary Client Management services.

The Innovation: Building Partnerships to Leverage Resources

In building partnerships, Congreso redefined its role to clients and partners. For clients, Congreso’s Primary Client Management service delivery means that outcomes —such as high school graduation or an associate’s degree—are considered in a client-centered and holistic perspective in the context of the client’s health, family and community. Whenever possible, Congreso client managers offer clients the agency’s health and family services that extend beyond the classroom. The integration of the Primary Client Management model into many of the partnerships ensures that Congreso’s mission and service delivery quality remains strong within the partnership.

In relation to its partners, Congreso sees potential in expanding its role as more of a guide and overseer than outright competitor. The shift plays to Congreso’s strengths and recognizes that community clients are more willing to access and trust an unfamiliar partner organization if Congreso introduces it and informs its service delivery under Primary Client Management.

The innovations positioned Congreso and its partners to compete for funds that support broader initiatives. Funders generally do not commit the sizeable resources needed for broad-scale partnerships without a central organization with a well-defined and sizable constituency and ability to provide administrative oversight. Partnerships have helped Congreso maintain mission and fiscal health while leveraging more resources to address complex social problems.

“Build It Yourself”: A Comparison

In contrast to Congreso, other large multiservice nonprofits have approached each new need by building and adding to their own infrastructures. The “build it yourself” approach seeks to develop a seamless continuum of services under one roof with easy access to data and more direct control over service quality. The large organizations that use this self-contained approach often develop a strong brand based in part on their size, scope and ability to attract attention and money.

The “build it yourself” approach is not without considerable risk, especially for smaller, less visible and less well funded organizations with an eye for expanding their impact. The approach requires a much steeper learning curve for each expansion in operations. Adherents to this model must hire far more personnel, purchase and maintain far more real estate, and raise far more funds than is necessary for the partnerships Congreso developed to expand its programming. This greater level of financial exposure can, in turn, potentially limit the amount and quality of new initiatives. Congreso provides intensive direct support to over 14,000 individuals each year, with a budget of $22 million.

Vulnerabilities: Potential Partnership Pitfalls

Challenges of Congreso’s early partnerships are the remaining gaps in the continuum of services, role clarity, and the challenge of collecting meaningful data from multiple partners.

Gaps in the continuum of services remain as Congreso builds the partnerships necessary to provide “cradle to college” services within the community. Finding the best partners, introducing them to the community, and integrating Primary Client Management services becomes more efficient with each partnership built. But each partnership has its own specific negotiations that would be largely unnecessary if Congreso built the service alone.

Another potential pitfall of partnerships is Congreso’s lack of direct control over the quality of client services. The degree to which Primary Client Management is integrated into each partnership varies and with this variation comes different degrees of accountability for data collection, performance management and service quality control. While Congreso does have the ability to evaluate client data and the performance of partner organizations, it must often influence change indirectly and with care not to deteriorate the trust upon which the partnership rests.

That said, Congreso’s influence as a trusted partner does not depend on its acting as the only source of comprehensive data. Much of Congreso’s strength comes from its willingness to make an impact incrementally. Regarding data collection and analysis, Congreso is able to remain a valued lead partner because it holds itself and its partners accountable with an emphasis on client-centered data and results. Thus, while the need for greater precision remains, an emphasis and structure exists to achieve the quality of data needed to achieve that over time.

Social Impact: Adaptable Applicability and Community- and Sector-Wide Transformation

In the near term, Congreso’s primary social impact is the way it influences lifestyle choices among the 14,000 individuals it serves annually. The impact potential is especially transformative among those who choose to enroll in higher education who before were unaware of the opportunity or saw no realistic way to access it.

On average, the difference in lifetime income for a high-school dropout and achieving a two-year college degree is over $400,000. The social impact is significant; greater earning power brings with it choices and opportunity, often representing the difference between a job and jail, and can lead to stronger families and safer, more successful communities (Congreso de Latinos Unidos 2009).

In the longer term, Congreso’s Primary Client Management model is flexible enough to integrate into diverse partnerships and allow Congreso to influence service delivery in multiple sectors where it may be missing as a key ingredient in achieving client outcomes. Currently services provided by the Primary Client Management model are being evaluated within a third-party outcomes study for a youth drop-out prevention program. Results to date find that Primary Client Management supports are associated with improved school attendance.

In the final analysis, Congreso’s innovation is one that not only seeks greater self-sufficiency for Congreso’s clients, but also greater efficiency and influence for Congreso and its partners.

Dan Halprin and Sarah Silver both received a Master of Science in Nonprofit/NGO Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice in May 2011.


Congreso de Latinos Unidos. (2011a). Our Mission. Available at (accessed January 9, 2011).

