A Safer Future for New Haven’s At-Risk Youth
By Kristin Taylor
On a hot July afternoon in New Haven, Connecticut, recently, a group of at-risk teens carefully walked onto a large balance board in the woods of a private high school above the city. If they distributed their collective weight just right, they’d balance the board on its fulcrum, suspending themselves in the air. After several failed attempts, a round of cheers erupted. This time, the board hadn’t hit the ground with a thunk. It turned out that working together was key.
Led by staff from The Justice Education Center, Inc., a local nonprofit, the activity is part of a City-funded program to keep teens safe during the summer while also teaching them psychosocial tools — teamwork, tolerance, and conflict resolution — that can help them better navigate interpersonal relationships in their schools and neighborhoods. Teens also gain credits toward graduation, and everyone leaves with an individualized education and career plan.
The program is among many available to teens who participate in the City of New Haven’s data-driven Youth Stat initiative. Mayor Toni Harp launched the initiative shortly after taking office in 2014 because she was concerned by the amount of youth violence plaguing the city. When she repeatedly heard law enforcement and social welfare officials say they could practically predict which young person would be the victim of violence, she basically dared them to do it. “We wanted to prevent the next shooting before it happened,” she explained to us in her office last week.
To get started, staff, coordinated by Youth Director Jason Bartlett, looked at indicators, such as school attendance, criminal activities, declining school grades, etc., to identify 450 teens between the ages of 15 and 18 who were at the highest risk of being affected by violence. Then, five-person teams — comprising a teacher, police officer, firefighter, social worker, and volunteer mentor — went door-to-door to speak with those teens and their parents, learn more about their situation, and to discuss possible interventions. Six such canvasses have been carried out since the launch, including one for middle-schoolers, serving hundreds of young people. The City recently received a grant to expand outreach to young adults up to the age of 23.
To stay focused on results, the City of New Haven Youth Department, state agencies, and participating nonprofits gather weekly at high schools to track progress across individual programs and the Youth Stat initiative as a whole — and to follow the progress of individual youth. One critical aspect has been the development of a privacy waiver from the youths’ families that allows for the sharing of data across agencies; when the data aren’t siloed, each entity that interacts with teens get a far more comprehensive portrait of their individual needs and can serve them more effectively.
What Works Cities (WWC) partner the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School is working with New Haven to develop the right metrics to measure success for each individual youth services provider and for the Youth Stat initiative holistically, in preparation for building those metrics into provider contracts. While the City had anecdotally tracked a 50% decrease in all shootings and an increase in graduation rates and school attendance since Youth Stat’s advent, “there was no systematic, rigorous way to demonstrate the success of each placement,” said Michael Harris, Special Assistant to the Mayor, State Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. “We want to create the qualitative metrics so that we can standardize how we communicate the success of the program, to show it’s working, so that the model can be replicated.”
New Haven is also working with WWC partner the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University to build a data governance structure and platform to enhance the City’s open data portal. “Open data allows you to communicate how you made decisions, why the City is investing in a particular program, and who benefits,” Harris said. A list recently developed by the local data governance committee lists 12 reasons open data can make a difference, including, “Economic: civic technology companies can build businesses out of open data,” and “Equity: we can’t fight inequalities if we don’t understand where they are.” GIS Analyst Alfredo F. Herrera is already using available data to create interactive maps residents can engage with to learn more about their city’s land parcels, police districts, and more. And by geocoding data going forward, he sees great possibilities for tracking citywide trends, such as how blight complaints line up with public safety issues.
On the front lines, Laura Whitacre, Deputy Director at The Justice Education Center, was suiting up for the teens’ next activity, a wall-scaling exercise. Asked what’s been most rewarding about the work, she said: “Do you have a day?” She has seen young people who’ve been fed and clothed, who’ve graduated and gotten jobs. “I’ve seen kids who came in so tough who say, ‘Please don’t forget about me. Please don’t leave me after the summer.’”
Kristin Taylor is the Senior Communications Manager at What Works Cities. Last week, she and Director of Communications Sharman Stein visited several participating cities in the Northeast to show you more about how local governments are finding what works. Read more of their posts here.