Innovation Ecosystem

The once and future COZ

Uncovering the story of what happened to Child Opportunity Zones, an intervention developed in the 1990s around school-based support for children and families

Image courtesy of Rick Schwartz

The cover of the 1998 report analyzing Child Opportunity Zones in Rhode Island written by Catherine Walsh.

By Rick Schwartz
Posted 4/5/21
With Rhode Island in the midst of a catharsis around public education reform, what happened 27 years ago, with the launch of Child Opportunity Zones, a collaborative partnership between state agencies, United Way of Rhode Island and The Rhode Island Foundation, is now a forgotten legacy. Rick Schwartz begins to unravel the tale of what happened.
Why is there no institutional memory about Child Opportunity Zones? Do COZs represent another example of the failure of state government and philanthropies to fully invest in sustainable efforts at the community level? How does the story about COZs reflect the tendency to revert to top-down innovation rather than support the model of bottom-up innovation? How does the public health interventions to halt the community spread of the coronavirus pandemic offer a potential strategy to re-invent COZs as part of the Health Equity Zone initiative?
Once upon a time, the “super group” of Rick Schwartz, Richard Asinof and Chip Young worked collaboratively as a team to promote the COZ initiative, directing and coordinating the communications effort, writing news releases and op-eds, hosting events at schools, and managing the successful media roll out. The hardest part of the job was often educating the top bosses and getting them to change their bad patterns of behavior.
Some three decades later, those responsibilities are now often managed by high-powered communications firms, with an emphasis on ad placement, slogan development [think “cooler and warmer”] and click bait campaigns [think “Is your dealer a vegan?”]
What is missing, it seems, is a basic level of communications competency – where the strategy is to engage rather than obfuscate, to include rather than exclude, and to be honest and direct rather than to practice prevarication.

Part ONE

PROVIDENCE – Cynical journalists and writers though we may have been when we began our careers years before, ConvergenceRI editor and publisher Richard Asinof and I first met in 1993 when we were “hucksters” for the United Way of Rhode Island and The Rhode Island Foundation, respectively.

Ah, change was in the air in Rhode Island. PROBE promised to break up the failing giant schools. “Needs for the Nineties” laid out a unified vision of the state’s investment in human services. Rhode Island Housing was going to end homelessness. The Providence Plan featured a dandy plan to coordinate the New York and New England shipping harbors. Dental exams were to be offered in all the public schools. And, we hoped that the R.I. Department of Environment Management and the Land Trusts could stem the massive loss of farmland.

And then there were the COZs
Even the name, Child Opportunity Zones, or COZs, pronounced “co-zees,” was appealing.

The R.I. Department of Education [RIDE] and the Rhode Island Children’s Cabinet invited nonprofits serving a school district to apply to design a Child Opportunity Zone Family Center. The applicant could propose one or more school-linked services from a social services office in a school to a full array of childcare, GED, or parent support.

RIDE would later add requirements of its own, as would its new partners, the R.I. Department of Health and the United Way. The Rhode Island Foundation joined later as a funder.

This was the beginning of a new idea for public schools: wraparound services. Perhaps some day, the concept of a school would include a student’s health and mental well-being.

Catherine B. Walsh, a former colleague of mine, described three possible structures in a 1998 analysis for Rhode Island KIDS COUNT and Brown University [See link to the analysis below]

They included:

• School-linked services that could connect families with informal supports, community activities, health care and social services

• A family center to serve as a friendly, welcoming place in or near a school where family members can visit to receive information, support, services or referrals.

• A school-community-family partnership, envisioned as a collaborative [and theretofore unknown] effort of schools, families, community agencies and other nonprofits to address the educational, health, social and economic well-being of children and families.

A challenge to an 1880s education model
The concept of COZs was still a comparatively radical idea for Rhode Island, even though famed education reformer Ted Sizer was at Brown University, chairing the Coalition of Essential Schools and the newly-formed Annenberg Institute of School Reform.