Congreso de Latinos Unidos. (2011b). General Information About Latinos Living in Philadelphia. Available at (accessed January 10, 2011)

Congreso de Latinos Unidos. (2009). Investment Plan 2009. Available at

The Reinvestment Fund. (2009, July). Impacts of Changes in the Home Mortgage Market on Hispanic Homeowners in Philadelphia. Available at (accessed May 24, 2011),

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). Table QT-PL: Race, Hispanic or Latino, Age, and Housing Occupancy: 2010. 2010 Census Redistricting Data (Public Law 94-171) Summary File.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2001). Table QT-PL: Race, Hispanic or Latino, and Age: 2000. 2000 Census Redistricting Data (Public Law 94-171) Summary File.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. ASPE Issue Brief: Overview of the Uninsured in the United States: An Analysis of the 2005 Current Population Survey. Available at (accessed May 31, 2011).


The Salvation Army Kroc Center of Philadelphia is a state-of-the-art community center uniquely situated at the juncture of several struggling and affluent Philadelphia neighborhoods. Through its facilities and programs, the Kroc Center is working to narrow the disparity in access to enrichment opportunities that exists between low-income and affluent communities. By providing high-quality programs, facilities and opportunities, and maintaining a commitment to high achievement standards, the Kroc Center is inspiring residents in low-income communities to expect more of themselves, both enhancing residents’ dignity and challenging conventional methods of providing temporary assistance to needy families. A secondary goal of the Kroc Center is that newly empowered citizens, motivated to change their own lives for the better, will also have a positive impact on their community as a whole. This article discusses the need and impetus for construction of the Kroc Center, and describes its facilities, innovative qualities, social return on investment and replicability.

The Problem: Disparities in Access to Resources for Enrichment

The opportunity for physical, academic, athletic and spiritual betterment is something everyone deserves, regardless of age, race or class. Relative to their more affluent counterparts, however, residents of disadvantaged communities typically lack access to these opportunities. This inequity contributes to multiple health and social problems. Evidence shows that people living in lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods have an increased prevalence of health problems and that higher rates of vandalism, neighborhood disturbances, litter and lack of entertainment and shopping are linked to poor health, psychological distress and impaired physical function (Steptoe and Feldman 2001). Residents in low-income communities are also more frequently unemployed and underemployed. In the fourth quarter of 2009, underemployment was 13 times higher among workers in the lowest income bracket than among workers in the top income brackets. The unemployment rate for those in the bottom income bracket was close to 31 percent, nearly 10 times higher than in the top bracket (Sum and Khatiwada 2010).

Further compounding the plight of low-income neighborhoods is the lack of access to affordable facilities that foster personal and socioeconomic growth. Treuhaft and Kapryn (2010) observed that low-income areas tend to have half as many supermarkets and more than twice as many mini-marts as compared to middle- and high-income areas, and food stores in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to stock unhealthy foods as well as offer lower-quality items with higher prices. Since ease of access to healthy food is correlated with healthier eating (Treuhaft and Karpyn 2010), it seems evident that residents of lower-income neighborhoods are significantly constrained in their ability to practice healthy eating habits, contributing to higher rates of obesity and other health problems.

Similar disparities exist between low-income and affluent neighborhoods with regard to access to extracurricular activities and enrichment opportunities. Researchers found just 23 activities per 1,000 youth in the urban community, compared to 71 per 1,000 youth in the suburban community. In addition, programs offered to youth in underserved communities were frequently preventive in nature, such as drug prevention and pregnancy prevention, while those available in suburban communities were generally oriented around sports, art classes, music lessons and clubs (Littell and Wynn 1989 cited in Miller 2003).

Locally, the problem of social disparities is further complicated by the high dropout rate among Philadelphia high school students, which is particularly concentrated among low-income students (Neild and Balfanz 2006). Among schools with a very high poverty population, over 25 percent of students were dropouts or near-dropouts. The dropout rate in the Kroc Center’s Tioga neighborhood is nearly 20 percent. Schools characterized by the highest rates of poverty house half of the city’s high school students, yet they account for 71 percent of the city’s dropouts (Neild and Balfanz 2006).

The Story: Deficient Institutional Opportunity and Personal Perseverance

Philadelphia, like all major cities across the country, is grappling with the social consequences of poverty and inequality in resource allocation. The Kroc Center is located in an area of Philadelphia that previously thrived, where many residents were employed in a nearby industrial park. However, as the factories closed, the community entered a period of decline and the neighborhood has faced numerous challenges.

Communities may become and remain disadvantaged because of failures within two primary competing forces: the structure of institutions such as government and corporations, and the psychological well-being of the community residents. A failure of the former occurs, for example, when federal aid is insufficient to provide healthy food or when ineffective government incentives leave corporations indifferent toward investing in disadvantaged areas. Failure of the second is manifested in the hearts and minds of the community members themselves. According to this argument, it is the responsibility of individuals to disengage from the cycle of poverty on their own accord, through determination and diligence (Unger and West 1998; Dyson 2009).

