October 31, 2019; The 74

“No margin, no mission” is a common nonprofit mantra. Even if often applied too simplistically, the board of the Los Angeles-based Youth Policy Institute (YPI) would have done well to remember it. Alas, the failure to manage organizational growth and dependence on low-margin government contracts led the nonprofit, with a budget of over $40 million, to close last month.

Yet while financially the nonprofit committed many errors, programmatically it was a singular success. In short, the demise of YPI is not simply a story of failed nonprofit board financial oversight. This story contains an element of tragedy, too.

A profile in The 74 notes that the value provided by YPI “has been widely recognized.” As reporter John Sanburn explains, YPI’s approach centered on delivering “cradle to career” services. This included “in-class tutoring and afterschool workshops for students and parents that went beyond homework help and student well-being to cover life skills, such as balancing a budget.” Its programs, adds Sanburn, were “so effective that one of them is being used as a model for schools across L.A.”

Joel Cisneros, director of school mental health for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school district, tells Sanburn that a new districtwide mandatory “trauma resilience” program, which emerged from elements of YPI’s workshops, is now being expanded to all of the district’s more than 1,000 schools. The program helps educators identify “toxic stress” among students, such as ongoing exposure to community violence, homelessness, abuse in the home, hunger, and poverty.

“We need to be responsive to the needs of the community,” Cisneros said. “And YPI has been a good partner in this with a similar philosophy.”

Prior to its demise, YPI served annually about 112,000 students and adults throughout Los Angeles. Most of the schools were located in the L.A. Promise Zone, a set of high-need neighborhoods with about a 35 percent poverty rate, compared with 20 percent citywide. YPI, Sanburn adds, was founded in 1983 and grew out of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Fund, which was created to aid low-income families.

According to YPI figures, graduation rates in its Promise Neighborhood high schools outpaced state levels, with 87 percent graduating compared with 83 percent statewide. Another measure, “college-ready” graduation rates—defined, Sanburn explains, “as the percentage of high school seniors eligible for University of California or California State University admission”—was 71 percent at the YPI-supported schools, versus 50 percent for all California high schools on average. This is true even though 91 percent of students at YPI’s Promise Zone schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, versus 60 percent statewide.

Central to the success of YPI was its use of personalized plans involving both children and their parents. Sanburn cites an April 2019 study by the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which praised YPI’s work and observed that “personalized plans represent a promising approach…largely underemployed in the field of education.”

Throughout Los Angeles, but concentrated in three areas—the San Fernando Valley, Pico-Union, and East Hollywood—YPI ran more than 90 afterschool sites that offered homework help, recreational options, and classes on subjects such as photography, arts, and robotics. At each school, YPI had staff teams ranging in size from five to a dozen people.

While its afterschool programs were important, much of its work took place during school hours, with tutors working alongside teachers and a school counselor, called a student and family success coach, “who would track how students were doing socially and emotionally by meeting with them away from class in smaller settings to ask about what was going on at home.” Sanburn adds that, “The counselor monitored students’ attendance and classroom performance and even initiated conversations with parents about home life.”

While YPI, the organization, has shut its doors, some of its programs will survive its demise. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Interim Chief Executive Dan Grunfeld had indicated that YPI reached agreements to transfer after-school programs on 80 campuses to Santa Ana-based nonprofit Think Together, which preserves jobs for 400 of the group’s full- and part-time workers. It is possible that additional programs might similarly be transferred to other organizations, although how much of YPI’s programming will be maintained under new agencies remains uncertain.—Steve Dubb