Episode 13: Hanaa Arafat of the YWCA of the City of New York

Hanaa Arafat

Hanaa Arafat spearheaded an appeal effort that had a big statewide impact in New York, by gently but rigorously insisting that the State maintain standards of fairness in how they dole out grants for afterschool programs

“The self-reporting mechanism to document poverty [is] discriminatory, because teenagers do not want to self-report on this.”
– Hanaa Arafat

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Hanaa Arafat and Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast (Transcription)

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Eric Gurna: Hi, I’m Eric Gurna, executive director of Development Without Limits, and this is Please Speak Freely, the podcast where we have honest conversations about youth development and education.
So I’m here with Hanaa Arafat, senior director of high school and adult programs for the YWCA for the City of New York, here doing the first ever Please Speak Freely interview in our own Development Without Limits Office, so welcome Hanaa.

Hanaa Arafat: Thank you very much, I’m pleased to be here.

Eric: Yeah, I’m pleased that you’re here. You and I have known each other for a number of years and worked together in a couple different capacities, I think, over the years. But we’ve never had a chance to sit down and talk about, or at least talk publicly about some really interesting experiences that you’ve had as a program director and a leader in the field. And, you know, I was saying before we actually formally got started that this interview is a little bit different from some of the please speak freely episodes ’cause I’m so eager to talk to you about this  one particular thing that happened. But as eager as I am to talk about that I also know that the day-to-day work that you’re engaged with is really interesting and important and I’d love to hear a little bit about what you do.

Hanaa:  Okay, so I’m a program director at Murry Bergtraum High School for business careers, which is a large high school in New York City. It’s actually the last large high school in Manhattan, discounting maybe Stuyvesant, which is probably just as large or larger. And I also oversee program directors at two other high school sites, one at Independence High School which is an alternative school, and one at Rachel Carson High School, which is a smaller school in Coney Island.  And they’re different programs that I oversee, but you know, usually they’re youth development programs; after-schools, we also have an in-school , kind of attendance improvement drop-out prevention at Rachel Carson. As the program director I’m kind of involved in direct service, but then overseeing two other program directors, site coordinators, I also kind of do a lot of that administration, operations, kind of planning for the future, funding, grant-writing, all of that kind of stuff.

Eric: Sure.

Hanaa: So I kind of wear a couple of hats.

Eric: And you know, for the benefit of the national listeners, can you say a little bit about what you mean that it’s, Murry Bergtraum is one of the, or is the last you know, large high school in New York City? ‘Cause obviously we still have the old school buildings we’ve always had, but –

Hanaa: Right, I mean, you know, in the past, I would say I guess ten years, there’s been this process of education reform which entailed closing down, you know, failing high schools according to the benchmarks that the Department of Education has, and also  -the New York City Department of Education – and also the New York State Education Department. They also may close down schools depending on their No Child Left Behind Act status.  So what happens is, when these schools close down – often they’re large high schools – they’re replaced by smaller schools, oftentimes many large  –  small schools within that large building that had once housed one school.  And so Murry Bergtraum is one of the last large high schools that’s still, you know, considered one school and not, you know, many smaller schools within a campus.

Eric: Right, so a lot of these buildings that we work in will have like four or five principals in one school building.

Hanaa: Exactly.  Each school occupying a different floor or, you know, just designated, demarcated space within the building. But this building houses just one school, the student body, you know, twenty-two-hundred. Yeah.

Eric: And Murry Bergtraum has a storied history too, I just, I don’t know if you saw the Tribe Called Quest documentary?

Hanaa: No, I haven’t seen it, although Q-tip is coming to visit the students –

Eric: Is he?

Hanaa: – in a couple of weeks for career day.

Eric: Oh, that’s cool.

Hanaa: Which is great and I’m gonna show that documentary to the students before he gets here.

Eric: Oh that’s good, because some of them may not understand how important he is. But they, you know, they talk about it ’cause that’s where a couple of them met. I think, like, him and Ali Shaheed Muhammad met at Murry Bergtraum.

Hanaa:  And they’re graduates of Murry Bertraum. And Murry Burgtraum has that history of being one of the best high schools in New York City. This is, you know, I would say maybe ten years ago, it was considered a really competitive school to get into because it was one of the high schools that had a selection process for the student body, so students had to apply and be selected by the school. Right now the selection process has kind of changed, but because of that selection process the school had you know, a reputation that you were gonna get a really, you know, top rate, top-notch education at Murry Bergtraum. And actually I think about, I don’t know, I think maybe twelve to fifteen years ago there was a US News and World Report article about how it was one of the top ten high schools in the nation.