These factors were a catalytic force behind the creation of the Salvation Army Kroc Center. Currently there are 11 Kroc Center locations nationally, with an additional 15 locations scheduled to be built over the next several years (Salvation Army: Kroc Centers, n.d.). Philanthropist Joan Kroc had a vision to build state-of-the-art community centers in underserved areas and, in 1998, donated $90 million to the Salvation Army to build the first Kroc Center in San Diego, California. The mission of the Center was to ensure that everyone, regardless of background, had an equal opportunity to achieve personal transformation (Salvation Army Croc Center of Philadelphia, About Us 2010). After the San Diego Kroc Center opened in 2001, and witnessing its success, Mrs. Kroc bequeathed $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army for construction of similar centers around the country.

The Salvation Army Kroc Center of Philadelphia, which opened on November 1, 2010, is a continuation of Joan Kroc’s dream. The Philadelphia Kroc Center seeks to provide programs that address the health, educational, recreational, economic and spiritual needs of its members. The programs, as well as the building itself, have been designed to “stimulate the mind, body and spirit, to provide hope, and to transform the life of each and every member of the community” (Salvation Army Kroc Center of Philadelphia 2010). The Kroc Center is unique in its efforts to address the main contributors to disadvantaged communities—the viability of area buildings and infrastructure as well as residents’ psychological well-being. Both types of investment help to empower community members to achieve better outcomes (Swift and Levin 1987 cited in Perkins and Zimmerman 1995; for a further discussion of empowerment see Rappaport 1987; Zimmerman 1995).

The Innovation: Offering Underserved Populations World-Class Facilities and Services

A great deal of social inequality can be traced to disparities in resource allocation and availability. More affluent communities have access to a greater range and a higher caliber of resources than low-income communities (Littell and Wynn 1989 cited in Miller 2003). With this in mind, the central mission of the Kroc Center is simple and yet innovative: Raise expectations and outcomes in underserved populations by offering world-class facilities and services. The Kroc Center offers a wide spectrum of services to its members, including educational services and job training, fitness opportunities, and programs related to spirituality. Based on the central tenets of community involvement, self-improvement and family cohesion, the Kroc Center is supplying the residents of Philadelphia with the tools necessary to transform their lives and acting as a catalyst for change, creating ripple effects that will spread and eventually touch the entire community.

The Kroc Center’s facilities are expansive, sitting on 12 acres in North Philadelphia. The entryway of the main building is dominated by a large stained-glass window, which leads the way to the lounge, complete with a fireplace. There is a two-story fitness center, family aquatic center, competition-grade pool, basketball courts, soccer fields, multimedia education and arts classrooms, worship and performing arts center, conference and training centers, public café, and garden where planting begins every season. The aquatic center features a lazy river, lap swim pool, and separate warm water pool, making it the perfect place for families to spend time together. The on-site café sells healthy meals and snacks and barista-prepared beverages to enjoy indoors or outside in one of the picnic areas. The food prepared in the Kroc Center’s professional-grade kitchen offers healthy choices, with a great portion of the organic produce cultivated in their horticultural area. A variety of school-age sporting teams, including swimming, lacrosse, soccer and football, make use of the Kroc Center’s Olympic-level pool, synthetic turf field and stadium lighting. Recently the Kroc Center hosted the Army and Navy swimming teams for a competition, and a local farmer’s market has partnered with the Kroc Center to provide low-cost access to locally sourced foods.

The Kroc Center’s flagship initiative, executed in partnership with nationally recognized swim coach Jim Ellis, is to develop and administer a swim program to be housed within the Kroc Center’s aquatic center. A primary focus of Ellis and the Kroc Center is to bring into the program minorities—African Americans in particular—who historically have lacked exposure to or opportunity to participate in swim programs.

Ellis’s intention is to change the perception of swimming as a predominantly Caucasian, suburban-only sport, by basing his swim program in a disadvantaged, majority African American community. Both Ellis and the Kroc Center aim to transform the lives of young African Americans by teaching them to swim, believing that giving young people the chance to participate in such a program will teach them much more. Ellis is acting as a mentor to the youth at the Kroc Center, helping them build self-esteem, confidence and pride. He says, “The need for a world-class swim center in Philadelphia is so great right now. Having access to swimming programs not only gets at-risk kids off the streets, it inspires them to lead healthy lifestyles and have goals and dreams” (Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia 2008).

After-school programs are strongly emphasized at the Kroc Center, with a focus on academics and the arts. Alyson Goodner, Assistant Program Director for the Kroc Center, wants to ensure that, while the programs are academic in nature, they are very different from what students experience at school. The aim is to implement multifaceted programs that incorporate academics, the arts and athletics, so that participants have the opportunity to experience the interconnectedness of sports, creativity and academic learning. Too often, athletics and, to an even larger extent, artistic experiences are segregated from academics, and valuable opportunities for self-discovery are lost. Bridging the gap between athletics, arts and academics offers a more holistic, meaningful learning experience, and at the same time provides a more well-rounded approach for tracking a child’s progress.

