February project update

The Urban Initiative has added another project to our portfolio this month. Yesterday, we kicked off a study of the United Way (of Greater New Bedford) Hunger Commission’s operations and impact that will continue through the semester. We’re excited about this project for a few reasons: it represents our first partnership with the United Way of Greater New Bedford, it’s likely to have a positive impact on the Hunger Commission’s efforts to feed the region’s hungry, and the project is being managed by our second year graduate research assistant, Bob Golder. What that all boils down to is that this project is a perfect fit for our mission. We look forward to providing updates over the next few months.

In addition to this new endeavor, we’re also working on:

  • the evaluation of LifeWork, which continues through the summer;
  • the needs assessment of SouthCoast Veterans, in partnership with the Veteran’s Transition House;
  • the fine-tuning of a website that will serve as a dashboard for the region’s public health community;
  • the development of an evaluation plan for a New Bedford Health Department campaign; and
  • supporting students in Professor Gloria De Sa’s Urban Sociology course in their efforts to conduct community-based research (more on that later).

Jeff McCormick Visits to Discuss the Gateway Cities

Michael McCarthy, Research Assistant, UMass Dartmouth Urban Initiative

            This morning, Jeff McCormick, founder of venture capitalist firm Saturn Partners, announced his candidacy for governor in Massachusetts. The announcement comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following the race, and especially not to us at the Urban Initiative. In the mid January, Mr. McCormick visited New Bedford, including a stop at our satellite office at the Quest Center. With a refreshing sense of curiosity, he asked us about the unique challenges facing the SouthCoast Gateway Cities of New Bedford and Fall River, which we cover extensively on our SCUIP page.

Although his background is in financing high tech business ventures around Boston, Mr. McCormick is cognizant that those industries may not take hold in and revive New Bedford, a city with a degree attainment rate less than half the state average (21.1% to 46.7% according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey). To that point, we discussed the true obstacles that are holding back New Bedford – the need for systemic educational reform compassionate to the changing population and the creation of new jobs in the form of small business or skilled labor – and what a governor could do to alleviate them.

Mr. McCormick quickly dismissed the typical political practice of attacking large problems, like those plaguing the Gateway Cities, with a top-down pointed plan. Instead, he recognized that “a perfect plan doesn’t exist” and in order to foster growth in the Gateway Cities a successful government must “treat everything like it’s unique…and acknowledge the nuances of each city.” He outlined addressing the issues facing Massachusetts’ smaller cities with a method similar to investing in a fledgling company with unfamiliar product – go to the experts in that field, listen to what they had to say, and inform himself on the particulars of the situation before implementing an action plan.

In this regard, Mr. McCormick’s approach is familiar to the one favored by our current businessman-turned-governor. This type governance, one that relies on local experts and best practices, will be essential in the next administration if we hope to address the complex issues holding our Gateway Cities back from realizing their true potential as 21st century cities. With that in mind, the Urban Initiative would like to invite all other Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates to visit us and discuss their plans for the future of the Gateway Cities.

Newly Released Graduation Rates

By Katya Starostina

Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

On January 27th, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released graduation and dropout rates for all school districts for the 2012-2013 school year. The state’s four-year graduation rate increased for the seventh consecutive year, with 85 percent of the entire cohort of students who entered 9th grade in 2009 graduating on time four years later (accounting for students who transfer out of or into the district during that time).

For New Bedford and Fall River, graduation rates have been well below the state average and declined the previous school year. This time around, however, the four-year graduation rate in Fall River increased by 5.8 percent and in New Bedford, by 7.2 percent.* This marks a significantly higher percent change than other comparable Gateway Cities such as Lawrence, Lowell, and Brockton. These cities experienced a 1.2, 2.7, and -0.9 percent changes, respectively. According to a post by MassINC, school districts in the state’s Gateway Cities posted an average graduation rate of 75.3 percent, 9.7 percent below the state average.

Improving graduation rates for subgroups has been a priority for the state and specifically Gateway Cities. Over the years, English Language Learners (ELLs), students of color, and low-income students have been graduating at a much lower rate than the rest of the students. In New Bedford, ELLs, whose graduation rate has been on the decline in the last four years, was the most improved of all groups – a 24 percent increase in one year. The graduation rate for Hispanic students increased by 13 percent and the rate for low-income students grew by 5.7 percent.

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In Fall River, the group that has seen the biggest decline in the past 4 years has realized the biggest increase this year. The percent change for ELLs is even more significant that in New Bedford – a whopping 54 percent. Graduation rates for Hispanic students increased by 9.2 percent and for low-income students, by 7.6 percent.