Eric: Really, wow, I didn’t realize that. I just thought it was cool ’cause Q-tip went there. If you don’t know who Q-tip is you can just, you know, look up Tribe Called Quest, you know –

Hanaa: Yeah, we’re excited. He’s actually gonna come to our afterschool program as well.

Eric: Oh, that’s so cool.

Hanaa: We have a hip hop appreciation class where the students produce their own music and their own rhymes, and he’s gonna be coming and talking to them.

Eric: That’s really cool.

Hanaa: It’s gonna be really fun.

Eric: Yeah. So, I’d love to, I sort of built it up a little bit, what it is that I wanted to talk to you about. And maybe, you know, I could describe just in general what it was, and then we could walk though it a little bit. Coming on three years ago now, New York State had a – was it three? Yeah, coming on three years ago, ’cause the new cycle is almost up. New York State had a funding competition for Twentieth Century Fund learning centers. It was a a request for proposals, RFC out from New York State.  TFC is federal funds, it gets granted to the states and then gets re-granted out to schools, school districts, community organizations and even some private companies that get contracts to run afterschool programs, out of school time programs that serve young people in economically poorer neighborhoods. And so there was a funding competition and a lot of different organizations obviously put together proposals, including your own. And this particular RFP, the New York State for whatever reason changed some of their procurement methods, right.  So they changed some of the processes for how they read, reviewed, scored those proposals. And you received notification that your proposal had not been funded.

Hanaa: Right.

Eric: Is that correct?

Hanaa: Yeah.

Eric:  And then, what did you do then?

Hanaa: Well, I mean, what happened was then, you know, when we found out that we weren’t funded, I you know, we found out – I called the New York State – we found out that we had been tied with I think ten other proposals at a score of ninety-five out of a hundred.

Eric: So you got an A.

Hanaa: So yeah, I mean, we got a high score. So then we requested the feedback from the reviewers. And also we asked what was the measure that they used to break the tie, since you have ten programs that were tied at the score and I believe they could only fund five of them. So we wanted to know, like, “How did you rank them?” and they said, “We rank them based on poverty.” The schools that have the highest poverty were ranked higher in this tie-breaking situation than this – so that’s how they ranked it. So then I went back and I kind of thought about it, and I thought well, so the eligibility to even submit a proposal was that you had to have at least forty percent of the students in the school qualified for the federal free lunch program.

Eric: Right, free and reduced.

Hanaa: Free and reduced lunch. And the way they calculate that is they have people, they have students’ parents submit forms that show their income, and the school collects that. And based on that there’s the percentage. So when I thought about it, I’d known that Murry Bertram had struggled to get all of these lunch forms in, and there were lots of reasons why they struggled. There’s a poor parent involvement rate, it was very difficult for parents to be involved, or to get the parents involved in the school. And there were multiple factors for that, you know, the school drew its student body from all five boroughs. It wasn’t a zone school, so some students had to commute as much as two hours to get to the school building. So to bring parents into the school building was no easy task.  And then at the same time, I knew that the students didn’t want to bring in the forms because number one they didn’t like school lunches, so why would I bother to bring the form?  And number two, they didn’t want to be in the free lunch line, they didn’t want to be stigmatized in that way. So I’d known all that and I thought Murray Bergtraum, because it was such a large school, it was at, it was at a disadvantage, there was no way that we would have been able to compete with say, an elementary school that was based in a community. Because everyone knows that elementary schools generally have higher parent participation rates. And if it’s based in the community, you know, it’s much easier for parents to come into the school building and be involved. And thirdly, you know, it’s a large school, it’s one of the last large schools in New York City, and so there was, you know, much more they needed to collect in order to get a high poverty percentage rate, you know, in terms of that kind of reporting mechanism.

Eric: Right, right.

Hanaa: So I felt that there was no way that Murry Bergtraum could have competed using that critera, and so we did a little bit more research. We found that, you know, what we had already known, there was lots of research showing that, you know, high school students in general underreport their income status and the school lunch forms. And that also resulted, you know, around the city, you know, statewide, nationwide – in high school programs, high schools in particular receiving a much less, a disproportionately less amount of money in Title One funds which uses this criteria.

Eric: Right.

Hanaa: So we decided to write the protest kind of to highlight this. That there was no way that Murry Bergtraum could have been awarded those funds based on that criteria.