The Kroc Center, with its high-quality facilities and robust service offerings, stands as a beacon of hope, facilitates positive experiences for its members, fosters family cohesion, supports community involvement and encourages self-improvement. As a function of the Kroc Center’s influence, the potential for positive engagement in the community increases significantly, both from community residents and outside stakeholders. For instance, having the Kroc Center in place may encourage government involvement to support or replicate its programs. Corporations and private foundations may be moved to expand into or invest in the area. Property values in the neighborhood may increase, benefiting homeowners and business owners. And, most importantly, community members may experience personal growth that will lead to better opportunities within their own daily lives. This potential will be met and sustained only with involvement by the aforementioned and the community for which the Kroc Center was built.

Social Return on Investment (SROI)

With its multifaceted approach to self-improvement, and a particular emphasis on fitness and youth programming, the Kroc Center generates a notable SROI by contributing to a reduction in the number of high school dropouts and by increasing the fitness levels of its members. Failure to complete high school and poor health are known to be major financial drains on society, and the projected positive financial impact of improving each can be calculated.

Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between extracurricular activities and graduation rates. One study found that participation in athletic activities significantly reduces a student’s likelihood of dropping out (McNeil 1995). Another study found that students participating in athletics were 5 percent more likely to aspire to college attendance than non-participating students. That number doubled to 10 percent if sports participation was paired with an additional form of extracurricular participation (Lipscomb 2006, cited in Hartmann 2008).

It is clear that “engagement in school extracurricular activities is linked to decreasing rates of early school dropout in both boys and girls” (Mahoney and Cairns 1997: 248). Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between level of education and salary (Fogg et al. 2009). As more at-risk youth become members of the Kroc Center and participate in its athletic and academic programs, the likelihood of high school graduation and college attendance rises, thus allowing for higher annual earnings.
Kroc Center SROI calculations concentrate on the 1 in 3 participants who receive a 50 percent scholarship to be a member. Smith’s (2007) findings on the impact of extracurricular activities on high school graduation and postsecondary education rates provide the framework for estimating impact. The assumption is that participants will graduate and enter postsecondary education when they participate in two to three Kroc Center activities and average annual earnings by education level. The SROI calculations are based upon Fogg et al. (2009) for annual earnings by education level.

Looking at the anticipated first-year membership numbers (5,000 members; 1,650 on scholarship), the Kroc Center will have 825 youth members on scholarship. Assuming that 20 percent of these students are projected to not graduate from high school (the School District average is currently about 40 percent), there are 165 potential dropouts. The anticipated impact of membership in the Kroc Center for those 165 students is that 24 drop out; 56 become high school graduates; and 85 enter postsecondary education. When those figures are multiplied by the average annual earnings for each education level (Fogg et al. 2009), the programs offered by the Kroc Center project an annual SROI of $3,593,855.

In addition to offering after-school programs, the Kroc Center strives to improve the health of its members. In particular, by offering a wide variety of sporting activities as well as healthy food, the Kroc Center’s programs are designed to counteract increasing rates and severity of obesity, which is known to add to individual and system-wide healthcare expenditures. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, 22 percent of the population is obese (Community Health Data Base 2003). According to one study, the average individual increase in annual medical spending associated with obesity is $732 (Finkelstein et al. 2003).

Based on an anticipated membership of 5,000, and assuming the 22 percent obesity rate translates across this population, 1,100 of the Kroc Center members are obese. The annual Kroc Center membership fee for an individual is $429, or $215 for a member receiving a 50 percent scholarship. To determine the SROI of the Kroc Center’s health and fitness interventions, subtract the cost of the annual Center membership fee from the individual annual increase in medical spending associated with obesity to calculate the approximate amount saved annually per member.

Combining these two SROI valuations provides us with the total projected SROI for a typical family of four that the Kroc Center is targeting for membership. Assumptions for purposes of these calculations are that the family consists of two parents, one of whom is obese, and two children, both of whom are at risk of dropping out of high school. The SROI for the family would be as follows:


There are 11 Kroc Center locations across the United States, the first established roughly 10 years ago. In order to ensure their sustained scalability and replicability, both operating and planned Kroc Centers must cooperate and collaborate to share and, to the extent possible, standardize performance measurements, financial data, strategy, and best and worst practices. This extremely valuable information will encourage critical thinking about the short- and long-term strategies to enrich outcomes. It could also shed light on whether the Kroc Center network, in an attempt to replicate or scale, should measure long-term impacts, or should focus on shorter-term outputs and outcomes (Ebrahim and Rangan 2010).

Through focused growth and information sharing, the Kroc Centers should continue to grow sustainably. While discussions about replication of the model are necessarily limited by the extreme scope of the philanthropic donation that launched this platform for change, the mission and theory of change at work within the organization are scalable and worthy of adoption. Raising standards and expectations through high-quality services can be replicated by all organizations that serve low-income communities. The focus on high expectations and self-dignity also challenges the traditional way social services are delivered and has implications that could change the way social programs are implemented throughout the country.


