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Government innovation that makes a difference: learn how two recent winners of the Innovations in American Government Award are helping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged.

What do the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education (OACHE) and New York City's La Bodega de la Familia have in common? First, both are government programs that help disadvantaged people improve their lives. Second, both were among the five national winners of the 2003 Innovations in American Government awards.

For 17 years, the innovations awards have recognized quality and responsiveness at all levels of government to pressing social and economic problems and have advanced the replication of innovative approaches to the challenges facing government. The award is a program of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, administered in partnership with the Council for Excellence in Government. Government programs competing for the award are judged for creativity, significance, effectiveness in addressing important problems, and potential for replication by other government entities.

Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education (

In the Appalachian region of eastern and southeastern Ohio, only 30 percent of high school seniors who wanted to go to college in 1992 actually got there. State and national averages were much higher (41 percent and 62 percent). Yet 80 percent of those Appalachian seniors hoped they could continue their education and 92 percent of their parents wanted them to.

In 1993, OACHE emerged as an unusual partnership (in fact, the first of its kind) between public secondary schools and colleges and universities. Financed by the State of Ohio, it works to raise the rate at which high school students of 29 counties in the state's Appalachian region go on to college. For a decade, it has produced remarkable results.

Changing the Notion of "College Material"

But let us go back to the beginning of that decade. A combination of circumstances was keeping Appalachian seniors out of college. Financial concerns topped the list; many people overestimated college costs and did not know about available financial assistance. While parents supported higher education for their children, few had college experience themselves and, if they were aware of sources for financial help, found application for it daunting. Although teachers and counselors thought of themselves as encouraging further education, students did not see it that way. A study found that teachers and counselors who supported college education did so only on a selective basis. But the most poignant reason was a lack of self-regard: less than 30 percent of seniors rated themselves above average as students. They believed they lacked academic preparation and native ability. To them, college looked intimidating and out of reach.

The situation was self-perpetuating, resistant to solution. Low education levels fed the region's unending economic problems. Technology jobs were replacing blue-collar employment, reflected in per capita income even in 1999 of less than $21,000 in 22 of the 29 counties, and a jobless rate that as late as 2002 was still higher than the national average. That, in turn, drove the lack of resources, lack of information, and dispirited aspirations that kept so many from actually planning for college. These circumstances were clearly documented in a 1992 report commissioned by Ohio's Board of Regents on the urging of one its members from the Appalachian region. Conducted by the Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development of Ohio University, the report, "Appalachian Access and Success," in effect, gave birth to OACHE. To respond to the challenges addressed by the report, the Board of Regents asked the state legislature to create and fund OACHE at $500,000 a year. This was later raised to $740,000.

OACHE awards small competitive "access project" grants to participating school districts and block grants to higher education institutions. The schools use the money for student field trips to campuses and businesses, guest speakers from college admissions offices, and help for students in finding and applying for financial help. The grants also help ensure that students take the necessary entrance exams and complete their college applications. As for the colleges, they help achieve OACHE goals by sending representatives to visit participating schools, putting together sessions that familiarize students with college life, and building realistic expectations of what to expect in the colleges and universities students want to attend.

Boosting Enrollment

Several other programs operate under OACHE: an Educational Opportunity Center helping low-income adult students to get into, or get back into, college; a partnership to administer scholarships for tobacco-growing families that uses $2 million of Ohio's tobacco settlement fund; and a five-year federal "Gear-Up" grant that aggressively encourages a group of seventh graders in half a dozen low-income schools to prepare for college.

All of this helps badly informed low-income families make intelligent decisions about college, based not only on much better information but also on much earlier planning. One important result is significant erosion in out-dated, demeaning ideas about who should get a college education. And all for an average annual cost, independently evaluated in 2000, of $125 for encouraging a student to attend college.

OACHE's most important success is its ability to boost the college-going rate in K-12 schools in Appalachian Ohio. Its greatest strength lies in taking the myths out of the business of getting a higher education for students who often are the first in their families to do so. Its central, replicable innovation is the grouping of, and cooperation between, college-level institutions and K-12 schools around the common objective of raising college enrollment by many students not otherwise likely to attend--something that by all evidence had never been tried before.

