May 20, 2018; Inside Philanthropy

A recently announced four-year, $17 million grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) to the national nonprofit Communities in Schools (CIS) to help fund its new strategic business plan clearly demonstrates the returns of heavily investing in data collection, promoting a culture of learning, and balancing the inherent tension between a national brand and local flexibility. As readers may remember, EMCF is “spending down” its corpus by investing heavily in youth-serving organizations that have proven their models, often through grants already structured to promote comprehensive growth. At the time, leadership of the foundation wrote:

We realize the decision to sunset a thriving institution is unusual. As a board, we began discussing this option many years ago as we watched our grantees and other nonprofits struggle during and after the Great Recession. Following much exploration, we all agreed that expanding and accelerating our investment approach, in partnership with others, provided our best shot at fulfilling EMCF’s mission now. Being able to build on the momentum capital aggregation has gained and contributing to meaningful innovation in philanthropy are the prime reasons for our decision. Given the urgent needs of youth in our country, the opportunity to dramatically step up our game and our giving is the right decision for us.

This report about one of its grantees, then, follows up on the model, which is described here.

CIS is the nation’s largest provider of Integrated Student Supports, an approach to closing educational achievement gaps for at-risk youth by ensuring that targeted students secure critical academic and non-academic supports that both focus on individual needs and that are integrated into a school’s daily rhythms. In the 2016-17 school year, this national network of 135 local affiliates served nearly 1.6 million students in 2350 schools (from elementary to high school) in 25 states and DC. Through CIS’ model, affiliates place site coordinators in target schools who then establish systems that provide services to both the whole schools and individual students. Site coordinators deliver some services directly and find outside partners to deliver others.

CIS began in 1971 in Atlanta as a dropout prevention program. Through the persuasive powers of its founder Bill Milliken, they opened a national office in 1977 with federal and strong individual donor support. In the 1980s, CIS (then “Cities in Schools”) transitioned to a network structure to allow affiliates to pursue funding independently while simultaneously building a strong national office. Riding the ups and downs of federal funding in the 1990s and early 2000s, CIS in 2004 turned to the Bridgespan Group to develop a business plan for the network, one that could articulate a common goal and approach for the hundreds of affiliates. Who should be CIS’ primary beneficiary—kids enrolled in their programs; all kids attending schools with a CIS presence; or teachers, families and school systems? And what should CIS hold itself accountable for? At this point, CIS made a critical decision, one that has enabled this national network to demonstrate impact and secure critical funding. They decided that their primary goal was to reduce dropout rates, focused on all kids in the schools they served. Bridgespan’s plan also helped the network clarify what was unique and shared among CIS affiliates—not specific programs, but the process itself of entering a community and building partnerships focused on the needs of the local at-risk youth.

CIS had always collected data, but the practice was not uniformly appreciated or executed across its network. So in 2005, the nonprofit launched a national evaluation (carried out by ICF International) that concluded that CIS schools showed a noticeable improvement in school outcomes compared to non-CIS schools, particularly for those sites that implemented the CIS model with the greatest degree of fidelity. However, less than half (47.6 percent) of the CIS schools surveyed for this national evaluation were classified as high implementers. In response, the national office launched TQS, a technical assistance and accreditation program that required all affiliates to hit ambitious new benchmarks for programs and business operations by 2015.

Over the next seven years, CIS invested $43 million into the network to cover the costs of data collection, technology, board training, and other infrastructure expenses, mostly defrayed by grants from big national funders. The process was painful, particularly for those affiliates that wouldn’t or couldn’t comply. By 2015, president Dan Cardinali could proudly report 100 percent accreditation of the “entire legacy network,” while also noting in an NPQ article at the time that nearly 40 percent of the affiliates had dropped out. But Cardinali was convinced that CIS did the right thing, noting that while the network shrunk, its affiliates were serving 20 percent more students with 25 percent less overhead and collectively attracting more resources.

As they wound down the TQS process, CIS hired MDRC to conduct two separate studies of its impact, funded by EMCF’s Social Innovation Fund. The first study examined the effects of the CIS whole-school model and the second specifically looked at the impact of CIS’s case management of targeted students. For the whole-school model, MDRC found that high school on-time graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased in the schools using the CIS model—but these rates also improved for a group of comparison schools. In middle schools, state test scores in language arts and math did not increase in CIS schools, but they did not improve in a set of comparison schools either. The picture looked better at the elementary school level, where the research found that attendance rates (a key CIS indicator for these grades) improved more in CIS than in the control schools. For the second study, which looked at the impacts of case management services, MRDC concluded that these services did not have a positive effect on participants’ attendance, academic performance, or behavior after two years, through these students reported more positive attitudes toward school and the value of education.

What was the CIS response to the MDRC studies, neither of which produced overall clear and positive results for both the whole-school and case management models? Using other data collected from these studies, CIS focused on better understanding the factors that affected its model’s impact for different sub-groups and on refining its model—moving from a two-tier to a three-tier service delivery model that better differentiated students’ needs, standardizing how and when affiliates monitor student progress and adjust services, encouraging affiliates to partner with organizations that use “evidence based interventions,” and developing tools to assess social and emotional competence and growth.

This year, CIS released its new five-year strategic business plan, entitled, “Work to be Done.” It’s clearly about scaling up, adding 300,000 more students within five years. It also articulates a broader vision than the carefully crafted one that previously undergirded this school dropout prevention organization. CIS won’t just help its students stay in school. Moving forward, CIS will measure and monitor participants’ post-secondary “enrollment, persistence and completion…and help make necessary adjustments to the way [it works] based on what [it learned] about [its] alumni in the post-secondary environment.” This bet will probably pay off—not necessarily because of what carefully designed research studies conclude, but through CIS’s continuing ability to satisfy large funders’ desires to invest in organizations that lead with metrics, follow the data, and deliberately make needed program changes.—Deborah Warren

Disclosure: Edna McConnell Clark Foundation is a funder of Nonprofit Quarterly.