The mission of the Kroc Center is to stimulate and transform the entire community of North Philadelphia. It aims to do this by providing residents with the tools necessary to feel empowered individually and as a community. To build a-state-of-the art, $100 million facility at the crossroads of several of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods speaks volumes to the community and potential investors. The belief behind the Kroc Center is that North Philadelphia is not broken, but rather is a neighborhood that is ripe with untapped potential.

At its most basic level, the Kroc Center provides fitness facilities, athletics, and academic and artistic after-school programs. If members take advantage of these opportunities, they will improve their health and education, and ultimately quality of life. Ideally, the positive activity going on inside the Kroc Center will influence activity within the community at large.

To positively transform disadvantaged communities, investment is needed in both the infrastructure and physical environment and the psyche of the people living and working in the area. In the case of the former, resources for socioeconomic development are channeled to the structure of institutions in the respective environment. This can occur, for example, by changing governmental policy, ownership structure in corporate institutions, or the operational structure of nonprofit institutions. In the latter case, resources for economic development are focused on individual enrichment and empowerment. This is evidenced by health, education and financial support and awareness programs.

The Kroc Center of Philadelphia stands as a hybrid institutional form, focusing resources on the quality of both the facilities and programs delivered. Although it has been roughly 10 years since the inception of the first Kroc Center and the model appears to have achieved success nationally, an increase in public information regarding operations, such as proven best and worst practices, will secure its sustainability and aid in the replication of the model to the extent feasible given the extraordinary founding financial circumstances of the Kroc Center. The Kroc Center network may not be the first of its kind, but right now it is the best of its type, and expansion of its values and practices could contribute to reduced incidence of poor health and high school dropout rates in underserved urban communities.

Kayci Weimer and Charles Harrison both received a Master of Science in Nonprofit/NGO Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice in May 2011.


Community Health Data Base. (2003, April 1). The Obesity Epidemic in Southeastern Pennsylvania. (accessed January 5, 2011).

Dyson, M. (2009). Can You Hear Me Now?: The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Ebrahim, A. S., and V. K. Rangan. (2010, May). The Limits of Nonprofit Impact: A Contingency Framework for Measuring Social Performance. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 10-099.

Finkelstein, E., I. Fiebelkorn, and G. Wang. (2003). National Medical Spending Attributable to Overweight and Obesity: How Much, And Who’s Paying? Health Affairs 22(1): 219-226.

Fogg, N., P. Harrington, and I. Khatiwada, I. (2009, September). The Tax and Transfer Fiscal Impacts of Dropping out of High School in Pennsylvania. Center for Labor Marker Studies, Northeastern University.

Hartmann, D. (2008). High School Sports Participation and Educational Attainment: Recognizing, Assessing, and Utilizing the Relationship. University of Minnesota, Department of Sociology, Report to LA84 Foundation.

Mahoney, J., and R. Cairns. (1977). Do Extracurricular Activities Protect Against Early School Dropout? Developmental Psychology 33(2): 241-253.

McNeil, R. Jr. (1995). Extracurricular Activities and High School Dropouts. Sociology of Education 86(1): 63-80.

Miller, B. M. (2003). Critical Hours: Afterschool Programs and Educational Success. Quincy, MA: Nellie Mae Educational Foundation. Available at (accessed December 23, 2010).

Neild, R., and R. Belfanz. (2006). Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimension and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005. Philadelphia Youth Network, John Hopkins University and University of Pennsylvania. Available at (accessed January 5, 2011).

Perkins, D. D., and M. A. Zimmerman. (1995). Empowerment Theory, Research, and Application. American Journal of Community Psychology 23(5): 569-579.

Rappaport, J. (1987). Terms of Empowerment/Exemplars of Prevention: Toward a Theory for Community Psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology 15(10): 121-148.

Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia. (2008, June 4). Nationally Acclaimed Swim Coach Jim Ellis Speaks Up About Planned Salvation Army Aquatic Center. (accessed January 10, 2011).

Salvation Army: Kroc Centers. (n.d.). (accessed January 10, 2011).

Salvation Army Kroc Center of Philadelphia. (2010). (accessed January 10, 2011).

Smith, J. (2007). Between the Lines, on the Stage, and on the Club: Additional Ways Students Find to Overcome Disadvantage Through School. In B. A. Arrighit and D. J. Maume (Eds.), Child Poverty in America Today: The Promise of Education. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 102-116

Steptoe, A., and P. Feldman, P. (2001, August). Neighborhood Problems as Sources of Chronic Stress: Development of a Measure of Neighborhood Problems, and Associations with Socioeconomic Status and Health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 23(3): 177-185.

Sum, A., and I. Khatiwada. (2010, February). Labor Underutilization Problems of U.S. Workers Across Household Income Groups at the End of the Great Recession: A Truly Great Depression Among the Nation’s Low Income Workers Amidst Full Employment Among the Most Affluent. Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University.