Eric: Right, and if I could just interject, that- I also looked at some of that research. And I had been helping the town where I live, Beacon, New York, I’d been helping Beacon to put together a Twenty-First Century proposal at that same time, just ’cause I was involved with a community organization there. And we had found the same thing, it was actually for the middle school. Just, you know, high school is underreported, middle school is also underreported, the socioeconomic status is less reported than at the elementary school level. I mean it makes sense, just the indignity of having to prove how poor you are becomes more felt the more kids are aware of what other people think.  And parent involvement, like you said, goes down as the grades go up, and it’s documented to the point that there’s an alternative analysis that the state will allow, called a feeder analysis.  Which was easy in Beacon because Beacon has four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. So Beacon is borderline, it’s like, it has the problems of you know, a community that has significant poverty but not enough to get the grants. It’s forty percent, I believe is the cutoff. We were just, the middle school was showing, was reporting just under forty percent, but if you looked at the feeder schools when you averaged it all out , it was over forty percent. And so we learned that the state would accept a feeder analysis as proving that forty percent, which is really easy and straightforward to do when you’re one town with four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.  I mean if anything, elementary school to middle school, that transition, the kids who are taken out of the system at that point are going to private schools. So if anything the rate of free and reduced lunch in the middle school should be higher than the average rate of all four schools. But then when I, when you told me about the situation at Murray Bergtraum and I realized that not being a community-based school, being a school that draws from all five boroughs, doing a feeder analysis would be impossible. I mean, you’d have to bring in McKinsey or Bane or some, you know, one of these consulting firms and pay them a million dollars to get them to figure out what is the actual socioeconomic status based on free and reduced lunch eligibility at a high school that draws kids from, I would guess, you know, thirty neighborhoods  or something around the city.

Hanaa: I mean, Murry Bergtraum has always been like that, but I think that it exemplifies this other process that had been happening in New York Ci -I can only speak about New York City which is, you know, Joel Klein’s initiative, I don’t know what it’s called. The Student School Choice Initiative where basically there was much more of an emphasis placed on parents being able to choose the school that they wanted their children to be a part of.  So what that meant is that, you know, there, it was very difficult to parse out community schools because so many students were traveling long distances to go to school.

Eric: Sure.

Hanaa: And so there was just no way to backtrack and figure out the feeder schools and what their poverty rate was.

Eric: Right. So you went back, you went to the state and you put together a letter –

Hanaa: Right.

Eric: – trying to document the difficulties of that, and was the message essentially that it was unfair, an unfair –

Hanaa: That it was discriminatory toward high school programs.

Eric: So that the state, by using socioeconomic status as a determinant to break the tie,it was unfair to high schools because it was so difficult for high schools to be able to show that, so they couldn’t compete.

Hanaa: Right, we’re using this school lunch form as a measure, like this self-reporting mechanism to document poverty, was what made it discriminatory. Because teenagers do not want to self report on this. I mean there’s this, all this kind of evidence that says, “No, I don’t want to turn in my form.” And also just nationwide, they don’t turn in their form.

Eric: Yeah. And so the issue wasn’t, it wasn’t taking issue with or protesting  using levels of poverty as the way to break the way the tie, it was the methods discriminatory towards high schools.

Hanaa: Yes, yes. That basically that there wasn’t a recognition that high schools had these added challenges that other, that elementary and middle schools don’t have. Or have much less of, let’s put it that way. In that it’s really, the onus is on the student instead of let’s say the parent, to bring in the form.  And so the student has much less of an interest to turn in the form. They also understand much less about that what that form, what the implications of that form is, in terms of their own education and their funding. Parents are more likely to understand that. But because high school students are older and parents tend to, you know, allow students to make more choices regarding their education, you know, that’s –

Eric: Whether they’re allowing them to or not, they’re going to be making them.

Hanaa: They’re going to be making them, exactly.

Eric: So then what happened?

Hanaah: So we got a response from the New York State basically sayings that they’re request for proposals really made this clear that there was going to be poverty – poverty was going to be used as a tie-breaking criteria. And then we responded basically by saying that we know that poverty is going to be, because that’s part of the federal legislation. You know, this wasn’t the New York State Education Department requirement, the legislation requires that the funding be tied to the percentage of the poverty rates of the schools. But we didn’t realize – our response was basically,  “We demonstrated our eligibility based on poverty, it’s unfair to then break the tie based on poverty, you’re using the same measure to break a tie, I mean at this point you should use a different measure based on either the results of the program in the past or maybe you know using a different rubric to evaluate the proposal, or other ways to break the tie. And actually we presented another, you know, model where in a prior round for request for proposals in New York State Education Department Twenty-First Century, they had said in the event of a tie middle and high school programs will be ranked higher, and then they will be ranked based on academic achievement rates. Basically the schools that have, that are struggling the most with their academic achievement rates and poverty rates. So there was more of a variety of factors that went into the final decision.

Eric: Right.

