Agency of the Month
Built to Last
“We are the oldest nonsectarian, nonprofit child welfare agency in the nation,” says Poul Jensen, President and CEO of Graham Windham. “We were founded 201 years ago by Isabella Graham, Joanne Bethune and Elizabeth Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton.” While Graham Windham has packed a lot of history and tradition into its two centuries of service – including having the first residential campus designed on a “cottage plan” rather a large institutional-style “orphanage” -- the agency’s focus is fixed firmly on the future rather than its past. “Our agenda is to continue pursuing excellence in all of our services,” says Jensen.
Originally known as the Orphan Asylum Society, the Graham Home for Children began by providing shelter for 16 children in a two-story frame house on Raisin Street in Greenwich Village. After an interim move further up town, the agency relocated in 1902 to its current 20-acre campus on a bluff overlooking the river in Hastings-on-Hudson. In 1977, Graham merged with the Windham Society, which in turn traces its roots back to The Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children and was the first agency to provide foster care placements for African-American children.
Today, Graham Windham is headquartered just off Union Square in Manhattan and serves an estimated 8000 children and their families every year through a range of programs which include education, residential treatment, foster boarding care, community-based family supports, mental health clinics, after-school programming and early childhood education.
The Hastings campus accommodates approximately 165 youth between the ages of 12 and 20 who are referred by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, the State’s Office of Children and Family Services and local school districts. An on-campus school offers elementary, middle and high school classes for residents, as well as an approximately equal number of special education day students coming predominately from NYC and other local school districts.
Graham Windham’s Family Permanency Planning Services Division serves upwards of 900 children and their families through a combination of regular, emergency and therapeutic foster boarding home programs in Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.
The Community and Family Support Services Division provides foster care prevention programs for a total of 345 families in the same three boroughs, as well as a variety of after-school, youth development and mental health programs.
The agency’s Early Childhood Division accommodates more than 1,100 pre-school children in a combination of three publicly-funded child care centers, two pre-school special education programs, half-day and full-day Universal Pre-K programs, a family day care network for 600 children, Early Head Start and a privately-funded Parent Child Home program.
Jensen believes that all of Graham Windham’s various programs are unified by a common series of priorities which are woven into the core of all its services.
Education and Literacy
“Education is the signature mission of our agency,” he says. “We have a core belief in the power of education, and in particular literacy, as a primary force for individual and collective progress.” However, Jensen argues that the child welfare system has paid scant attention to the dismal educational prospects of its foster children. “Foster children usually encounter barriers to enrolling in school and entrée to quality education programs,” he says. “Coming on top of traumatic family disruption and often physical and sexual abuse and its associated behavioral and emotional problems, as well as the transience that is still the hallmark of the foster care system, foster children routinely fall behind their typically underperforming peers in the general population. The backslide intensifies the longer they stay ‘in care’. By the time they reach adolescence, they are commonly three, four, five or more years below grade level in reading and math, with little to no prospects of reducing the gap.”
These educational traumas contribute towards many of the behavioral issues which often dominate thinking and program design for adolescents in care, says Jensen. “Kids prefer to be seen as ‘bad’ rather than ‘dumb’. Knowing their academic limitations, without much hope for the future and little stake in the present, they frequently act out, abuse substances, become promiscuous and indulge in minor, and sometimes not-so-minor, criminal activities.”
“If you treat teenagers and can fix them behaviorally; if you heal their wounds, repair their families and send them to a permanent home, but they still are four years below grade level, they are not going to graduate,” Jensen continues. “You are consigning them to society’s margins.”
The only way to address this issue, he says, is to make education the priority – a priority on a par with the more traditional child welfare objectives of child safety and permanence. “Graham Windham makes education a key component of every one of its programs. We have education and literacy goals for all agency clients in all agency programs, regardless of whether there is public funding to support them or not,” says Jensen.
The agency’s Hastings-on-Hudson campus is known as The Graham School. “We call it a Residential Education and Treatment Center,” says Jensen. The residential program works in close partnership with the Greenburgh-Graham Union Free School District (UFSD) which operates the on-campus Vincent Ziccolella Elementary/Middle School and the Martin Luther King, Jr. High School. This fully-accredited K-12 program serves both campus residents and special education day students who are referred by New York City’s Department of Education and some other local school districts because of their severe emotional and behavioral needs.
