Tag Archives: CCLC

There is Now a Standard for Everything: Nutritional Snacks and Perhaps Making Tea

From page 21 of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) RFP:

A nutritional snack must be served each day the after school program operates. All snacks are required to meet specific nutrition requirements as stated in California Education Code (EC) Section 49431. Include a statement that explains how the nutritional snack requirement will be met.

There really is a standard for everything now, and I don’t even think this one is a joke—unlike the ISO 3103 standard for brewing tea.* Its abstract says:

The method consists in extracting of soluble substances in dried tea leaf, containing in a porcelain or earthenware pot, by means of freshly boiling water, pouring of the liquor into a white porcelain or earthenware bowl, examination of the organoleptic properties of the infused leaf, and of the liquid with or without milk, or both.

Some of us can truly specify everything and understand nothing. And by “some of us,” I mean bureaucrats. But I think the joke ISO writers were at least in on what they were doing, and their effort is close to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, where he does things like take the King James Bible and render it in bureaucrat-speak:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Here it is in modern English:

“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

I would like to see the writers of the 21st CCLC RFP have a go at the KJB in California bureaucratese.

Incidentally, Orwell was also interested in how to make tea, but he did not describe his preferred tea making style this way: “The method consist in extracting of soluble substances in dried tea leaf.” Alas: what a loss to humanity.


* I don’t think I’ve ever seen an (intended) joke in an RFP. If you have, leave a note in the comments.

Federal Pass-Through Programs Illustrated: California Issues RFAs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Elementary & Middle Schools and High School ASSETs Programs

Grant writing is inherently confusing—particularly when it comes to federal “pass-through” grant programs. A pass-through program is one in which the federal government passes grant funds to state or large local jurisdictions based on an allocation formula of some sort. Let’s take a look at one such program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC).

The 21st CCLC program started about 12 years ago as a direct federal competitive program from the US Department of Education. Essentially, this program funded and still funds before- and/or after-school enrichment activities—including tutoring, arts and crafts, recreation, cultural activities, computer skills and so forth—along with family literacy and a few other odds and ends. Think of it as more or less a standard Boys & Girls Clubs of America program.

Not surprisingly, Boys & Girls Clubs make great 21st CCLC applicants, as long as they partner with a LEA (“local education agency” in education-speak) or public school, which they all do anyway. The program was well-funded, and we wrote lots of funded 21st CCLC grants around the country. The whole exercise was straightforward because there was one pot of money with fairly large five-year grants available, one annual deadline, and one set of criteria. Of course, this simple approach was too much for Congress, and about six years ago the 21st CCLC program was transformed into a pass-through structure. While every state is guaranteed some money, the smaller states do not get all that much and each state Department of Education runs their own RFA (“Request for Applications”, which is RFP in education-speak) process. The result of this “reform” is much confusion about the program, when to apply, and on and on.

The 21st CCLC situation in California illustrates how a fairly simple program concept can become fantastically complex when the feds take the pass-through approach. Since California is huge, it gets a huge 21st CCLC entitlement. Every few years, the California Department of Education issues not one, but two 21st CCLC RFAs. The FY 2012 RFAs were issued on October 7, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Elementary & Middle Schools program and the 21st Century High School ASSETs (After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens) program, the latter being for high school students. Each RFA is 65 single-spaced pages long, with lots of qualifiers, charts, and tables that are too numerous to recite here. It gets better—there are also on-line application forms. In addition to meeting the basic 21st CCLC federal and state regulations, applicants—which can be LEAs, schools, nonprofits and public agencies—have to find an eligible partner school that does not currently have a 21st CCLC program, or, if it does, the existing program has to be in the last year of operation. Since 21st CCLC grants are actually five, one-year grants, a given school and potential 21st CCLC provider might be out of synch with the application process. This makes it challenge for a non-LEA applicant to partner with the right school at the right time to get a 21st CCLC grant.

Despite the layers of complexity that the California Department of Education and other SEAs (“state education agencies”—this is an acronym-heavy post) have added to the 21st CCLC program, it remains the single best way of funding an after school program. Assuming the red tape can be surmounted, a successful applicant is reasonably assured of five years of funding that can make an enormous difference in the lives of vulnerable children and youth (free proposal phrase here).

