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How this Chicago after-school program helped shift the arc of kids’ lives — for the long term

August 13, 2018
In the Media
Valerie Strauss & David L. Kirp
Beth A. Keiser/AP

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See” is a new book by Milbrey W. McLaughlin that looks at the long-term effects of an after-school academic program in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project, a violence-wracked complex that was located on the Near North Side of Chicago and was once home to some 15,000 people.

In this post, David L. Kirp, a professor at the graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and a well-known author, writes about the lessons — and the “secret sauce” — that the program offered that helped troubled students change the arc of their lives, as chronicled by McLaughlin.

Kirp, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education think tank based in California, is the author of 17 books and scores of articles about social issues confronting the United States. He is focused, however, on education and children’s policy, and in 2008 was a member of the presidential transition team for Barack Obama, drafting a policy framework for early education.

His most recent book is “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” which detailed how the school district in Union City, N.J., brought Latino immigrant children living in poverty into the educational mainstream. It was named the outstanding book of 2014 by the American Education Research Association. His other books, including “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming the Lives of Children” and “The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics,” have won awards as well.

By David L. Kirp

A dozen years ago, while taking a walk with a friend on the miles-long beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, I learned a valuable lesson — two lessons, actually — about how research ought to be conducted.

“There’s this amazing study about the effects of preschool,” my friend told me, but I was dismissive. “The effects fade out quickly,” I responded, recalling the devastating 1969 Westinghouse study of Head Start.

My friend was having none of it. “These kids have been followed into their 20s, and the impact has persisted — significantly more kids graduating from high school, going to college, staying out of jail and off welfare, earning more.”

As you’ve probably figured out, my friend was talking about the iconic Perry Preschool study. A few months later, a follow-up analysis found that these gains persisted into middle age, and when economists converted those life results into dollars-and-cents terms, they found a benefit-cost ratio that would turn Warren Buffett’s head. (In fact, it did turn the heads of Buffett’s children, who, when tasked by their father to identify a social investment comparable to his private-sector investments, zeroed in on early education.)

Lesson one — take a broad view of impact. Research on the effects of an education initiative typically looks only at later educational outcomes, but these investigators examined the impact of preschool on the totality of these children’s lives. What they found has transformed our understanding of why early education matters.

Lesson two — take the long view. Most education research adopts a short time horizon, rarely looking at the impact of a program beyond two or three years. But the Perry study lasted decades, and that made all the difference. Had the researchers ended the study after third grade, as so many studies of preschool do these days, they would have concluded that the Westinghouse report was right and that preschool’s effects dissipate. Only later — sometimes decades later — did the full significance of the program emerge.

It’s a long way from down-and-out Ypsilanti, Mich., in the mid-1960s to a violence-ridden Chicago neighborhood in the early 1980s. It’s also a long way from an iconic preschool program to a model out-of-school venture. But the big lesson to be gleaned from “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See,” Stanford emeritus professor Milbrey W. McLaughlin’s important new book about a K-12 program called CYCLE, which operated in Chicago from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is much the same.

The book describes how a program that places a heavy emphasis on academics, if designed carefully and carried out thoughtfully, as CYCLE was, carries the prospect of rewriting the script of children’s lives, not just improving their grades or test scores. What’s more, the ripple effects from this experience persist for a lifetime, as accomplishments lead to more accomplishments, altering not only the lives of the participants but affecting their children’s fortunes as well.

CYCLE pitched its tent in the Cabrini-Green housing project. This was one of those high-rise war zones, plagued by gangs, that Alex Kotlowitz wrote about so memorably in “There Are No Children Here.” Jobs were scarce in this almost entirely black community. So were men; it was the women, mothers and grandmothers and aunts, who assumed responsibility for raising the children.

The public schools operated as dropout factories, graduating fewer than 30 percent of their students. Educators had bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for their charges, blaming the neighborhood for these dismal outcomes. Students who later transferred to better schools were jolted by the realization that they were years behind their classmates. When William Bennett, then the U.S. secretary of education, pronounced Chicago’s public schools to be the worst in the nation, these schools were the worst of the worst.

Out-of-school ventures have a decidedly mixed track record, especially those in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage like Cabrini-Green. How could it be otherwise? How could a program that filled a couple of hours of a child’s daily life make any difference in such an inhospitable world? But CYCLE bucked the odds.

