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Wraparound supportive services and Zuckerberg’s school reform donations

This is one of series of technical posts that explain key grant writing concepts. Today’s lesson concerns the concept of wraparound supportive services, which we include in every human services grant proposal we write—as we first wrote about in “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.”

I was reminded of the importance of wraparound supportive services because of Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize, which is reviewed in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review by Alex Kotlowitz. The Prize details the attempt of politicians (Cory Booker and Chris Christy) to turn the incredibly bad Jersey City public school system around over the past five years, largely using a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It seems that Mr. Zuckerberg’s huge donation was ineffective:

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance . . . “I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success.”

While I haven’t read the book, the review illustrates the naivety of new tech billionaire philanthropists regarding how public agencies and nonprofits actually work, as I wrote about before with respect to Sean Parker’s new foundation. More interestingly, the NYT review ends by telling us that Zuckerberg is doubling down on his public school reform efforts by giving $120 million to “high poverty” schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, despite the apparent fiasco in Jersey City. I’ll give him props for persistence, particularly when I read this at the end of the review:

This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.

To a grant writer, Zuckerberg’s insight about a “web of support for students” and Kotlowitz’s breathless look to the future illustrate that neither knows much about public education in Title I schools, which is how the US Department of Education, as well as state and local education agencies, designate “high poverty schools.” The feds have been giving boatloads of extra money to Title I schools since 1965, with no more obvious success than Zuckerberg experienced in Jersey City. Most Title I schools already offer variations on the kind of “web of support” that Zuckerberg is planning for targeted Bay Area schools. In addition, an army of nonprofit human services providers in the Bay Area do exactly the same thing for at-risk youth. We’ve worked for many of them. These nonprofits will certainly be interested in grants from the Zuckerberg donation to provide yet more wraparound supportive services.

Wraparound supportive services for at-risk low-income students is not an innovation. Also, referral for wraparound supportive services is usually required in most federal RFPs and foundation guidelines. But what are wraparound supportive services?

They’re any kind of helper services other than the primary service proposed for funding with the grant. For example, in a youth job training proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of referral for substance abuse treatment, while in a youth substance abuse treatment proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of job training.

The basic idea is that all targeted populations for any human services grant proposal face a panoply of problems beyond the specific issue at hand—a 16-year-old high-school student at risk of dropping out probably has substance abuse issues, involvement in the juvenile justice system, no job skills and so on. Since there’s never enough grant money to solve every problem faced by the client, the grant writer claims something like, “clients will receive the full range of case-managed wraparound supportive services to meet needs beyond the project scope identified in their individual intake assessment by referral to appropriate collaborating public and private service providers.” [free proposal sentence here]

Typical wraparound supportive services include: pre-employment skills training, job training, job placement, assistance with legal problems, tattoo removal, primary health care, dental care, behavioral health services, remedial education leading to a GED/high school diploma, life skills training, and anything else you want to toss in the mix. The keys are: assessment at intake, development of an Individual Supportive Services Plan, referral to meet identified needs, case management to verify that services are being accessed and follow-up (usually for 12 months). In many cases, the proposal includes letters of support from referral agencies to demonstrate that these mythical supportive services will actually be available. In the real world, who knows how much of this occurs, but in the proposal world, all of this works seamlessly.

A version of wraparound supportive services is presumably what Zuckerberg has in mind as the “web of support” for the students at his targeted Title I Bay Area schools. He’s in for a couple of surprises. First, providing actual case-managed services is very expensive, as the Case Manager to client ratio shouldn’t be more than about 1: 20 if the program is going to have any hope of impact.

In addition, most of these youth will have already had plenty of wraparound supportive services, beginning with Head Start and continuing on in their Title I schools. There’s no shortage of Case Managers in low-income communities. There is a shortage of motivation and properly aligning incentives.

In some human proposals, we’ve even proposed a sort of “Super Case Manager” to wrangle all of the Case Managers and other helper adults in the young person’s life. It’s not unusual for an at-risk youth to have Case Managers from the foster care system, family court, juvenile justice, welfare and schools, all vying for their attention. The young person may have trouble finding time to go to school, given the endless case management meetings and referral services she must attend. But this is real world stuff. Keep wraparound supportive services in your grant proposals and don’t tell Zuckerberg. He’ll find out soon enough.

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Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are

Most social and human services get delivered in one of two ways: on a drop-in basis or a case-managed basis. The latter is often characterized as “wraparound supportive services,” and is the subject of this post. If you’ve ever been to a Boys and Girls Club or YMCA, you’ve received services on a “drop-in” basis, which means you usually don’t have someone reminding you to do things or recommending that you do them. In high school, I’d swim and practice Tang Soo Do at a YMCA, and taking punches (with padding!) made me want to return for more. Note that we don’t recommend this approach for most drop-in programs unless you have an unusual audience in mind.

