Lessons from the Bronx Opportunity Network on Promoting CBO-Community College Partnerships

Jim Marley, Good Shepherd Services

The October 2016 OYIF Convening included an Innovation Design Studio focused on lessons learned from the Bronx Opportunity Network (BON). BON is a collaborative of seven Bronx community-based organizations (CBOs) that have partnered with Bronx Community College and Hostos Community College to support opportunity youth in their transition to and through college by aligning programming and partnering with the colleges on fundamental redesign of their practices. The organizations that comprise the BON include: BronxWorks, CUNY Prep, The Door, East Side House Settlement, Good Shepherd Services, Grace Outreach, and New Settlement Apartments. The BON is also working in partnership with JobsFirstNYC, an intermediary organization in New York City that has served as the backbone organization for the BON in the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund. Jim Marley, from the BON partner organization Good Shepherd Services, spoke to this issue during this session. Following the convening, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions asked Jim to reflect on lessons learned from BON’s work.  Below is an edited version of his interview.

Tell us a little about your work with Good Shepherd Services.

Good Shepherd Services is a strong community organization in New York City with major program hubs in Brooklyn and the Bronx. We provide a full range of services to youth, children, and families by operating 80 community-based programs, including family supports, housing, and in-school programs.

I run the community services network in the Bronx, which involves all of our community-based services for 700 families considered high-risk for potential child abuse and foster care placements, and who receive stabilization supports from case workers. We also operate major in-school programs and preventative services. We work with schools that are trying to reinvent themselves, such as Young Adult Borough Centers (YABC) that are designed for youth ages 17-18 who have challenges to completing high school degrees such as needing to work or taking care of children and families. YABC participants can take night classes and receive additional services such as counseling, tutoring, college prep, and resource referrals.

These are all very integrated services that are located in the same neighborhoods. Our model is to weave families through a range of programs so that they can move freely between services as needed. We are located next to Bronx Community College, and so we got a crash course on how difficult it is for youth to transition to college. I became very interested in this aspect, and why the passage into college, and staying in college has been so difficult for our students. I was one of the leaders who formed Bronx Opportunity Network with like-minded individuals from other CBOs.

Can you tell us a little about the Bronx Opportunity Network? Why did the seven CBOs in the Bronx Opportunity Network come together in a collaboration, and what is the common approach to working with opportunity youth to help them transition to college?

The Bronx Opportunity Network (BON) is a network made up of seven Bronx CBOs serving the areas around Bronx Community College (BCC) and Hostos Community College. Most of the organizations have long individual relationships with the colleges and have been sending students to both schools for years.  Right now, we have over 400 students in these two colleges, and most are low-income and don’t have strong academic background or personal support networks.

One of the reasons we were able to come together and be successful is that we had a common focus and the reach and leverage to work as partners. We had an agreement at the onset: if we were to make it work, we all had to do it as a collective. Most of us were already doing the work, and we believed that by working together, we could “elevate our game” in helping more students at BCC and Hostos be successful, without losing sight of each organization’s mission and focus.  To this end, each organization is self-funding. We also thought that if we engaged with colleges as a collective effort, we could support their efforts to identify practices, partnerships, and services that would help students transition to college and be successful. We knew that we had to find new ways to partner with our students, colleges, and with each other.

We are often asked why the BON is successful even though there are seven partner CBOs, each with their own history and ways of working. I believe that our success is due to the fact that we only focused on one area of the problem – young people weren’t making a safe and successful passage into college. One of the smart things we did was narrow down the focus to college transition and support services. We did not ask organizations to change their way of working, but we did ask them to commit to running a college bridge program, which many were already doing in the course of working with marginalized youth who were trying to earn high school diplomas and transition to college. Our first big step was ask each BON partner to create a summer bridge program of at least 45 hours, with curriculum focused on preparing students to take the City University of New York (CUNY) placement test. We did not ask partners to create a standardized curriculum – we weren’t concerned with whether they had the same kind of prep course, but that they had some type of prep course that could be recognized by the colleges.  Typically, our students will take the placement test and fail it terribly; we then ask them to attend a summer bridge program to prepare for the test, and then do a re-test.

