Rochester is one of the poorest cities in the country with the worst school district in the state, said Dennis Richardson, president and CEO of Hillside Family of Agencies. Like other cities, it has struggled to end a dropout problem that spans decades.
However, the city is also home to arguably the most effective program in the country for addressing high school dropouts.
Over three decades, Wegmans Food Markets Inc. and the Hillside Family of Agencies Inc. have created the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection program, a workforce development effort to help at-risk youth find a path to success personally and professionally.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the program.
HWSC directly addresses the problem of urban dropouts and is leading the country with graduation rates of over 90 percent—a stark contrast to other federal and state initiatives trying to achieve the same goal, officials say.
Rochester City School District seniors who joined HWSC as freshmen in 2012 and stayed with the program throughout high school graduated at a rate of 90 percent in 2016.
That rate increased to 96 percent for HWSC participants who achieved certification in the HWSC Youth Employment Training Academy and maintained a part-time job with an HWSC employment partner.
Richardson has seen the program change the reputation of Rochester and drastically alter the lives of many young people.
He recently sat down with the Rochester Business Journal to discuss the milestone and the future of the program.
ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: How did the idea for Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection come about?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Back in 1987, Bob Wegman had gone to a meeting at which Bill Johnson (then president of the Urban League) had said we have a dropout crisis in Rochester and we have so many children dropping out that it has diminished our graduation rate to an unacceptable level.
Bob Wegman came back from this meeting with Johnson, who eventually became the mayor, and (talked with his son, Danny), and they decided that they could do something to help with this.
Wegmans employed a lot of young people, so they decided that they would do something within Wegmans to help reduce this dropout rate.
I think they began with 25 youngsters within Wegmans. The beauty of it is that Bob and Danny looked to see what made for a successful employee. Of course they knew this pretty darn well.
They started with the end in mind, which was different than how social services worked at that time. Thirty years ago, social services generally would say, “Let’s start where the client is at — what are their presenting problems?”
Bob and Danny started by asking, what is a good employee? And how do we help these youngsters become really good employees? They saw a path.
What they saw was different than what was being done elsewhere in America. With no insult to Danny and Bob, I don’t think they looked and saw what was going on in America and said, “Let’s replicate that.”
RBJ: What was their plan to differentiate themselves?
RICHARDSON: They decided that they would figure this out, and what they settled on was that they needed to provide an experience in the workplace for that youngster. They would offer all of them jobs and they would provide mentors for them at the job site, but those mentors also then began to make sure that they paid attention to what was going on in school. So these were adults who took a deep interest in the youngsters.
Bob and Danny actually put money into this and said (to employees), as a staff member for Wegmans, we want you to pay special interest to these youngsters who are coming to Wegmans.
That was rather remarkable, because now you actually had the employer tying into the personal life of a youngster and trying to help that youngster succeed not only in the workplace but in their education.
That then led Wegmans staff members to not only get to know about the youngster’s school life, but also her or his personal life, because oftentimes it was something going on outside of school that was interfering with them succeeding at school.
By the ’90s, the federal government had put a lot of money into school-to-work initiatives to try to improve that channel. The federal government was trying to figure out the same thing that Bill Johnson had been concerned about: the dropout rate in America and how could we improve that school-to-work pipeline.
The federal government put millions and millions of dollars into these school-to-work initiatives, and what they found was that they just were not working; they were not successful.
What the federal government had paid for and had tried around the nation were initiatives that focused on work or focused on school, and they had been paying for initiatives that focused on family life for many years. And they said, “What if we pay for initiatives that focus on school and work?” And those didn’t work out. And they said, “Well, how about if we pay for initiatives that focus on family and work?” Those didn’t work out.
What Danny and Bob had hit upon was that you really needed to focus on all three. And that was distinctive about Wegmans Work-Scholarship Connection. They were having a good deal of success by the mid-90s.
Wegmans had been putting in a quarter of a million dollars, the United Way had been putting in a quarter of a million dollars and the County of Monroe had put in a quarter of a million dollars. But they wanted to grow this.
At some point they decided that they would look to turn this over to a not-for-profit. Now at the same time, just by chance, one of the Hillside board members and I were talking and he said, “Couldn’t we get involved with families before there’s trauma in their lives?”
So we began looking around for what really worked for kids, and we learned about Wegmans Work-Scholarship Connection and thought that really was fabulous. As it turned out Wegmans was looking for this partner. We thought, perfect, this is great timing. Let’s sit down and talk, and we did.
They liked the notion that Work-Scholarship could come into Hillside and be part of Hillside but did not have to become part of Hillside Children’s Center.