Hanaa: And so we kind of said, we should probably revisit, you know, this idea of having only one measure deciding the, you know, quality of the proposal, the eligibility or the reason why a school is more deserving of these funds than another school.

Eric: And at this time, this was, you had sort of spearheaded this, you had got your, the leadership of the YWCA to back you –

Hanaa: Mm-hm, they were very supportive.

Eric: And were you in touch with other organizations that were in a similar position at the time?

Hanaa: Yes, we were, we were in touch with two other, three or four organizations. They also submitted letters, but they submitted letters  based on the peer review process. So I mean, we had spoken about two or three different things in our letter. We spoke about the poverty, the criteria that they used to demonstrated poverty in the school, especially n the tie-breaking situation. Then we also talked about how they had changed their peer review process so that instead of peer reviewers working together as a group that they were often separated by distance. People were sent proposals and then they reviewed them and sent their reviews back to the state, as opposed to being able to speak to each other.  So some organizations kind of spoke about the inter-rater reliability of being able to have people bounce ideas off of each other so they can come to a consensus. And that was important because not all reviewers, most of them were in the field and were very knowledgeable in the field, but not necessarily as involved with Twenty-First Century programs. And also Twenty-First Century programs differ from state to state. So even though it’s a federal program, the federal legislation is fairly broad and they give  a lot of room to states to kind of interpret that legislation or, you know, emphasize certain points rather than others. And so when you had reviewers from other states maybe they didn’t understand some of the nuances of New York City or of New York State. And often even people in upstate New York would not know some of the differences between Upstate New York programs, or rural and suburban programs and inner city programs. So oftentimes when they evaluated the programs they would pick up on details that you know, for instance, one proposal was – one reviewer penalized that proposal because they talked a lot about school violence but  the proposal didn’t mention anything about having surveillance cameras. Well, in New York City an afterschool program is not in any way capable of installing surveillance cameras in a New York City Department of Education building, so they were knocked down a lot of points for that. But if you were able to talk to other peer reviewers within those teams, you know, that would have come out. That could have come out. But there was no space for that.

Eric: Right. And it is an issue that I – that that the people organizing these procurement processes really face as a challenge. Because the people who have the best knowledge of it are usually involved with proposals themselves and have to,  you know, can’t be a reviewer or they have to recuse themselves from anyone that they’re familiar with. ‘Cause I know there are certainly people who do grant writing, provide grant writing consulting services, who also serve as reviewers. But they’re supposed to remove themselves if they have any knowledge of or affiliation with the proposal, the proposer. But it does get complicated so I know that sometimes like New Jersey and New York, people go back and forth a little bit because the state of New Jersey can get reviewers from New York and vice versa. But it used to be that everyone was sort of around the table. And they, this process, as you said they did it, they had distance -it was a matter of efficiency and cost effectiveness I think, because they did it all online. You started out, you had one specific issue, I feel like, which was the method of breaking the tie was discriminatory to high school programs. But the ball got rolling a little bit and once you were writing the letter and once you reached out to other organizations people said, “Well, you know, what about this aspect of the process? It seems like it was changed from how it was before and it’s maybe less fair, or maybe less comprehensive.” And so those various critiques of the procurement process all sort of got piled in together to some extent. Is that right?

Hanaa: Yeah, yeah, I mean, yes.  You know, I think that the New York State education department did have to cut some costs in terms of figuring out how to, this procurement process. Because in the past ,you know, it was a lot, there were a lot more resources that were devoted to  the peer review process. Training, selecting the reviewers, having the reviewers be all in the same space. You know, it was much larger and they had to cut costs. And then at the same time there’s much less funds available for these types of programs, so the stakes were much higher for community-based organizations who were submitting proposals. So I think that created a lot, you know, that’s kind of some of the tension that was happening at that time.
Eric: And was there a formal appeal process for you to follow? Was there something in the notification that said, “If you have an appeal, you know, here’s what you do”?

Hanaa: No.

Eric: So how did you figure out how to-

Hanaa: There is one now I think.

Eric: Well we’ll get to the impact of this, ’cause that’s, you know, it seems probably like we’re really kind of geeking out on the details of this. And I certainly am, ’cause I find it so fascinating, but the reason that it’s so fascinating is because of what it led to, I feel like. But what – to stick with the process for a second, if there wasn’t anything that said, “If you want to make an appeal, do this,” how did you figure out how to even file this appeal?

Hanaa: What happened is that we had been working with a grant writer who had been working, you know, she also writes lots of grants for for-profit organizations, and so she knew that there was a pretty detailed process for for-profit organizations to protest a bid with the comptroller’s office, the New York State comptroller’s office.