“The elementary school is predominately day students,” says Jensen. “It has become very highly regarded for its literacy program and is a placement of choice for younger kids. We take kids who are non-readers and turn them into readers very quickly.”
“We have an extremely structured reading and writing program,” says Principal Donald Griggs. “We use PIF and Basic Learning Skills, two research-based programs. Kids get three periods of reading and writing. That’s over two hours of literacy every day. In a traditional elementary school, you would be with your same class all day. Here, kids as young as the fourth grade are regrouping according to ability for reading and math.”
The high school predominately serves residents of the Graham School. Here, residential and academic staff members work closely to support the students’ educational goals. “While the school is a separate entity, the agency board selects the school board members. I have been school board president for six years,” says Jensen. “You have to have one common set of standards and expectations, one common set of operational policies.”
Graham Windham recently began using Academic Planners for each of its 12 campus cottages. “They are teachers from the school who work separately with each the kids in the cottage,” says Doris Laurenceau, Director of Permanency Services. “They advocate for them. Are they in the right classes? How are they doing? Do they need tutoring? Do they need other kinds of help? They meet with kids and the cottage staff weekly.”
The agency also offers after-school “surround sound” programming and tutoring and is in the process of linking cottage computers to the school system so kids can log in to access and submit homework and other school projects.
While Jensen is pleased with the progress at the elementary school level, closing the grade level gap for Graham’s older students continues to be a challenge. One obstacle is the increasing pressure from ACS to shorten lengths of stay in residential programs. “They want to send us the most troubled kids in the system, stabilize them and return them to a less restrictive environment in three to six months,” says Jensen. “Perhaps a medical model can do that…but a school that takes seriously its academic mission sure can’t.”
In response, Graham Windham has been accepting a greater number of CSE (Committee on Special Education) residential placements. Similar to its CSE day students, these high needs children are those for whom appropriate educational settings are not available in the local school district. Unlike child welfare placements, parents must approve the placement choice and are typically actively involved in their child’s treatment and educational program. “These kids are here because their parents want them to be here,” says Kristin Ragusa, Director of Group Living Services.
While CSE placements require high levels of clinical services to deal with emotional and behavioral issues, they often stay in a program for several years. “They are with us long enough so that our programs and treatment are effective,” says Jensen. “We can help these kids to graduate. We can really make a difference in their lives.”
The Graham School currently has 30 CSE placements and Jensen expects that number to double by next year. “Eventually we would like to see CSE placements representing around 70% of our census,” he says.
In its foster boarding home programs, Graham Windham’s Education Coordinators assess each child’s literacy and educational needs when they arrive and at the beginning of each school year. It partners with Advocates for Children on that organization’s foster care outreach program, Project Achieve, which is co-located with Graham Windham’s community-based foster care, prevention and literacy staff. “Working as a team, we push for maximum services for those children who are underperforming academically and challenge unfair and exclusionary school-based systems policies and practices,” says Jensen. “This includes transferring students from low performing to high performing schools, gaining ‘special needs’ placements, securing transportation, pressing for ‘best practice’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and accessing tutorial and other educational support services.” The agency is also attempting to help kids by helping the adults in their lives, through improving the English proficiency of “Resource Parents”, i.e. foster, birth and kinship families, via adjusted recruitment strategies and greater ESL supports.
Even Graham Windham’s highly regarded Early Childhood Division is pressing harder. “Our focus is on literacy and language development,” says Charmane Wong, Vice President for the division. “Our goal is to prepare children to enter school ready to learn.” The agency is implementing the Preschool Language Scale 4 and Get Ready to Read assessment tools in its wide range of programs. It is active in UPK programming, with its more highly structured curriculum. Graham Windham operates four UPK programs and is now piloting full-day UPK curricula for a total of 60 children at two of its centers.