RBJ: Why was Hillside the right nonprofit for Wegmans to partner with?
RICHARDSON: The thought at the time was Hillside brings a certain expertise about human services, about working with families and kids that was different than what Wegmans had. Wegmans brought the business experience, the relationships with other employers. It seemed that this would be a good match and so we went forward with this.
I went to his office to explain to him that we had to stop calling it Wegmans Work-Scholarship Connection. If we’re going to solicit contributions we need to change the name, and I thought, how am I going to say to Danny we have to take his name off of this?”
And so I had a sleepless night the night before I laid out my explanation of why this needed to take place. I had talked it through with others, and I showed up to this meeting with Danny Wegman and I said, “We need to change it from Wegmans Work-Scholarship Connection to Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection,” and Danny said, “Oh, OK, let’s go on.”
It was an important lesson to me that this man just cares about these kids.
RBJ: How did things change with the new partnership?
RICHARDSON: We began to grow it. The outcomes were pretty good, and we were ahead of the school district. We would typically graduate kids about 64 percent of the time and the school district was 50 percent or less.
RBJ: How did Rochester compare to other cities in terms of graduation rates at that time?
RICHARDSON: Rochester was particularly bad. Rochester unfortunately was not only one of the poorest cities in the nation, Rochester had one of the worst performing school districts in the nation, and in fact had the worst performing school district in the state of New York and still does.
We saw a little bit of movement in the graduation rates but not a lot, and it kept our graduation rates just right around 64 percent. We were just really struggling with that, trying to figure out how we can improve this.
The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation came along and, we didn’t realize this, but they had been looking at us for about a year.
For them, they said 64 percent compared to 50 percent—that’s a 14 percent difference. While we were dismayed that we were stuck at 64 percent, they apparently thought this was extraordinary, saying we can’t find this elsewhere in the nation.
They funded us to do what’s called a theory of change: explain … what we’re doing and to get into more detail as to why we believe this works.
We worked (with) a group called Bridge-span and that included not only ourselves but Wegmans and some other people on our board (and) our staff, and we created a business plan with them. We brought the business plan to Edna McConnell Clark and they liked it, and they went on to fund us for several years. That was really helpful because they brought a discipline, and they brought researchers to us.
RBJ: Did you see a big change in graduation rates with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s help?
RICHARDSON: We didn’t see graduation rates take off.
We were always looking at other programs to see what was working.
This program (in Virginia) worked with high-performing youth. We were working with at-risk youth. It was very different for us, but we wanted to see if we could learn something from that.
On the flight back from Virginia, I turned to Danny and I said, “I know that you’re very committed to these kids, and we’re both happy with this relationship between Hillside and Wegmans, but tell me what is it that when you look at us, what is it that we’re not doing well?”
And he didn’t miss a beat. He just said, “data.” He said we just don’t use data really well, and Wegmans, they’re steeped in data.
I attribute that to what changed our graduation rates.
I then went back and said we need to do something about our data, how we collect it, what we’re collecting and how we’re using it. And it wasn’t that we didn’t use data, but we just weren’t as disciplined, and we weren’t digging as deeply as we needed to.
We became much more committed to being rigorous about collection … synthesizing it, and then using it … to create knowledge for ourselves about how we could improve matters. That dramatically changed matters.
We hired Maria Cristalli, who is now our chief operating officer at Hillside. She created a research department and we created a business intelligence department. That combination proved quite fruitful for us.
Here we had these business intelligence folks who are not social workers—they’re engineers, mathematicians, statisticians … who had worked at Xerox and Kodak. They took those engineering and math skills and they applied it to our data, and they found patterns that we didn’t see before.
They can see how a youngster is performing at any given time during the school year.
We use that data all the time, not only on a macro level to help increase our graduation rates, but youth advocates use it very specifically to help individual students move along.
We’re tracking their attendance rates. We know when kids are not showing up for school. Our staff will go out to children’s homes, we meet regularly with their parents or guardians, whoever they might be living with, and we review progress of the youngsters.
That emphasis on paying attention to the data, and having that guide our decision making, made a dramatic difference. Now we’re graduating kids at a much higher level.
At one time, we had somebody say, “why can’t you graduate youngsters at higher than 90 percent of the time? If these kids lived in the suburbs they would graduate more than 90 percent of the time.” And (we thought), 90 percent? How could we ever do that? Well today we do.
RBJ: What are some changes that have been made to the program in recent years?
RICHARDSON: When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation joined us, an important change was that we clarified the risk criteria so you could only qualify for Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection if you’ve had risk factors.
We were able to identify the five things that a youth advocate must concentrate on to get the greatest lift in graduation rates. And through business intelligence, we now have predictive analytics.