Once we achieved the first big step of each BON partner creating and delivering this prep course, we were able to go to the colleges as a collective and negotiate for our students to be able to re-test. When the colleges agreed to accept our bridge programs and re-testing of students, this was the first big external win that gave us the sense that there could be some traction with this model. This is not something we could have achieved as individual organizations.

This was the big lesson learned: it was important to pick a narrow area of focus, move it collectively, and not make it too complex. All the BON does is increase student movement into college. Our collaboration operates as a work group with no paid staff, but with everyone accountable for coming to meetings, keeping students engaged, and sharing data. The BON is simple and focused, but that makes it resilient.

What have you done together to have a common advocacy approach for your youth as they transition to and through college?

Our main agreement is among each other: to stay focused on this issue, hold each other accountable, act collectively, share data, and create complimentary services to support student-driven program design. As part of that agreement, all BON program directors meet regularly, which allows us to talk about our experiences and identify issues that could then be brought to the colleges. They also meet with students to identify issues that students are experiencing.  Program directors use each other as resources as different problems come up. Colleges are very complex institutions to navigate, and this allows us to identify friendly deans that are willing to help. Eventually, we have been able to work with colleges to build campus networks, and to get colleges to work with cohorts of students.

These are real life issues that youth experience as they miss tests, move in and out of classes. Working together, we created a collaborative network of practitioners through these personal interactions, and this allowed us to design personalized webs of student services that are delivered by people that students know and trust. This is ultimately about building human capital so that students can learn to navigate this complex system and eventually take action for themselves. It’s important to remember that these are students who for the most part have never been engaged with the systems that they are in. It takes them six years to get through high school, and they are never deeply attached. You can’t presume that these youth will become engaged persons in college, and you have to create learning opportunities so that with time they come to realize that they could navigate the college system. This is why the BON also focuses on increasing student engagement and involvement by building strong peer networks and designing peer-led activities that help transmit college values between students.

What steps did you take to partner more deeply with the community colleges as they undertook redesign to help opportunity youth and other marginalized populations succeed?

Initially, all of our work was focused on the student support side, with partners changing the way that we ourselves operated. We started using peer-led activities to build student capital and create cohorts where students were assisting their peers. As we got to know deans and form relationships, and as colleges and institutions started thinking about how they could change and improve, we ended up forming alliances with colleges. We formed a standing joint committee of BON and community college leaders, with the support of college Presidents of BCC and Hostos, which is a formalized work group with the goal of accelerating the pace of change in how these institutions support students.

Ultimately, we are helping these colleges reimagine themselves as much more responsive institutions. There was a failing model in place, where students would come in, get their student ID card, and move through the college by themselves. We replaced this with a model in which students navigate college as a cohort, with strong peer engagement, adult support, and opportunities to recover ground that was lost.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has recently made the decision to accelerate and open more slots in the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) model, which really threw fuel on the fire of colleges sensing an institutional need to move faster in designing better supports for marginalized students. This created an institutional momentum for our committee to create FASTRAK, designed to support incoming students through two strategies:

  • implementing practice and policy changes that can help students move through remediation, earn credits faster, and increase retention and
  • increasing student engagement and peer mentoring, implementing cohort-based approaches to instruction, and piloting new student supports.

Among other things, FASTRAK will expand placement test prep at colleges and allow BON students to stay together as a cohort in first year seminar courses and plug these cohorts into existing small learning communities so that students could, for example, take an English course together. It will offer tutoring and peer mentoring in three remedial math sections at each college; create a 20-hour winter remedial course for 50 remedial “high fail” students with potential to qualify for grade reevaluation; and increase access to support programs such as ASAP for students who are academically at risk.  Additionally, CUNY has recently ended the use of the Compass placement test, which creates an opportunity to reimagine the remedial system and focus on moving students through the college system faster.

What lessons do you have for other community-based organizations seeking to change community college practices?

Stay focused, stay simple, and build a network based on consensus and trust. It’s the only way to do this.