Last year, the Division received funding from the Robin Hood and Tiger Foundations to launch a Parent Child Home Program serving 100 families in the Bronx. “It is based on a national model that has been tested and proven,” says Wong. “The goal is to help young children enhance their literacy skills. We go into the homes of parents of children who are two or three years old. This is a curriculum we deliver in conjunction with the parent. We are teaching parents how to promote language and literacy development. Even if they are not literate, we can teach them how to support literacy in their child.”
“This program helps families put the educational agenda front and center,” says Jensen. And, it has the added benefit of providing additional supports for many families who are in Graham Windham’s foster care or foster care prevention programs. “Not only do we strengthen their educational services, but we get an extra set of eyes and ears in the home two times a week.”
A Performance Culture
“Good intentions aren’t enough,” says Jensen. In order for Graham Windham, or any nonprofit human service provider, to succeed with the limited resources available, it must carefully plan its work and continually and aggressively monitor its performance. Like many agencies, Graham Windham has an elaborate strategic planning and evaluation process. Unlike most, it puts its money where its mouth is – literally -- through a merit-based employee incentive pay system.
“Every year we develop board-approved goals which are aligned with our strategic plan,” says Jensen. These, in turn, are translated into specific, quantifiable goals for the agency’s four divisions and individual programs. Finally, these objectives are further distilled into performance targets for each of the agency’s individual employees – targets against which these employees are assessed annually.
These employee evaluations actually mean something. They guide the distribution of annual performance bonuses for most of Graham Windham’s employees. “If you are ‘Good’, you are rewarded. If you are ‘Very Good’, you are rewarded more. If you are ‘Outstanding’, you are maximally rewarded. ‘Marginal’ gets you on probation and ‘Unsatisfactory’ gets you out the door,” says Jensen.
To ensure that employees in different programs aren’t advantaged or penalized by overly generous or unrealistic supervisors, the agency expects a “bell” distribution curve in all its divisions. If there are significant deviations from that curve, hard questions are asked. “We have been doing this for four years and we haven’t had a single grievance,” says Jensen. “That is because we work very hard at being fair.”
What Graham Windham has seen is the pattern of performance improvement – and employee turnover – that it wanted. Employees rated “Outstanding” and “Very Good” have tended to stay with the agency longer, while approximately half of those receiving only a “Good” rating have moved on. Of those “Goods” who remained, approximately 40% have improved their rating in the following year. “It represents an important validation of our performance culture,” says Frank Spain, Senior Vice President and CFO.
The bonus pools vary by individual programs according the ability of the funding stream to support the payouts. In recent years, system-wide enhancements in foster care reimbursement have allowed Graham Windham to reward its best employees. Conversely, extremely restrictive funding for early childhood and youth development programs have kept those bonus pools low.
Jensen also believes that Graham Windham has been particularly effective in diversifying the racial and ethnic makeup of its leadership. “Nine of our agency’s top 15 management staff are minorities, and so are half our VPs. It is important to have an authentic connection to the client base and that is one way you get it,” he says.
This 201-year-old, “traditional” agency didn’t achieve this goal through affirmative action, says Jensen, who is a veteran of the southern civil rights struggles of the 60s. “We practice affirmative recruitment. The talent is out there. You just have to look harder. In the end, we still hire the best person for the job. We have diversified and strengthened the quality of our services…simultaneously. I am very proud of that.”
With a budget of approximately $55 million and 500 employees, Graham Windham has grown substantially over the past decade. Its residential and foster care programs have remained strong while it has added preventive, early childhood and after-school programs. Over the past few years, it has been selected by the City to take over a number of contracts within the communities it serve. Just within the past month it was awarded a second Beacon School program and another preventive contract. It is hoping to replicate its Parent Child Home Program in the near future.
Yet, says Jensen, “we do not have a ‘growth agenda’. We will add programs if they are in line with our mission but primarily we want to do what we are already doing – only better. Our agenda is performance excellence. We have a strong and engaged Board of Trustees. Our Management Team is top notch and we’re pushing excellence down and throughout the agency. Our finances are in good order and, most importantly, we have the ‘belief to will’…in spades. If we truly believe in the nobility of our vision, then we will have the ability to achieve it. We believe.”