Swift, C., and G. Levin. (1987). Empowerment: An Emerging Mental Health Technology. Journal of Primary Prevention 8: 71-94.

Treuhaft, S., and A. Karpyn. (2010). The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters. Oakland (CA): PolicyLink and The Food Trust.

Unger, R., and C. West. (1998). The Future of American Progressivism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Psychological Empowerment: Issues and Illustrations. American Journal of Community Psychology 23(5), 581-599.


An exciting opportunity is emerging for state education agencies and districts to dramatically increase graduation rates for students who are falling off the track toward a diploma. State education agency leaders with the commitment and skill to pursue an innovative policy agenda can take advantage of three dynamic forces: (1) the creation of national overarching standards via the Common Core State Standards; (2) an ever-increasing knowledge of how to reengage over-age and under-credited students; and (3) competency-based learning models enabled by advancements in technology. Although it will require substantial leadership to provide the required policy flexibility, the possible rewards hold great promise for our children and communities.

This article provides guidance on creating competency-based approaches for students who have fallen off the track toward graduation. Alternative school models that use aspects of competency-based approaches (e.g., Diploma Plus, Performance Learning Center, and AdvancePath Academics) are severely constrained by policies that rely on the Carnegie unit and other time-based system elements. The full benefit of competency-based alternative schools will remain unknown until enabling state policy conditions are in place.


The traditional time-based educational system in which high school students move together by cohort through the 180-day school year over a fixed four-year schedule reproduces low achievement, disengagement from school, and inequity (Sturgis and Patrick 2010). Competency-based approaches (CBAs) offer an alternative by re-engineering the education system around learning and student success. Sturgis and Patrick provide a three-part working definition of CBAs:

  • Students advance upon mastery,
  • Explicit and measurable learning objectives empower students, and
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.

Sturgis and Patrick argue that given the early stage of the innovation cycle, it is best if states create space for the organic expansion of CBAs. States can nurture innovation by increasing flexibility in the policy environment, providing technical assistance, supporting peer networks and evaluating innovative models. As innovative practices develop in classrooms, schools and districts, they can further inform policy reforms and investment decisions. Drawing on a wide range of expertise, this article explores how states can create space for innovation, including design principles, minimum policy conditions and options for moving forward.

CBAs Respond to the Needs of Over-Age, Under-Credited (OU) Students

It is essential to design policies and programs based on customer needs. Some OU students may continue to go to school, while others may decide or be encouraged to leave. Many will have taken on adult responsibilities such as financially supporting or caring for their families. The majority will have academic skills two or more years below grade level, gaps in basic literacy and mathematics, and disproportionately special education issues. Given that most OU students have grown up in low-income communities, they are highly motivated to earn money but have limited experiences or relationships with organizations in the real world beyond the secondary labor market. Finally, many of these students will have endured traumatic experiences, which can create social or emotional issues that shape their learning experiences.

CBAs intersect in powerful ways with the needs of students who are unlikely to graduate because they are over-age and under-credited. For students who have been deemed “bad” students or who have dropped out, it is truly transformative to be in an environment that is dedicated to their success.

Increase Likelihood of Graduation:

Depending on state policy, many OU students are at risk of “aging out” of the K–12 system. Seat-time requirements are an insurmountable barrier for older students with elementary-level skills or few credits. CBAs allow for the necessary acceleration of skill development and credit accumulation.

Ensure Mastery of Skills:

Students receive the help they need to address specific learning deficiencies while working on other competencies. Students progress, even if it takes a bit longer for some, rather than being trapped taking the same course over and over.

Motivate Students:

Students are motivated by explicit, measurable learning objectives as well as just-in-time formative assessments. By taking on responsibility for their own education, students can take advantage of a full range of learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

Provide Educational Continuity:

Students with complex lives, high mobility or interrupted education continue to progress without having to repeat courses. If CBAs are designed effectively, students can continue to progress on discrete learning objectives while taking care of family members, during transitions between detention and disciplinary schools, or during changes in foster care placement.

Design Principles for Competency-Based Pilots for OU Students

The following design principles are based on integrating what has been learned from CBA innovators with what has been learned from serving OU students. These principles, or design specifications, can guide discussions as policymakers, district leaders and educators shape policies and pilots.