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The state has recognized the persistent achievement gaps in the Gateway Cities that disproportionately affect low-income students, ELLs, students of color, and students with disabilities. The FY13 state budget included $3.5 million in new funding to support the implementation of the Gateway Cities Education Agenda, proposed by Governor Deval Patrick. The agenda focused especially on supporting ELLs and increasing career readiness for high school students. 

According to this press release, New Bedford benefited by receiving $40,000 to launch the New Bedford Academy of Engineering within New Bedford High School that will focus on advanced manufacturing, clean energy, health care, and the STEM fields. Fall River received $45,000 to better prepare students for the growing job opportunities in the STEM fields through the creation of the Science, Engineering, and Math Career Academy. Fall River also received $235,000 to create a five-week intensive summer program centered on English language instruction, literacy workshops, and college awareness to help bridge the transition that ELLs face from middle school to high school.  

Governor Patrick proposed an additional investment in education as well to expand access to high quality educational opportunities, totaling approximately $550 million in its first year and increasing to nearly $1 billion annually over the next four years. The proposal includes an additional $20 million to implement all components of the Gateway Cities Education Agenda and increase comprehensive supports to students and their families in Gateway Cities.

In partnership with Gateway City mayors, city managers, and school officials, MassINC recently released The Gateway Cities Vision for Dynamic Community-Wide Learning Systems. A culmination of a year-long series of planning sessions, this vision highlights effective new models to equip students with the necessary skills required by the changing economy. The Vision will guide a multi-year effort to use data and public education to help Massachusetts make the right investments in Gateway City learning systems.

It is exciting to see all the newly developed strategies and funding that New Bedford and Fall River can take advantage of to improve the public school system. The momentum to boost education in Gateway Cities is building, and more and more key stakeholders are taking part. Join the Urban Initiative for the Opportunity in the Gateway Cities Summit hosted by Teach for America in Lawrence on April 12 to contribute to the conversation. 

* Percent change was calculated by dividing the percentage difference between the two numbers by the first number and multiplying by 100.

Walking With the Homeless

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

Last Wednesday night I walked the streets of New Bedford, bundled in more layers of clothing than I ever wore while working outdoors on fisheries projects in Alaska. The air temperature had plummeted to the low 20s, and the wind chill was bitter for the start of the 2014 Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count, conducted in communities throughout the United States. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the number of persons experiencing homelessness (whether sheltered or unsheltered) to be annually counted, and briefly surveyed if possible. Urban Initiative project manager Colleen Dawicki, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, and I joined more than forty other volunteers who fanned out across New Bedford on January 29-30 to conduct the annual 24-hour count. Carrying clipboards, survey sheets, and backpacks full of warm socks, hats, and canned food, we left our headquarters at the Sister Rose House on Eighth Street, and began to walk the blocks from County Street east toward the downtown district.

Last year in New Bedford, volunteers found 338 homeless persons, 119 of whom were in unsheltered conditions. That number seems likely to rise when all the data are assessed for 2014.

As we walked, Colleen, Katya and I asked passersby whether they had secured housing for the evening. Some people who, judging by their clothes and behavior, seemed likely to be housed – perhaps even likely to own a home – turned out not to have any place to stay that night. I conducted my first interview on Union Street with a young man who I thought was probably an undergraduate student at the downtown Star Store campus of UMass Dartmouth. As I introduced myself to him, I thought I was merely going to get some practice in asking a stranger whether he had housing for the night. I didn’t really expect him to tell me he was homeless, but he did, and I reached for my pencil and a survey form. Like most of the homeless people our group spoke with, the young man was cordial, well-spoken, and willing to be interviewed so that community organizers and government officials might gain a greater awareness and understanding of homelessness in America. We offered him, and the many others we met that night, the contents of our backpacks and a “Street Sheet” brochure, produced by the Homeless Service Providers’ Network, that described available support services.

We wished each individual well and moved on, seeking the next interview, which was never long in coming. As researchers, we were conflicted: was it “good” that we were interviewing so many people and gathering so much information… or was it bad for New Bedford, and the nation, that on a bitterly cold winter night we walked among so many homeless persons, many of whom reported educational attainments or life experiences not dissimilar to our own.

After a few hours, I walked back up the hill toward my comfortable home, while the homeless walked toward an emergency shelter, a church hall, a friend’s apartment with a sofa to lie on, or perhaps a pile of blankets under a bridge.