Eric: Is that how you say that word? ‘Cause I’ve never understood how to say that word. I feel like some people say comptroller and some people say comptroller.

Hanaa: You know, I think its comptroller.

Eric: Comptroller, let’s say comptroller. Okay, so, sorry –

Hanaa: So then we started to the research at the comptrollers’s office to see if there was a process for nonprofit organizations to file a protest, and there was. And so that’s how we settled on that process.

Eric: And these other organizations also signed on?

Hanaa: What ended up happening is that when we first – so what happened is that we wrote the initial letter and the part of the comptroller’s process is if you write this letter you have to send a copy of it to everyone who had submitted a proposal to the same bid.

Eric: Right, I remember that.

Hanaa: So when the other organizations saw our letter they reached out to us and said, you know, there were some other things that have come up in this process as well. And the other, the second part of the process is that the New York State Education Department has, you know, can respond, and then we are given a chance to respond to their response. And so we included letters from other organizations in our response, and what we found out later was that the comptroller’s office deemed them as each letter as a separate protest. So that’s how that came about.
Eric: Yeah, so in the end, after all was said and done with the back and forth, what did the comptroller’s office, how did they actually formally respond, what did they put into place?

Hanaa: I mean, what they said was that they were going to work with the New York State Education Department in basically reforming their procurement process for for future proposals. They had decided that there was going to be,  that everyone, that all of the organizations who had been awarded a contract award, instead of the contract term being five years it would be three years. And then the New York State Education Department would have to release another request for proposals for the remaining two years on the contract, thus giving those organizations that may have been, may not have been funded based on this criteria another opportunity to receive funding in the future after this process was reformed.

Eric: And so that may seem like a small thing ’cause it’s, you know, it wasn’t that they came out and said, “Okay, these appeals have merit. We’re going to take – we’re not going to give all these grants out as they’re awarded, we’re gonna start over and you know, conduct the process again.” Or they didn’t say the education department has to figure out a way to award these programs. But that changing the contract from the grant from five years to three years is a huge decision for them to make. I mean, I know for our organization alone – and this is all public information that’s out there, so it’s, you know, it’s nothing terribly mysterious- but we have, we were awarded one of those contracts. And we got a Twenty-First Century contract in the amount of four-hundred fifty-thousand dollars a year for five years, was the initial memo or email or whatever it was. And then when this appeal happened and they came out and changed it from five years to three years, some looked at that like a nine-hundred-thousand dollar loss for our organization. Now that’s theoretical to me. It’s not -you’re not actually losing nine-hundred thousand dollars. You’re just, you know, getting a three-year contract instead of a five-year. But it’s, if you multiply that by the dozens of organizations who are awarded grants under that round,  it’s a huge fiscal decision that they made, or  financial impact that they made. And also to underline that, the federal legislation says that the grants have to be for at least three years. So they – one way to look at it is they knocked it down by two years. Another way to look at it is they forced the state education department to make it the minimal level of commitment that they could possibly make under federal law. And then they would have to reform their procurement process at the next competition.

Hanaa: Yeah, and we what we found out was actually that we were the first nonprofit organization to submit a protest to the New York State comptroller’s office and since then there have been numerous protests that they’ve received. And so I think it’s important for community-based organizations to know that there are outlets for them to respond if there’s an issue with a procurement process. I mean the thing that really meant the most to me in this whole process was I guess being able to highlight how high school programs are different in particular with respect to funding requirements because oftentimes afterschool programs have these, these requests for proposals and elementary, middle and high school programs are kind of lumped together under the same parameters. And it was, you know, it was important to me to say,  “Wait a second, high school programs can’t meet the same conditions that elementary school programs can or maybe middle school programs can.”  You know that high schools are different, they’re judged differently. They often have, you know high school have  much more kind of external pressures or different external pressures, I don’t want to say much more. And so that needs to be acknowledged in the funding request for proposals that come  out of the city, the state, or nationally.

Eric: Yeah, it’s interesting because I completely agree with that and we, you know our Twenty-First Century contract is high school programs. And you know, we’ve done a lot of work with high school programs. And that isn’t the most significant thing that came out of this for me. The most significant thing that came out of this for me was the example of what one person can do.  Because you know, it was amazing to me. I mean, we were sort of occasionally talking sort of on the side throughout this process and after the process, just sort of reflecting on it and you know, brainstorming how you might go about things and stuff like that. And you know, it was amazing to me that you as the program director of one program or one organization could spearhead this effort that would result in this enormous statewide policy shift and a reform of the actual process.