Robust Competencies

  • Includes academic and efficacy standards
  • Aligns with standards benchmarked for success after high school, such as Common Core State Standards, college entrance requirements, or global standards
  • Structures learning objectives so that they are explicit and measurable
  • Offers explicit requirements for granting of diploma or other certification


  • Approaches students holistically
  • Provides personalized learning maps that include academic and efficacy competencies
  • Organizes services and supports varied in intensity based on student learning needs
  • Structures simultaneously recuperative and accelerated learning
  • Focuses on student preferences in considering high school certification, college, and career choices

Designed Around Learning

  • Advances students to more challenging coursework upon mastery, not age
  • Offers students work at levels that are appropriately challenging
  • Provides multiple methods of instruction (context, content, and instructional methodology) to ensure that students from different cultures and life experiences have the opportunity to succeed
  • Uses valid and reliable assessments in ways that are meaningful to students
  • Assesses students on their performance in multiple ways and multiple times to ensure that proficiency has been reached
  • Integrates student information and learning management systems designed around competency-based approaches, providing data to support students, teachers, and schools for improving performance
  • Employs standards-based grading that focuses on a demonstration of learning rather than on attendance, participation, or behaviors

Expanded Learning Opportunities

  • Maximizes learning that can occur anytime, anyplace, with minimal restrictions based on attendance, school day or calendar
    Offers online and/or computer-based instructional software that is competency-based
    Constructs expanded learning opportunities around specific learning objectives

Flexibility in Staffing

  • Broadens school staffing around student needs including youth development specialists, learning coaches and multiple methods of instruction, such as traditional school-based teachers, online courses, computer-based instruction and dual enrollment at community college
  • Revises human resources policies to include a team approach to educating students, revised expectations for teaching staff to have greater expertise in instruction and assessment, and greater flexibility in hiring teachers
  • Provides adequate support for educators including integrated student information and learning management systems, coaching in instruction and assessment, and opportunities for educators to build a common understanding of proficiency

Engaged Community and Stakeholders

  • Engages students, parents, and teachers in early stages of decisions to move forward on CBA strategy
  • Facilitates community-wide discussions, including employers and colleges, on the competencies needed for graduation and success after high school
  • Seeks engagement with OU students on outreach strategies and co-design efficacy competencies
  • Engages students and teachers on how the competencies would be assessed; in other words, what does proficient work look like?

State Policy Conditions for CBAs for OU Students

State policymakers need to address two related challenges: policy conditions and development of operational innova¬tions. Given that there are dispersed pockets of innovation, knowledge of best practices has yet to be adequately documented. Foundations are investing in research that will help to fill this gap. In addition, leading states are already beginning to revise their policies as they are informed by the experiences of districts and schools. The Council of Chief State School Officers’ Next Generation Learning Innovation Lab Network will disseminate information on effective state policies.

For state education agencies to realize the full benefit of CBAs in schools, a set of policy conditions must be in place. Districts and schools developing CBAs require the flexibility to reorganize functions and staffing, expand high-quality content and instructional systems, and incorporate new tools, technologies and supports. Given this complexity, policy reforms will require a multi-pronged process. Partial implementation will always seem the path of least resistance. While the easier elements such as standards-based grading and seat-time waivers are valuable, they are inadequate in enabling the full impact of CBAs.

Working together, policymakers and practitioners can create a policy environment to replace the current time-based system with a learning-based system. Collaborative efforts, requiring leadership and creativity, are essential in revising bureaucratic regulatory codes, untangling the unintended consequences of a time-based system and, when necessary, addressing legislative barriers. The policy conditions described below are a starting point for creating competency-based innovations.

Release from Time-Based Regulations

  • Students are granted credits based on demonstrated proficiency, not seat-time. States establish policy conditions for districts and schools to award credits based on mastery.
  • Students can pursue learning objectives in the classroom, during out-of-school time, in the evening with online courses, and throughout the summer. States remove barriers related to time-based policies, including mandatory in-school hours for students and the traditional school calendar.
  • Students will progress upon mastery with open enrollment and open exit. States eliminate barriers that limit student progression.
  • Students can take additional time to master competencies, including temporary leave of absence when family or community responsibilities increase. States adjust accountability systems so that schools are rewarded for keeping students engaged.

Anytime, Anyplace Learning Opportunities

  • Students can enroll in competency-based online courses as needed, even those offered by other districts and states. States remove policy barriers that limit access to courses needed for graduation.
  • Students are recognized for proficiency in learning objectives developed outside of the traditional school day and year (including jobs, participation in clubs and community service). State policy broadens the definition of teacher to educator so that more adults can engage in supporting student learning.
  • Students can transfer competencies across schools, including jail and disciplinary schools. States recognize learning maps as valid “transcripts” for portability of competencies.

Funding and Accountability

  • Students are able to re-enroll in school with minimal delay. States align financial incentives to support rapid re-enrollment of students.
  • Student progress in learning is based on academic and efficacy competencies that include discrete learning objectives. States work with schools and districts to create data warehouses for individual learning maps.
  • Schools are able to innovate with clear focus on student learning with performance metrics that include learning outcomes, affordability and rates of acceleration. States protect the integrity of the innovation process from reporting requirements that may cause harmful effects.