From various sets of statistics, the full measure of these achievements comes into overview. Each year OACHE's several programs help nearly 14,000 of Ohio's Appalachian citizens to break through obstacles to higher education. That includes 12,000 high school students, 1,300 adult students, and just over 500 Gear-Up students. The 2000 evaluation found that the college-going rate rose in 77 percent of the 49 OACHE projects funded to that point; the range of rate increase was 3 to 50 percent. At high schools with projects funded by OACHE, 38 percent of seniors enrolled in college in 1994; by 1999, the figure was 55.7 percent. Individual examples of this swing are Southern Local High School, where the college-going rate rose from 58 to 92 percent in three years; Morgan High School, 47 to 85 percent in three years; and Swiss Hills Career Center, a vocational school that increased its rate from 28 to 57 percent in two years.

There was also an unintended, unexpected result: a variety of student results in standardized tests showed that overall academic achievement rose for students in OACHE-assisted schools.

Real Impact

OACHE's most important shortcoming, in the program's own words, is the failure to "satisfactorily engage economic development leaders across the region to invest in educational attainment as an economic development tool." Too often, it says, educational concerns take second place to other important and more tangible development goals like water and sewer projects. Through various efforts, including the Gear-Up program, OACHE thinks it has made progress in building tighter relationships with the economic development community. They have partnered with the Corporation for Appalachian Developments (COAD) to develop a scholarship program. This partnership between economic development and educational programs is uncommon, but OACHE is making progress with this challenge.

Before the OACHE era, diverse attempts to move Appalachian students to college saw varying degrees of success. Based mostly on college campuses, their impact depended on the interest of counselors and classroom teachers. Among these efforts were informational mailings to families receiving food stamps, brochures for families with high school seniors, summer awareness and affirmative action programs, college open houses, and dual enrollment that allowed high school seniors to take college courses and get credit from both institutions. But a focus only on identifying the most promising students flawed most of these activities. As OACHE's management points out, a lack of information or funds is an obstacle only for students able to see college as an option. OACHE projects succeed "because they help students realize they can go to college." And that, too, explains the power of this program's innovation.

Potential for Replication

Concerning replicability--a central criterion of the innovations award--programs modeled on OACHE now operate in Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. OACHE's and WVACHE's executive directors have worked with a foundation in Maine to set up a program modeled on OACHE which is now operational with 23 high school partner projects. In addition, even though the rules prohibit supplementing the salaries of school personnel administering OACHE grants, competition for the relatively small grants is high. Recipients devote a lot of time and effort to making sure that their graduates seek college educations. This enthusiastic dedication of teachers and counselors eases the replication of the program.

In 2001, its record also earned OACHE the national Public Service Excellence award in the state category recognition from the Public Employees Roundtable as the top-ranking state public service program in the United States. During a visit to OACHE in 1998, then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley said that "of all my work, I don't think there's anything more important in the country than what you are doing."

La Bodega de la Familia (

In a storefront on Manhattan's lower east side, since 2001 La Bodega de la Familia has been doing equally striking work: supporting the families of parolees and improving their rate of success by getting their families involved.

La Bodega's family-centered framework for rehabilitating paroled substance abusers also symbolizes something quite new--institutionalized relationships between social service providers, on one hand and, on the other, the world of criminal justice. As an observer of La Bodega's work explained it, parole officers may refer cases to social service groups but rarely have the opportunity to develop substantial relationships with families and community-based service providers. In this innovative program, things work differently.

Significant substance abuse has plagued the lower east side of Manhattan for many years. Levels of use of a variety of drugs is high, as is the addiction rate, and high use is more of a problem than drug pushing. Substance abuse, of course, collides sharply with the criminal justice system. Many addicts in the area wind up in the hands of criminal justice, which treats their offenses as the crimes they indeed are. Individuals with a diagnosed substance abuse problem are duly punished with prison or probation that often omits treatment for the abuse underlying the crime. Plans for release on parole develop without input from families or attention to their needs. Back in their neighborhoods as parolees, they are primed by such circumstances to repeat their offenses; 46 percent are reconvicted within three years.

