Why a B&G Club Won a Coveted Education Grant

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Literacy programs and parental home visitation are both popular ways to help children, but combining them might seem odd – except that doing so recently helped the Boy & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee win a $4.14 million federal grant.

When the U.S. Department of Education announced the 49 grantees for its inaugural, $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund (known as i3) earlier this month, the Milwaukee Boys & Girls Club (BGC) was the only winner that was not primarily an education-focused organization. The club’s winning bid, from among 1,698 applications, is instructive for youth-serving nonprofits interested in winning one of the growing number of federal grants geared toward academic achievement.

The i3 grants went primarily to behemoths in the education field – including Teach for America and the KIPP Foundation ($50 million each) – and to schools and other education-focused organizations, such as the Studio in a School Association, a scholastic arts program ($4.3 million). While a few out-of-school youth groups were partners in proposals by education organizations, the Milwaukee BGC applied for its own grant, with the local public schools as a partner.

The club elbowed its way into this academic winner’s circle by proposing to slightly expand the number of youths served in an existing educational program, adding new elements, showing promising (but hardly overwhelming) evidence of effectiveness, and teaming up with and getting support from key players.

The club’s approach is worth a look because it knows how to win government money: Its $20.5 million annual budget includes about $9.2 million in federal and state grants, such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers, AmeriCorps, Drug-Free Communities, abstinence education, Upward Bound and mentoring.

Its i3 proposal built on the SPARK Early Literacy Initiative, which the club began five years ago in partnership with the Milwaukee Public Schools. SPARK sends tutors into schools to help K- through third-graders in one-on-one sessions during the class day and in group sessions after school. The activities include games and independent reading assignments.

The i3 application proposes to expand that effort by creating a Milwaukee Community Literacy Project, which will provide 50 of the most struggling readers at each of seven schools with tutoring both during and after school, improve some elements of the program and institute more extensive evaluations.

Simply expanding SPARK would not have been good enough for the innovation grants, for they require “innovation.” At the same time, they require evidence of effectiveness, which means the proposals have to be based on something that’s been done. The club’s proposal promised both.

Expanding on what works

The BGC proposal (provided by the club and found here under i3 Grants) and the scores and comments by the three-person review panel (provided by the Education Department) are instructive. They show that the club’s victory was narrow: Its proposal achieved the lowest score (96.40 out of a possible 105) among the 30 winners of the “development” grants (one of three grant categories), and it was the only winner among 20 applications from Wisconsin, according to the Education Department’s list of winners.

The documents show several elements that worked in the BGC’s favor and some that did not:

* Expansion: The application shows that you don’t have to promise eye-popping numbers. SPARK served 450 youths at eight schools last year, according to the application. With the i3 money, SPARK will serve 500 youths this year at 10 schools, says David Knutson, the club’s vice president of government affairs.

So what’s new? The Community Literacy Project (the idea behind this grant) will cover 350 youths at seven of the schools: two new sites, and five existing SPARK sites where programming will be enhanced. (Because the project would take in three waves of 350 students during the five-year grant period, a total of 1,050 would be served by the federal money.)

The idea of “expansion,” however, was about improving the program as much as boosting numbers. Knutson says the enhancements include “a more rigorous family engagement component and a powerful experimental design evaluation.” More on both below.

* Program improvement: SPARK’s existing family component invites parents to visit the tutoring sessions at school, and gives the youths books and activity sheets to take home, encouraging them to read with their parents.

However, Knutson notes that “vigorous parent engagement is often the Achillesheel of urban education initiatives,” and “we fear that without an encouraging home environment, participant progress could regress” after they leave the program. SPARK, he says, “was not resourced well enough to adequately address parent engagement needs.”

The i3 proposal expands the family component by hiring a parent liaison at each site, contacting parents twice a month to discuss their children’s progress, and conducting home visits with each family at least twice a year to discuss ways to help the youth at home, including instruction on reading and other literacy activities and help in building a home library.

No one says home visitation was the game-winning hit, but Knutson calls it “the new wrinkle.”

One reviewer noted evidence that “family reading” is effective and the proposal’s “very strong linkage of school, community and family.” Another praised the “wraparound approach” involving those three sectors.

* Evidence of effectiveness: The reviewers were not unanimously bowled over by SPARK’s accomplishments.

The BGC says that among the 400 youths who participated in SPARK during the 2008-09 school year, those reading at grade level went from 23 percent to 84 percent, while comprehension rose from 19 percent to 75 percent. One reviewer noted that the plan was “research-based,” citing data about SPARK and other literacy programs using similar methods.

Another reviewer, however, called SPARK “average,” with “promising results.” One cited as a weakness that “the one study they completed did not have a control group.” Knutson acknowledges that “we have never had an adequate sample size nor test-control design to prove the program intervention itself was responsible for the reading growth” – an issue that the federal money will be used to address.  

* Measuring results: Again, the reviewers were divided, illustrating the difficulty for bidders trying to impress everyone with an evaluation plan. The club proposed using a randomized control trial to measure impact, and said participants would be reading at grade level by the end of third grade. It will gauge reading proficiency through teacher ratings, a school district assessment and a standardized state test.

One reviewer said the proposal “provides a clear timeliness with measureable goals and objectives.” On the other hand, two wanted more precise measurements and objectives. One said the performance measures were “not explicit,” and urged “CLEARLY defined goals” for the school, community and family spheres. In citing “weaknesses,” two comments said the goals were not “measureable” (because they didn’t include percentage gains in reading, for example).

Experience matters

The BGC gained points for showing that it can carry out its idea.

* Done it before: The proposal details the club’s extensive experience in running literacy and other school-based programs, and in working with its key partner, the Milwaukee Public Schools – both cited as strengths by reviewers. One noted that many of the personnel to oversee the program “are already on staff.” 

* Strong staff: Reviewers noted the “high level staff” that would be used for the program, citing BGC employees and AmeriCorps members. Knutson says that most of the tutors are from AmeriCorps, while others are paid about $8.50 an hour. One reviewer  noted that the club staff has demonstrated the “qualifications to manage projects of this size.”

* Experience with grants: Managing grants helps to win more grants. Reviewers noted that the club has worked under “$30 million in federal and private grants.”

* It will last: The club’s partnerships in running SPARK and other programs were among the factors making this, in the words of one reviewer, “a likely sustainable model.” The funders of SPARK have included the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and the Argosy Foundation.

Another factor was the support for the project from private and government agencies. While it’s tempting to think such letters don’t matter much, because every application has some, one reviewer here noted that the “letters of support are impressive. Governor of Wisconsin.”

  • Sue Knutson

    What a wonderful beginning for a literacy program in the Milwaukee area.   …and only thru parental follow-thru is it going to be truely effective.   Looks like you’ve covered all your bases.   You make us proud, son!    Mom