Hanaa: Right I mean, it was actually a really collaborative effort. I should say that, you know, within the YWCA key people in the organization that was you know, shaping this protest. But I think that the YWCA of the City of New York, while it’s, there’s a lot of rich historical roots at the organization compared to maybe some other organizations that are much, much larger, I mean it’s not such a large organization and so for an organization that doesn’t necessary have the same, you know, numbers or reach throughout the state to be able to kind of be able to address something on a state level yeah, it was, it was very empowering.

Eric: Yeah, I mean it was empowering, it was inspiring I feel like to the field to be able to have an example of you know, ’cause advocacy efforts and policy efforts and they’re important. But look how much impact you can have by just taking your own personal authority, collaborating with others as you said and making it known and putting together a really coherent and smart argument. That there was- I don’t believe, I don’t know but I don’t believe there was ever any perception that this was anything personal or this was selfish or this was just the YWCA trying to get theirs. This was, you know, I mean I read the letter and the materials, it was really clear that there was a core principal at stake. There was evidence to support the argument, you had legal counsel to be able to, you know, put it out there into like really coherent, those kind of crisp legal terms that it’s important to be able to speak that language. So it was the quality of the effort in addition to the effort, but I think underneath it all what I found so inspiring was that it was incredibly brave because the state is who’s giving you the money. And so it’s like, okay, people say don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and that sort of thing. And it’s like, to be able to step and say, “Wait a minute. This, you know, this isn’t fair, and then also it’s complicated. We’re not just appealing about this one thing. There’s all these other factors at play.” And it was only after you initiated it you, you with your, the support of your leadership – I put a lot of this on you because I know that it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t spearheaded it, but I appreciate that your leadership and your colleagues at the YWCA created a team effort.

Hanaa: And other organizations too. I mean, we got a lot of support.

Eric: Once you spearheaded it they got on board. But if you hadn’t of spearheaded it, if that initial letter hadn’t gone around and others hadn’t sort of climbed on board with it, it could have just been another case of everybody sort of grumbling to each other about how unfair it is but nothing actually coming out of it.

Hanaa: But I also wanna say that it was important to us that other organizations also you know, had their input in it. Because otherwise it would’ve been just, you know, the YWCA just didn’t get theirs, and so they just want their money. And then it became actually more of a critique of the field. You know, that this is something that we need to correct in the field, the RFP process.

Eric: I think we’re both maybe pointedly not saying the names of the other organizations ’cause we’re not sure if they wanna be sort of publicly associated with this, but that also leads me to something else I find fascinating about this. Because when it happened, what I was saying to you was,  people need to know about this. Because people kind of learned, that the – you know obviously people who got the grant learned that they had been cut from 5 years to 3 years,  a lot of people were unhappy about that. And, you know, people who looked into it learned about why, and people that received the letter. But the general public and the field in general never really learned about it. So you and I put together a proposal to the National Afterschool Association Convention to present a workshop telling this story. And for whatever reason for their own procurement process that workshop was rejected even though, you know, on behalf of Development Without Limits me and my colleagues have presented at that convention, you know, several years,  and other workshops were accepted, that one was not accepted. It’s, you know it’s, I can only guess as to why, maybe we didn’t write the proposal in a compelling enough way. Or maybe there was reasons why people don’t wanna tell this story. I also got in touch with, if you recall I got in touch with Youth Today, the publication. And there was some interest on their part, at least at first, in writing a story about it, but there was never follow-up, and I did follow up with them a couple times. Again, I don’t wanna, you know, I’m one of those people, I’ve never met a conspiracy theory I didn’t like. So you know, it’s easy for me to attribute why. I just know that it seemed to be somewhat consistent that people didn’t really want to hear the story, and it’s a long tedious complicated story. So for those of you who are still listening, I appreciate you sticking with it because the details of it might not seem all that interesting, you know whether it was forty percent free reduced lunch, more or less.  But the fact of one person within one organization being able to have this statewide impact on policy, to me that’s inspiring and that story should be told.

Hanaa: I think it also highlights the fact that there is actually very little space for these funding organizations to receive feedback from the fields in a really systematic, consistent way. And that there is a big need for us to create spaces where we can actually have more of a back-and-forth about what it is that these funding streams or funding organizations or, you know, what kinds of outcomes they’re looking for and then from us in the field what it is that we need in order to make that happen or conversely what other things we’re seeing that are things that need to be addressed. We don’t have that space to do it, and I really hope that in the future, you know, in terms of the advocacy piece, that more of that advocacy is shifted in terms of research. You know and really, you know, hard concrete steps that need to happen within the field in order for us to move forward as a field, but in a way that would also reach the funders. Because I think that the funding requirements that came down were, I guess what I want to say is that the funding requirements – I think that they were faulty because they didn’t have enough of an understanding of the field, at least for high school programs. And so I wish there was more of that kind of back-and-forth where we would have the request for proposals and they usually have the questions and then they’ll send out addendums based on the questions. But there’s not a space to give feedback, basically to say, to say, “Wait a second, you know, this doesn’t seem fair.” And to get a response or to get a modification, or even to be able to have it.