The alternative involves wraparound supportive services, which are intended to help an individual or family achieve some overarching goal by offering a suite of services over a period of time, based on needs identified through a comprehensive assessment. The basic idea behind Talent Search, for example, is to make sure that at-risk youth with college potential actually go to college. One could theoretically run a Talent Search program on a YMCA-style model, where you offer academic enrichment, PSAT and SAT prep classes, college tours, life skills training, and what not to whoever happens to wander past the school library that day. But most offer wraparound supportive services instead.

Why? The problem is that many high school students are like I was: indifferent. They’ll see a flyer or be told by a teacher they should do Talent Search program. Then they go home and play computer games or smoke pot or whatever and forget about all this Talent Search nonsense because Halo 3 is more immediately satisfying, while college, if it’s visible at all, is off in the blurry distance.

Colleges, of course, like forward planning and high GPAs, so if you want to go to a four-year school, waking up in October of your senior year isn’t going to help you much, even if you’re smart and have a lot of potential. I spent most of my first two years of high school not doing much of anything for no particular reason. Students like me (back then) won’t by and large spend much time in drop-in programs, which sometimes end up primarily helping the kinds of students who don’t need that much help anyway.

In response to these kinds of pressures, a lot of organizations offer wraparound supportive services. As the name implies, this entails wrapping the participant up with all the kinds of things they might need: referrals to drug or mental health treatment, transportation assistance, and life skills training (basically small group process for things like stress management, nonviolent conflict resolution, relationships, anger management, and so forth). Usually there’s a staff person, often called a Case Manager, Counselor, or Coach, charged with doing intake, developing an assessment to figure out who needs services (this would be part of steps 2 and 3 in Project Nutria), creating a supportive services plan, monitoring activities, and overseeing follow-up. Since most free social and human service programs have more people who want to participate than slots, the idea is to provide coordinated, concentrated services to a smaller number of clients instead of scattering a smattering of services across many.

Most importantly, the Case Manager will keep an eye on each participant and try to shepherd them through the program. If Student Joe promised to do Talent Search at least until he graduates from high school, then Case Manager Jane will make sure he’s attending activities and making progress toward his goals. She’ll also help him pick activities and get help with other things he needs—like legal services for the Minor in Possession he gets after the Homecoming Dance—as new crises arise.

Sometimes funders will sneak a requirement to provide wraparound supportive service in through backdoors, like “collaboration” (see “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point” for more). The The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program provides a case in point. It specifies:

The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, which is funded under FIE, encourages coordination of academic, social, and health services through partnerships between (1) Public elementary and secondary schools; (2) the schools’ local educational agencies (LEAs); and (3) community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, and other public or private entities. The purpose of this collaboration is to provide comprehensive academic, social, and health services for students, students’ family members, and community members that will result in improved educational outcomes for children.

Whoever wrote FSCS wants every obvious social problem to have a solution, only the solution is supposed to come from nominal “partners” who usually don’t get a piece of the grant pie. The partner is supposed to magically provide the referral service through some other imagined funding stream. And guess who’s going to tell Joe to visit the community-based organization that will provide him with whatever he needs? Jane. Joe doesn’t know the services exist, and if he does, he probably won’t know how to access them.

The dirty little secret of wraparound supportive services is that they can very seldom be sustained over the long or short term. If you really have a case manager, an education specialist, a child care consultant, a life coach, etc., you have to pay for all those positions. Virtually no grant will actually cover the full costs, and organizations also face trade-offs between the number of people who can be served through wraparound supportive services versus drop-in offerings. If you need case managers as well as all the other positions that need to be staffed, you’re naturally not going to be able to serve as many people because the cost per person rises.

As a result, more wraparound supportive services happen in the proposal world than the real world. A lot of RFPs want you to say you’ll provide wraparound supportive services even if the funding agency knows you can’t really provide them or doesn’t provide enough funding to make such services happen.

To some extent, these problems can be mitigated through the ever-promising referrals to other agencies in the target area: promise that you’re going to send John to the local drug rehab organization for that, the local community college or Workforce Investment Act (WIA) One-Stop Center for job training, and so on. That’s what the FSCS RFP is shooting for. But local “partners” have their own problems, their own full caseloads, and their own oversubscribed services that lead to waiting lists, which is how you get the kinds of problems already mentioned in our collaboration post.

Still, many RFPs want you to propose wraparound supportive services, which you can’t do unless you know what the term means. Now that you do, remember to include such services in your proposal.