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Students at Manhattan Comprehensive during the Talent Show
8.13.04
Society and Community:
Starting From Behind
More on This Story:
Creating a Nonprofit Partner to Help Your School Succeed

Comprehensive Development Inc, CDI, has been developed as an integral part of Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School. It's mission is to serve, support and help to graduate older students with adult responsibilities. In a web exclusive interview Executive Director Gregory Cohen talks about the nonprofit's role in supporting the mission of the school.





Q: How does Comprehensive Development, Inc. function in relation to the school?

CDI is an independent, nonprofit organization formed to support the community of Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School. We provide assistance to both individual students and to the school as a whole.

A slight majority of the students we serve come to our Student Life Center in the school on their own or through word of mouth. The rest we draw from teacher referrals and coordinated targeting with the school administration of students who need help so as not to drop out or who are struggling with a home issue or in a particular subject.

In supporting the school, CDI functions, in effect, as what colleges and private schools often call the Office of Institutional Advancement, managing fundraising, advocacy, public relations and public affairs. Observers have commented that this arrangement combines the best features of private and charter schools with those of public education.

While I sit on the Principal's Cabinet with the Assistant Principals and as a community representative on the School Leadership Team, CDI does not play a formal role in operating Manhattan Comprehensive, which, as a regular New York City public high school, is governed, staffed, funded and administered like any neighborhood high school by the NYC Department of Education. CDI is governed by an independent board of directors. We have seats on our board for the principal, the leader of the school's teachers union chapter and several students.

Q: What services do you help the school provide through the Student Life Center?

We are the school's provider for a wide range of services. These include, in order of use: tutoring, employment, both placement in jobs and training, as well as internships, individual and group counseling, medical referrals, legal and homelessness prevention services and cultural enrichment like trips to museums and special art instruction. We also jointly fund and manage the college office with the school's guidance department.

We work with many service partners — why reinvent the wheel if another group is very expert at working with young people? Rather, we create the conditions which make it easy for them to come on-site and do what they do best. We handle recruitment, scheduling, follow-up and provide a decent environment for working with students. The CDI staff also works at making the partnerships seamless to the student. Many students don't realize that we are a separate nonprofit — they think of us just as another part of the school, like the library or guidance office. Never mind that the person helping them find a job works for a state agency and that their tutor is a volunteer who is an investment banker during the day.

We have over forty active nonprofit partners who bring incredible resources to our students, such as a mobile health van with free primary medical care (Community Healthcare Network), volunteer recruitment and training for over 100 people annually (Learning Leaders); multiservices including tutoring, college advising and enrichment (The Door), college scholarships (The Jewish Foundation for Education of Women) and social work interns (Columbia University and Hunter College Schools of Social Work), video and radio training (Manhattan Neighborhood Network and WBAI-Pacifica) and a CISCO Network Academy (Communities In Schools-NY). A full list may be found at our Web site.

Q: Tell us about some of your funders. How did you get them involved and how does their funding affect your program?

Our funding, over $1 million a year, is nearly all private, which has the strength of providing us with great program flexibility — we decide what we want to offer and to whom — but which has the weakness that we have no core government funding to count on as a base. Like many nonprofits, we spend substantial energy just keeping our core services funded consistently. We always seek to present our work to new funders, using introductions from our board members, existing funders and our volunteers. We have built our circle of support slowly and steadily — nearly everyone who donates is within two degrees of separation of someone who cares deeply about our students and believes in our mission.

We are fortunate to have foundation funders which provide core general support, year after year such as the Robin Hood, Tiger and Horace Goldsmith Foundations. They don't just read our reports and send a check. They have a keen interest in helping us to measure outcomes and to strengthen our internal structures and management systems and check in with us throughout the year.

Several corporations known for their commitment to New York City have been stalwart funders and, often, a source of volunteers. These include Credit Suisse First Boston, which completely upgraded the school's computer lab and administrative computers, as well as provided teachers with laptops, Andor Capital, which provided a major grant for 9/11 relief, UncommonGoods, which provides funding and jobs for students, JP Morgan Chase, Con Edison, Bloomberg, LP.

Individual contributors play a major role by providing us with donations we can use flexibly and in highly personal ways, say to provide a grant for a rent payment so that a student may avoid eviction or to buy a nice dress for a student in a group home who wants to go to the prom. From my background in community development, I bring a desire to pump money into the school community in a variety of ways. Private individuals and some corporations make donations which allow us to hire students and graduates of the school to work for us or in paid internships — few students can afford to be volunteer. We put over $100,000 a year back into the economy of the students this way.

Q: From your perspective, what are the keys to student success and program success?

Success starts with Manhattan Comprehensive students themselves. Each has decided voluntarily to return to school and to earn a full diploma rather than a GED. That indicates a determination and strength of character that we can nurture and direct. We also foster success by linking every student in a significant relationship with a caring adult, which we do mostly through our 150 volunteer tutors, but increasing through workplace internships, too. We can't overestimate the value the volunteers bring, not just in instruction, but simply through the act of showing up once a week for 20 weeks just for the purpose of providing support. They may be the only people providing that much consistency in our students lives and that helps to build hope and confidence.

CDI provides its service in the context of youth development: that means that we look for strengths and interests in each student to build upon. As a result we are not just a place students come when in crisis or in need of remediation — they come to explore careers, find a music teacher or learn to speak English more clearly. There's no stigma in coming to the Student Life Center — no one is required to go. When is the last time you saw 700 17-22 year olds do anything voluntarily?

Of course, offering services on-site around the clock means students can always find us when they have the impulse. We are open weekdays from 9-9 and also on Sundays. The school's willingness to integrate us into daily life also eases the path for students to come for help.

We also meet students on their own terms: by hiring students and graduates as peer counselors, we can cover about a dozen of the major languages spoken at Manhattan Comprehensive. That lowers the barriers to getting a conversation started. We noticed that young women from traditional Muslim cultures were reluctant to sign up for a volunteer tutor although they need help particularly in math and science. We hired a Bengali nursing student who dresses traditionally as a tutor — she quickly had a full schedule.

Finally, I have to credit the CDI and Manhattan Comprehensive staffs. Their own love for the students, talent and dedication creates a warm, caring community which reinforces each student's initial impulse to come back to school and struggle to earn that degree. There is a clear sense that we are all in this together.

Q: How do you suggest other communities start non-profit support groups like yours?

I don't think it starts with money. Start or find a school with a burning sense of mission. Our belief in the transforming power of education is shared by our partners, funders and volunteers. Define the most important support needs by asking students and teachers and start with those. In general, CDI has stuck to the basic services students told us they need when we opened ten years ago. Be sure you've tried to mobilize existing resources before creating new programs. Every community has its indigenous resources. It may be parents, alumni, local businesses or community groups. There are many different models for community involvement. Walk, then run. Once you have shown the creative and effective use of volunteers and in-kind support, then you can expand and look for funding. I call that the "stone soup" approach to organizational development.

Q: How can someone become a volunteer with your group?

By calling Etenesh Adnew (MCN&DHS '99) in our volunteer program at (212) 353-2010 ext. 123 or visiting our Web site: www.cdi-ny.org

Read a Manhattan Comprehensive Volunteer's own story.


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