Eric: To be fair there is I think some of that process sort of modeled in New York City. The Department of Youth and Community Development does really make an effort to have that sort of dialogue in that before they issue an RFP they issue a concept paper and then request feedback from the field. And they allow some time for people to get together, have conversations. I know this last time for the Out of School Time Funding, PASE, the Partnership for Afterschool Education, sort of hosted a conversation.  And so people could be able to have their input without necessarily writing something themselves because people are afraid to have their critique attributed to themselves or people don’t necessarily have the time to make the effort, so PASE was sort of facilitating that. And then DYCD theoretically they issued the RFP that has taken into consideration some of the feedback. Now I think the critique is how the process is actually managed in real time, I think that the –  theoretically though they’re making the effort. More specifically, I think the critique is they don’t necessary take enough of the feedback into consideration when they build out the RFP itself.  To be fair, they’re dealing with  a lot of external pressures from the funding they get that they’re then re-granting, and they’re juggling a lot of influences. Not to let them off the hook, but it’s always complicated. Do you think that that process is sort of structurally what you’re suggesting?

Hanaa: Yeah, yes. But more, but much more intentional. You know and I think there needs to be a lot more reflection based on it. I mean the thing is that actually that the New York State Education Department, you know, they have for the Twenty-First Century, they have year after year after year multiple workshops and conferences. ANd I will say that   they are very, you know,  responsive in that sense, of like, what are some of the professional development needs that you have, they will try and solicit for that . but i feel like there isnt a really formalized space to be able to do it. There needs to be more formalized spaces for people in the afterschool kind of youth development field to be able to get together and compare best practices and then have those best practices inform, you know, our work in the field but then also inform policy. And the –  but in a much more cohesive way. And these request for proposals – because the request for proposals – oftentimes I think people look at a request for a proposal, well let’s just get the funding and then we’ll worry about it later, like how we’re gonna make this work. But I think that we should stop and say wait a second, you know, why can’t we give feedback with, like, wait a second, as a field and a consensus, this is what, I think if we make this tweak or this whatever,  this will make it so much easier or so much better. Because I think that there’s a lot, for instance there’s a lot of emphasis in request for proposals on, and you know I’m talking about school based programs right now, Twenty-First Century programs really emphasize, you know, collaboration with the school day. But you know the grants, the grant money that they’re giving out is really to provide direct – there’s not a lot of money unless you really think about it before you develop your proposal to really do the coordination with the school day in a way that will you know, help us meet our ends as opposed to us just going and talking to the principal and saying “What do you need?” There’s lots of things that we should have this loop of communication that’s difficult with the staffing that’s available. And so, you know, just like a little tweak hear or there just adding, you know, saying , you know, you can have dedicated staff to kind of figuring this out. Would make would make a huge impact in terms of, this is an example, in terms of the program, the end product.

Eric: But the way that the RFP is structured really is what allows for those sorts of things to be suggested in the proposal.

Hanaa: Yes, it’s very open process. You could suggest a lot of different things in the proposal, but at the same time there’s a lot of requirements in the request for proposals.

Eric: Right, right, that’s what I mean, that it limits your ability to do that within the budget.

Hanaa: It limits, exactly. I mean, you know, they do – I will say that Twenty-First Century is, really does allow for people to be creative in the proposal process, you really can create a program proposal that is responsive to the specific needs of the specific community or schools that you’re working with. But because there is, because there are so many different requirements in that proposal it is very difficult for someone proposing that to kind of divvy up the resources properly, especially if you don’t know – I guess there isn’t enough research to show, “These are the ways in which other programs have successfully met these requirements.”
Eric:  Right, right. And the proposal – I think a lot of people don’t realize, the proposal you write becomes your contract. I mean, you’re saying, “If you give me this money, this is what I’m going to do”. There’s some flexibility, but not a whole lot. I mean you really have to –

Hanaa: I mean and I will contend that there’s a more flexibility in Twenty-First Century than in other funding streams that I’ve seen. And so to be fair  I think that Twenty-First – at least the New York State Education Department request for proposals, it does allow you to kind of like imagine a program model. But at the same time, if you have, I don’t know off the top of my head but let’s say just a random number. If you have twenty objectives and under each objective there’s three sub-objectives, I mean that’s a lot to manage.