And keep in mind that the program is available in every state, as long as you can find it and figure out the application process. To help out, here are links to the 21st CCLC in New York and Illinois. Poke around your SEA website and you should find the 21st CCLC site. Then, determine the funding cycle, line up a school partner and be ready when the RFA is issued. While your investigating the 21st CCLC program, look for state-funded analogue programs too. For example, California has the After School Education and Safety (ASES) program. I’m not sure of the current funding levels for ASES, but it wins the unintentionally funny acronym contest, although it is pronounced “aces,” not as it appears.

Illinois has the better named Teen REACH (Teen Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring, and Hope program, but children as young as seven can participate, so don’t trust public acronyms. The best of worlds is to combine a 21st CCLC program grant with a state-funded grant, which, for those of you who are old enough to remember, means you will be able to double your pleasure, double your fun.

Other pass-through federal programs, such as HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program work similarly to the 21st CCLC program, except they’re even more complicated. I’ve written a bit about CDBG and CSBG earlier and won’t put readers to sleep with more minutia about them. The key point to remember with federal pass-through funds is that applicants have to understand both the underlying federal regulations, as well as the state/local application process.

RFP Absurdity and Responding to Narrative Questions

I’ve written about stylistically bad language from government RFPs, but more common than the outright bad is the silly, the coy, the euphemistic, and the ridiculous. Now comes a fine example: section 1.d. on page 30 of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools narrative:

Explain how all organizations involved in your collaborative have experience or the promise of success in providing educational and related activities that will complement and enhance the academic performance, achievement, and positive youth development of students.

So you need either (1) experience or (2) the “promise of success.” In other words, your level of experience is irrelevant because you can have a lot or none. The RFP* could’ve just asked, “Are the organizations involved able to provide educational services and, if so, how?” RFPs, however, seldom use 13 easy-to-understand words when 36 words designed to obfuscate meaning are available.

The requirement quoted above is particularly egregious because it has only one answer. Is any applicant going to claim that their organizations don’t have the promise of success? Of course not! And what does “the promise of success” mean? To my mind, the answer is “nothing.” Orwell would be aghast at this and many other RFPs—in “Politics and the English Language” he finds examples where “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” I’ve not read a better concise description of RFPs.

Still, you’re writing a proposal and thus your output can and perhaps even should reflect the document that guides your input. Unlike most forms of writing, where brevity is beautiful, (Write Right**: “If I were limited to one rule of style, Omit Unnecessary Words would be the hands down winner”) grant applications encourage bad writing because you (a) need to fill space and (b) need to answer obfuscated questions fully and completely. The best way to do so is by parroting back variations on what the application writer expects, and the best way to avoid irritating a reviewer is by filling your proposal with muck and jargon.

This peculiar kind of poor writing is similar to the peculiar kind of speciousness Isaac discussed in Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World. You write a narrative by sending back what you get in the RFP, and when you get garbage in, you usually reflect garbage out. Most RFPs are merely asking you variations on who, what, where, when, why, and how, while most proposals are merely variations on the answers to those questions. Remember that when you’re writing and consider which aspect you should be addressing in the response to each RFP question. The apparently difficult sentence I quoted above from the 21st CCLC can be simplified further to “Who’s going to carry out the program?” There. Nothing to fear. Novice grant writers are often intimidated by the jargon in RFPs, but that’s often just an artifact of bad writing rather than an indication of actual difficulty.

In Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding, I wrote “Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies.” Now I can say that sometimes funders want both, as long as you can somehow justify your experience or the virtue of not having any experience in a proposal. If you come across a narrative demand like the one above, play the RFP’s game. It’s the only way to win.


* Before I get irate e-mails from eagle-eyed readers, I’ll note that the 21st CCLC is a Request For Applications (RFA), but I just call them all RFPs for simplicity’s sake.** If I had to recommend just one book to aspiring writers, regardless of the kind of writing, it would be this one. It’s short, pithy, accurate, and will do more to improve most writers in less time than virtually any other book I know. If I had to recommend two, the second would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.