The State Role in Creating Innovation Space

The first strategic decision that needs to be made by state education agency leaders is the degree to which innovation space will be established for schools and districts. Grants for pilots are often too limited in time and scope to fulfill the research and development functions. Thus, chief state school officers should consider the following questions:

How can the innovation space be designed to

  • generate adequate innovation capital (Andrew Hargadon, the founder of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California Davis, describes the need for multiple forms of capital to support innovation)? Such capital includes financial resources, time for effective development, opportunities for experimentation and refinement of new practices, access to social capital such as networks of innovators, and intellectual support to address specific challenges.
  • supply adequate time and support for the stages of development, including concept development and testing, beta testing, and technical implementation such as process improvements and continuous improvement feedback loops, and replication (i.e., commercialization or scaling)?
  • provide for appropriate use of evaluation to inform innovation?

Philanthropic or corporate partnerships can be helpful in providing the funds for a full-fledged research and development capacity as well as creating political cover necessary for sustainability.

State education leaders will need to devise the scope of innovation based on the mix of policies in place and the ease in revising them. In the following discussion, three options are considered.

Research and Development Program

States can create protected space for innovation by developing a five- to seven-year program in which the grantees have full flexibility to test out new ideas, design the specific tools and practices needed to support CBAs, and fully bring the innovative school model “to market.” For example, the Florida Virtual School performance-based model was created by being given a “blank page” within a well-protected innovation space. It is important that adequate funding is provided for evaluation or continuous improvement so that practices can be quickly tested and refined. This option is likely to require a philanthropic partner. In addition, it will be easier to test our new ideas with start-ups or new schools.

Competency-Based Pathway Pilot

A five-year pilot program can be designed to fully develop the architecture to support CBAs, including:

  • Reliable and valid assessment system
  • Robust competencies and learning objectives aligned with college and career-ready standards
  • Personalized student learning maps that go beyond traditional check-off lists to reflect learning progressions
  • Professional development that supports educator collaboration in tuning protocols and rubrics to support high-quality standards
  • Integrated student information and learning management systems customized to the needs of OU students
  • Community outreach and communications on implications of CBAs and community input on competencies
  • Partnerships that provide supports and opportunities for students

Grantees should commit to some degree of transparency so that other schools and districts can directly benefit from innovations developed with state funds.

Expedited Waiver Process

States can enable more innovation by establishing credit flexibility (seat-time waivers) for schools developing CBAs. Although a waiver to grant credits based on demonstrated proficiency rather than seat-time is the initial condition required for CBAs, schools will find that they will want to remove other bureaucratic and regulatory barriers as well. States will need to work closely with innovators to expedite waivers or regulatory changes when time-based policies create misalignment and barriers.

As Sturgis and Patrick (2010) highlighted, there is a risk that poorly imple¬mented CBAs can result in lowered standards. Thus, states will need to establish a mechanism to ensure that schools requesting waivers have a quality control system in place that maintains academic rigor.

Concluding Remarks

The investment in competency-based innovations will provide invaluable knowledge and products to inform efforts to move beyond the time-based system, improve services for students at risk of not graduating, and create greater customization across the full spectrum of students. By states creating local “laboratories,” the essential elements of the CBA architecture will be tested and fine-tuned. Working together, innovators and state leaders can construct appropriate state policies to guide high-quality CBAs in schools.

Most importantly for our young people and our future, alternative schools that develop dynamic CBAs will serve as lighthouses, illuminating the path for all districts so that each and every student can proudly claim a diploma that certifies that they are prepared for college and career.

Chris Sturgis is the principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm working with foundations, government, and individuals to shape effective investments that build communities, benefit children and families, and brighten our future. The mission stems from the very roots of our name—metis—a Greek word for local knowledge and wisdom. Drawing on multiple perspectives, MetisNet works with clients to develop vibrant, asset-based investment strategies.

Bob Rath is the president and CEO at Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc. (OPP®), based in Hartford, Connecticut. With more than thirty years’ experience in organizational leadership, Bob led the transformation of OPP into a youth development organi¬zation intently focused on helping urban youth 14–24 become successful adults. OPP’s signature program, Pathways to Success, has been successfully implemented in the community at large, as well as inside Opportunity High School—a partnership school for over-aged and under-credited youth—launched in August 2009 by Hartford Public Schools and OPP.

Susan Patrick is president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership association based in the Washington, D.C., area with more than 3,700 members. INACOL is unique in that its members represent a diverse cross section of K–12 education from school districts, charter schools, state education agencies, nonprofit organizations, colleges, universities and research institutions, corporate entities, and other content and technology providers. iNACOL’s mission is to ensure all students have access to a world-class education and quality online learning opportunities that prepare them for a lifetime of success (

Ephraim Weisstein is an education consultant. With R&D support from the Mott Foundation, Weisstein is piloting Schools for the Future. Previously as vice president at the Commonwealth Corporation, Ephraim designed the Diploma Plus model, which is now used by 29 schools nationally serving over 4,000 students.

This article first appeared, in slightly different form, at


Sturgis, C. and S. Patrick. (2010, November). When Success Is the Only Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning. Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Available at