In Rochester, the school district provided us—it was de-identified—their performance data on all of their children. We were then able to compare that with the data we have, and we could say this child has a 14 percent chance of graduating, this next child has a 92 percent chance of graduating.
And that was important because we learned two things: We learned that Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection is effective with children who have a 16 percent or more chance of graduating. If you have a 76 percent chance of graduating or more, work scholarship isn’t all that effective in improving your graduation rate.
It is also about money. We want to make sure that if somebody donates to Hillside, they know that it’s going to be used effectively.
It’s the school district that then gets to identify who the children are that we should serve.
We keep looking for another program in the nation that is getting better graduation rates and, without sounding arrogant, we have not been able to find it.
I’ve asked some foundations to look and tell us, and so far they haven’t been able to find something that works better.
Our kids are all at risk, so their graduation rates would actually be lower than the general population where they’re not in intervention, and if you take our kids out of the pool of the Rochester graduation rate, the graduation rate for Rochester would actually drop.
RBJ: What is the biggest challenge the program faces today?
RICHARDSON: What frustrates us, what we find very difficult is the funding.
There is no dedicated funding stream that we can call upon for any community that we work in. The contracting for Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection always has to do with the willingness of a school district to help fund it, and philanthropy.
It really depends greatly on the kindness of others.
Danny Wegman, I think, has been incredible.
He has invested in this for 30 years. I say all the time: What philanthropist do you know that has put millions of dollars into an effort for three decades?
“I think the biggest challenge for us is finding the financing model for this.
Something like work-scholarship, it always takes some creativity to figure out how we would actually pay for it, and that becomes a stumbling block.
And you have to have a champion in the community that says, “This is really important; we need to pay attention to this” because it’s not mandated. It’s not required by law that the school district or the city pay attention to it. It always has to be somebody’s interest in order to pull it off.
RBJ: Has anything surprised you about the program over the past decades?
RICHARDSON: Most of what we had anticipated played out.
We didn’t realize how important the employment experience would be. We knew it was important, but we didn’t realize how important. Those youngsters who are employed with our employment partners—that’s very advantageous for them.
The employment partners have mentors for our youth at the job. Wegmans did this back in the late ’80s.
Bob and Danny said, “We want you as their supervisors to pay special attention to these kids.”
Now our employment partners have mentors—they have people who take special interest in our youngsters. (When) they show up to work, (they) say, “How was your day? Do you have any tests this week? Have you kept up on your studying? What else is going on in your life?”
Our employment partners would say our youth are the best prepared for the job that they’ve experienced.
If you do that at work, and you start doing that at school, you succeed in school.
We need jobs for our youngsters. We have probably about 20 employers in Rochester, but we always need additional job opportunities for our youngsters. We want to be able to offer them a choice.
We’ve had a tough time getting youngsters jobs in the trades, and we haven’t been able to figure that one out for one reason or another.
There are a lot of these middle-skill jobs that our youngsters would be great for. We’d like to build that pool of middle-skills jobs for kids and provide them with that experience and also help them move into the trades. They can have wonderful careers.
I feel very fortunate that Hillside is part of what is an incredible success.
RBJ: What continues to drive you?
RICHARDSON: I spoke with one of our graduates, who is 26. I said, “Tell me, be honest ‘was Hillside really helpful in your life?’” You look at this young man and you say, no matter what, he would have been successful — that’s the impression you have. I said, “I need to know, was Hillside really helpful or would all of this have fallen in place anyway?”
And he turned to me and he said, “My grandparents both grew up here in Rochester and they lived in poverty all their lives. My parents grew up here in Rochester and they lived in poverty.” And he said, “You know that I lived in poverty. My children will never know poverty.”
I think that personally I have not found something that is better in the nation in helping to lift young people out of poverty. He’s employed today and he’s on a management track. For me he was living proof of how important this is.
RBJ: What should the Rochester business community understand about the Hillside Work Scholarship Connection program?
RICHARDSON: Here in New York we’re putting a lot of money into the school districts. We’re increasing the amount of funding going to school districts and I don’t complain about that at all — we need to put money into that. However, when we look at the challenges of urban graduation rates, we should learn from health. Very little of your health is tied to what takes place in your physician’s office. If we blame our school districts for our low graduation rate and we just keep expecting the school district to improve, that’s not going to work.
We need to invest in those social determinants of educational and career success. We need to invest not only in the academics of the school district, but we need to invest in the environment these youngsters are coming from.
If we could change that financing, then we would change the graduation rates in our urban schools.
Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection—that’s what we concentrate on. That’s why our graduation rates are as high as they are.
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