Here’s why attention should be paid: About 90 percent of the youngsters who participated in its scholarship programs and mentoring activities graduated from high school, and about a third went to college. That’s astonishing, but what’s more astonishing still are the long-term reverberations.

The CYCLE alumni are now middle-aged, and the impact of the program continues to be felt. Among the alumni are two medical doctors, 11 with doctorates and a host of master’s degree holders. Most of the alums, McLaughlin noted, “live middle-class lives; they are teachers, social workers, small business owners, administrators, coaches.”

“The impressive accomplishments … show that the negative outcomes predicted for kids who grow up in concentrated poverty like Cabrini-Green … are not inevitable,” she wrote. “They result not from a so-called ‘culture of poverty’ but from a poverty of opportunities.”

Why did CYCLE succeed when so many programs with similar aspirations fail? And what are the broader implications of the CYCLE story for policy and practice?

Ask any professional who works with kids what has probably the most memorable impact on their lives and you invariably hear the same answer — what’s needed most is a caring, stable adult. When researching “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Changing Children’s Lives and America’s Future,” I visited youth-oriented organizations with a solid track record such as YouthBuild and Diplomas Now. The refrain from the teens with whom I talked was the same: “They have our back.”

The core of the CYCLE program was its after-school tutoring program, and the volunteer tutors definitely “had their back.” There was no cookbook for them to follow, no set curriculum for them to inflict. Rather than trying to “fix” the students’ deficiencies, as so many social-service programs see their mission, the tutors took young people where they were and encouraged them to aim high. They became mentors as well as tutors, developing close ties to the students they spent time with, figuring out what would be most helpful, not to the group generally but to each individual.

Those relationships reached far beyond the realm of academic improvement. The tutors took the youngsters into their lives, introducing them to worlds they hadn’t imagined, making connections for them, building up what sociologists call social capital, giving them a dose of what middle-class parents provide for their own offspring. As one youth said, they became “our experienced friends.” When the kids’ lives took a wrong turn, CYCLE stood by them. “Never give up on a kid” was the program’s mantra.

“Dead or in prison by 21” is the fatalistic way many inner-city youths describe their future. But when adolescents are shown alternative pathways — summer jobs, college scholarships and the like — and given a solid chance to follow those pathways, they can seize the day. The corollary to “you can’t be what you can’t see” is that growing up in a place such as Cabrini Green need not be a life sentence.

Some of the CYCLE kids were part of an “I Have a Dream”-type program that guaranteed that, if they graduated from high school, they wouldn’t have to pay college tuition. This pledge mattered, of course, for it brought higher education within financial reach, but it was the encouragement from all sides, the constancy of adult support, that made the possibility of going to college seem real.

After spending a few years in the program, many of the CYCLE youngsters became junior staff, role models to the younger participants — “our gang of excellence,” a staffer called them. The kids they spent time with benefited from this attention, and the newly minted mentors benefited at least as much. They took their responsibilities seriously, collaborating on activities that would pique the kids’ interest and building a tight network of support. Three decades later, friendships among those staffers continue.

These relationships are what altered people’s lives. They are the “secret sauce.” But evaluators who are interested only in statistics — what percent of students graduated from high school or what percent enrolled in college? — miss this “soft” data.

As McLaughlin pointed out, “Without this long-term perspective, it is impossible to decide whether a life course has been transformed or only temporarily modified.” That vantage shows how graduating from college isn’t the only outcome that matters. Many of the program’s alumni who didn’t earn a college degree have built strong families and economically productive lives. Conversely, one college graduate, on paper a success story, became the consigliere to a Chicago gang.

CYCLE isn’t a model in the “replicate the model” sense. Rather, it’s a strategy. The core values are essential, but the specifics must vary with the needs of the community — what works in Chicago wouldn’t necessarily go over in Little Rock.

Community schools, which serve up an array of activities such as art and sports before and after school and during the summer, represent the next generation of out-of-school-time programs. Their number has increased rapidly in recent years, and the National Center for Community Schools estimates that there are 5,000 such schools nationwide.

Studies of community schools show that this strategy, when well executed, improves how students fare in school. To gauge the full effects of this strategy we need a long view, following the students in a program such as the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s community schools well beyond their school years.

Like CYCLE, these programs may well be changing the trajectory of children’s lives.