Friday, February 8, 2008

Problem solver shares ideas

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
— Bill Strickland has found some solutions to big problems, and he came to the city Thursday to spread the message.
Strickland, 60, shown at right, spent four decades establishing a successful model in his hometown of Pittsburgh to motivate poor kids and adults to break out of poverty.
The CEO and president of Manchester Bidwell in the former steel capital of the U.S., Strickland spoke to city leaders at a luncheon sponsored by the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven.
The foundation, with help from William Graustein, Empower New Haven, United Illuminating and Yale-New Haven Hospital, is underwriting a $150,000 study to determine if New Haven is a good site to replicate the Manchester Bidwell success.
Cultivating partnerships with major foundations, city and state leaders, Strickland was able to build an after-school arts center for 500 at-risk kids from eighth to twelfth grade, from which he said 92 percent went on to college last year, and a separate tech training center for adults, from which 75 percent get jobs.
“We do not teach the academics. What we teach is motivation. You take children and put them in a world-class environment and get world-class expectations and they will perform,” he said.
The “environment” is a center designed by a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, full of art, fresh flowers and cutting-edge equipment for the culinary, building trades and tech job training for the adults, as well as a clay, photo and digital imaging center for the teens.
Strickland said poverty “is a cancer of the spirit,” and he wanted the poor people who came to Manchester Bidwell to be surrounded by beauty.
“Rather than give poor kids the worst conditions, give them the best conditions and see if that makes a difference. That has turned out to be one of the insights that is driving the results we are getting from the center,” he said. Equally important is a high-quality staff.
All this exists in the highest crime rate neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Strickland said the center has never had any thefts or graffiti in 24 years. “Kids need to be treated with dignity, they need to be surrounded by beauty and aesthetics ... and you get results,” he said.
He compares this to the Pittsburgh high school four blocks away, with steel doors, bars on the windows and trash cans chained to the walls.
“Now, there are two possibilities: The kids genetically alter themselves in four blocks, or there is something about the strategy we developed to work with these children that has to be right,” Strickland said.
A recipient of a MacArthur grant in 1996,Strickland wants to establish 200 similar centers, 100 in the U.S. and 100 overseas. Already they are up and running in Cincinnati, San Francisco and Grand Rapids, Mich., with several more in the planning stages, including Belfast, Northern Ireland and Israel.
PBut he made it clear he isn’t in the franchise business. Each community has to find the leaders who are willing to take ownership of the program locally and develop the necessary partnerships with the public schools, businesses, the community college and local nonprofits.ointing to the 50 percent dropout rates for black and Hispanic students nationwide, Strickland said, “We have to stem the tide or our country won’t be recognizable in 20 years.”
ChThea Buxbaum is part of a local group that has pushed the Strickland model for New Haven for years. “It is not naive hope,” she said of his proven plan. It’s not another “vision plan.”e Dawson, head of the city’s youth initiatives, said he is all for more resources for the young people. “I think the most important thing he communicated today is establishing a community of hope and inspiration and a culture that respects and values our young people,” he said.

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