Eric: Yeah, sure. And you know it’s interesting, ’cause – the timing of this conversation, ’cause we’re talking about the RF as thought its something that exists but all we can talk about is what’s in the past.

Hanaa: What’s in the past. They reshape their RFP year after year after year. Or eachround.

Eric: Each round, yes. And we’ll get into that in one second, but I do wanna saythe epilogue to all of this is that, I think it was a year after the initial grants came out they realized, the state realized that they had enough money to fund some more programs but not enough to do a full funding round. And so they looked at the highest scoring proposals that were not funded under that first round and awarded several new grants. And your program was one of those programs that was awarded, so in the end you got the grant. But the appeal process and the changing from the five years to three years and the comptroller telling the Education Department to change the procurement process, that has nothing to do with that. It just worked out that you got the grant.

Hanaa: And the New York State Education Department just recently announced that they’re going to be taking some extra time to develop the request for proposal process for next round.

Eric: Right. And that’s that what I wanted to get to next. Because  I don’t know how much that has to do with the procurement process changes.  I think it’s more to do with the fact that they’re waiting to find out what the state is going to do around the waivers to No Child Left Behind and or, you know, we’re suppose to call it ESEA , Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But because that, you know, legislation has not been completely thrown out, they’re just trying to sort of modify it and hobble along, ’cause congress doesn’t seem to be able to do anything at all, you know, the president has said there can be waivers. And one of the waivers is that states may use Twenty-First Century money for things other than just afterschool programs. For in-school work, what we, some people are calling extended day, expanded learning. But there’s a lot of room and give in there. If you’re, you know if people wanna get more details on that, Afterschool Alliance recently put out sort of an FAQ, and a lot more information about what the waivers mean and which states have gone after them. I don’t, New York hasn’t officially been requested and granted a waiver at this time, but I believe that that’s in process. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. And I think that State Ed. has to sort of wait to issue the RFP until they know what the deal is with that. So this next RFP that comes out in, quote, the ‘spring’, which we don’t know when that is, but – may be very different than Twenty-First Century RFPs in the past.

Hanaa: Yes. I wonder, are they gonna be called Twenty-First Century programs then?

Eric: Yeah, it’s, the legislation is still what funds it, Twenty-First Century Community Learning Centers is still what funds it, but the idea is you can use the money to do some other things besides just what – so people are very worried about this being a watering down of afterschool, and being a, essentially – it’s essentially a net cut to afterschool programs, potentially. And others would say that it’s allowing more flexible use of the funds. Which particularly for high school programs could be advantageous, ’cause you could do out of school-time work during regular school hours. So it’s, I think it’s a complicated issue. I’m going to be speaking soon to Jennifer Davis who’s the CEO or executive director of the National Center on Time and Learning, who has really spearheaded nationally this whole expanded learning effort, to you know, talk to her about all these different complicated issues and you know, we’ll see what comes out of that. I do want to say that to me what you did, and this might sound a little hokey, but to me the energy that you put into it and what came out of it and what you did was really heroic. It was really, like, one person taking the initiative to really, like, step up and say, you know, “No offense but this isn’t fair.”  And the grace with which it was done, there was no, you know, calling around with angry phone calls and trying to get people riled up. It was just very clear and straightforward, assuming good intent on all sides but not backing down. And saying, you know, we’re gonna stick with this until we, you know, we get a real response. And so to me that was heroic and it’s a story that needs to be told. And I, as much effort as I made with the NAA conference and Youth Today, it took me making a podcast to be able to actually just the story out there. So I really appreciate the work that you did and I appreciate you coming to talk with me about it.

Hanaa: Thank you, I really appreciate being able to speak with you about it.

Eric: Yeah, great. Well, you know, I look forward to talking you once the new RFP comes out. We can share notes about what we think about the changes that they might have made.

Hanaa: Yeah, absolutely.

Eric: And maybe we can both become reviewers and experience the process ourselves.

Hanaa: I’d love that. It’s a great process being the reviewer.

Eric: Yeah, I’ve never done it. Well, Hanaa, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to me.

Hanaa: Thank you.

Eric: – and being on Please Speak Freely.

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Please Speak Freely

On Please Speak Freely, Eric Gurna, founder of Development Without Limits interviews leading thinkers, artists and others to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives about youth development and education. The idea is to get past the platitudes and institutional positions, and have honest, nuanced conversations about things that really matter to young people and communities. Please Speak Freely guests include:

  • Raffi, Children’s Troubadour and Founder of the Centre for Child Honouring
  • Alfie Kohn, Author of several books including Punished By Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University
  • Karen Pittman, President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Tony Smith, Former Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom” and Author of Free-Range Kids

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