Microsoft founder Bill Gate’s foundation [before he married Melinda, I think] was focusing full-bore on education.

And Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor had just come to town with the blueprint for The Met School, which opened its doors in 1996. Its Providence campus, one of 145 Big Picture schools nationally and internationally, had a culinary kitchen, health center, a performance space, and a health center for its 700 students.

A no-brainer
At the time, for education reformers, wrap-around services were a no-brainer. In fact, in Rhode Island and most states, any changes to Horace Mann’s public education system [circa 1848 and President James Polk, one of my favorites] were, and still are, anathema.
The concepts included: A teacher standing in front of and lecturing a class; students divided by age and grade; non-integrated teaching, e.g., history and science, physics and math; and grading and tests as the only measures of achievement. Not to mention the lack of attention to the family and the child’s environment. What other system or institution has survived intact 173 years?

In her report, Walsh provided the rationale for school-linked services. "Who is responsible" was  a question that needed to  to be asked.

Why pass the COZs on to nonprofits?
One might look at RIDE’s considerable expectations and ask why it wasn’t running the programs itself. Or, alternatively, why the expectations weren’t with the schools.

As Walsh wrote: “A school system striving for excellence is more likely to be successful when academic strategies are complemented by efforts to improve the quality of family and community life.”

Here’s one apparent reason, says this long-time crusty, observer: nonprofits are easy to under-fund and to blame later for under-performance.

The original 19 COZs, serving 13 Rhode Island communities, received a whopping $3,000 to $60,000 for a two-year “planning phase,” during 1994-1995. [Cynicism breeds sarcasm.] Yes, it’s 27 years later, but even the largest figure wasn’t going to pay for one person and office rent, let alone a copier and a telephone. A unionized RIDE employee or for school staff? I don’t think so.

Follow the money
In 1997-98, when Walsh did her study, the figure was $35,000 – total – for each COZ. In 2021, a legislative grant to each of the remaining 10 COZs was $40,000 each – to pay for all of the above responsibilities.

And, in typical fashion, Rhode Island state government continued to add responsibilities. For example, a $150,000 [total] Carnegie Corporation grant required COZs in nine communities to support early childhood activities, including child care, early childhood education, the transition to kindergarten, and parent support and education.

The kicker? The Carnegie grant was for only two years, to start up and execute an entirely new and comprehensive program. Today, the equivalent is happening with the Health Equity Zones [HEZ].

COZs did some great work nonetheless
Despite what can only be considered criminal under-funding and over expectations by the state, in 1998 the COZs examined in Walsh’s study reported lots of successes. They raised outside money, they gathered lots of volunteers, and they set up the requisite Family Centers.

• For example, the East Providence COZ established a 23-person Governing
Council, most of whom were parents; others were from community agencies, government and businesses.

• The COZ provided a community room at the Grove Avenue School, a Family Resource Room at the Whiteknact School, and a meeting space at the Orlo Avenue School.

• A Family Center Coordinator spent five hours in each school every week to organize events, coordinate with the PTO, provide after-school childcare with the YMCA.

Total funding for 1998? It was $60,893, of which $35,000 was from the state, about $15,000 was for the Carnegie program, $8,000 was from the school district, and the rest was from private sources.

It was not a bad dea – for both the state and school systems.

Coming next week: Part TWO “Where are the COZs now?”

Author's Note: I can’t speak for Richard Asinof, but 50 years or so working with government and foundations/funders has made my eyeballs roll around in their sockets. You can’t find any reference to Need for the Nineties, PROBE, a statewide dental program, or the Report of the 21st Century Commission [actually the latter is locked up in the Secretary of State’s office].

The origins of this story began when Richard asked me, casually: “I wonder what happened to the COZs,” a project he and I both worked on [along with Chip Young, a consultant with RIDE], he “volunteered” me to find out. But that’s in Part TWO.

Rick Schwartz is a communications consultant, the principal of the firm Rick Schwartz/StraightTalk.

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