La Bodega is the direct-service unit of an organization called Family Justice, created when La Bodega spun off from the Vera Institute of Justice. La Bodega works with many government services like police, probation, and public housing. But its collaboration with the New York State Division of Parole--PARTNER--has won national attention. PARTNER changes community supervision of paroled loved ones who have been diagnosed with a substance abuse problem by closing the distance that often separates parolees and parole officers. And it is the families of parolees, a resource seldom drawn on by government, who build the bridges across those gaps. Members of a PARTNER team responsible for a parolee are family members, a La Bodega family case manager, a parole official, and the parolee.

Forging Real Partnerships

The program's range of services is called Family Partnering Case Management, developed by La Bodega. Before an individual leaving jail is paroled, the parole official and the case manager visit the family. They engage family members in the supervision task that will begin when the parolee returns, determine family needs, identify family strengths that can be deployed, and introduce the family to PARTNER services. They define family relationships and stress lines. They map institutions and people that can help. "That meeting was the first time anyone had asked me why I hurt and what I might need," said a grandmother. "I was ashamed and scared at first, but then I realized they were there to help me."

When the Vera Institute of Justice assessed the program's results in 2002, it found an impressive reduction (from 80 to 42 percent) in drug use by abusers compared to a control group from a nearby precinct. Importantly, the reduction seems to have resulted mostly from the work of caseworkers and family members rather than from the use of drug treatment services. In the same comparison, fewer La Bodega parolees were rearrested and reconvicted after six months of parole. In addition, families felt greater support "emotionally and materially in their social relationships;" after six months, fewer of them reported unmet needs for medical and social services. Among parolees associated with PARTNER, the rate of absconders was much lower than that elsewhere in the city.

The report noted that research literature on rehabilitating drug users acknowledges the critical role of families. Yet few treatment programs integrate families into the picture and there is "even less evaluation" of such work. La Bodega's "uncommon approach," it said, "challenges the prevailing practice of removing individuals from a negative environment."

In doing so, the PARTNER formula clearly produces broad benefits that satisfy the goals of both partners. It helps individuals under community justice supervision reenter society in a way that furthers the aims of criminal justice. And it furthers La Bodega's objective of coping with the impact on families when loved ones under community justice supervision return as parolees. Put another way, PARTNER reduces the criminal justice system's reliance on prison to punish relapse, combats relapse, and improves the safety and stability of families that struggle with a member's addiction.

From Coercion to Collaboration

With families at the center, the program changes coercion into collaboration. On a budget of just under $1.4 million (fiscal year ending June 30, 2002), La Bodega has provided services to more than 1,000 families, with an average of three to four members per family taking part. Since participation in the program is compulsory only for the person leaving jail, that is a sign of high willingness by families to get involved.

While the nature of substance abuse problems varies across the country, they all require substantial attention from enforcement and criminal justice authorities. Family Justice is studying the application of the family-support model created by La Bodega to a broad range of venues nationwide. These include public housing, drug courts, substance abuse treatment programs, and community-based groups. In that connection, the organization is working with several US government agencies, while La Bodega itself, a continuing laboratory for innovation and testing, is looking at other problems where family-based supervision has a role--a role that is often overlooked. Among those problems are AIDS, juvenile offenders, and mental illness. This might, however, be tougher for other communities less endowed than New York City with programs and social services that are important assets for La Bodega's success.

Whatever the level of available resources might be, putting the family at the center of problem solving is one of this program's compelling strengths. Another is the creativity with which La Bodega has persuaded the criminal justice system to help breach the traditional, mutually exclusive boundary between treatment and punishment of substance abuse. That is the stuff of which wider improvements in the criminal justice system are made.

Gowher Rizvi is director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation ( The Institute fosters creative and effective government around the world in order to generate and strengthen democracy.
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Author:Rizvi, Gowher
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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