Federated's new chief focusing on education, excellence

The man charged with leading Dorchester's largest non-profit social service provider into a new era of stability and growth has a Masters degree in business from Yale, served in the Peace Corps in Thailand and spent a good chunk of his childhood in India.

But, Mark Culliton's latest address may prove to be his greatest asset. The 42 year-old, who first came to Dorchester to run a fledgling Main Street program in Uphams Corner back in 1996, lives with his wife and two kids in a home on Thornley Street, between Dot Ave. and Pleasant Street. It was that investment- and the birth of his now six-year-old son Oliver- that really triggered Culliton's passion for transforming the community he calls home.

"When you have a child, you immediately start noticing kids more and seeing the interactions with the kids on your street. I saw how few opportunities a lot of the children in our neighborhood had and I was frustrated by the choices they had &endash; which is part of reason why I started getting involved with charter schools," says Culliton, who worked most recently as a vice-president for Lighthouse Academies, a foundation that has launched charter schools all over the country.

"I think we can do more for our children, in the collective sense," he says.

As CEO of Federated &endash; known officially as Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses, Inc., Culliton will get the chance to do just that, right in his own backyard. The umbrella organization serves thousands of kids and families through programs scattered across Dorchester and Mattapan. Based from rented space at the St. Mark's campus on Dorchester Ave., the non-profit owns the Log School on Bowdoin Street and Little House on East Cottage Street. Its eighty-plus employees run food pantries, an alternative school for at-risk teens, after-school enrichment classes, summer camps and monitors day care services at 18 sites across the city.

Federated's mission became much clearer two years ago when it split with Kit Clark Senior Services, once a major part of the umbrella group. Now affiliated with Bay Cove Human Services, Kit Clark's departure has served to underline Federated's defining purpose as a provider of lifelong education to some of the neighborhood's neediest families.

Culliton's first task, he says, is to create a uniform standard of expectations for the entire organization- and a new way to measure results. He calls the management plan he's created, "Get great and then grow."

"I think we've been doing good work, but we're not exceptional," Culliton says. "We should expect to become exceptional in everything we do. There's too many challenges facing too many of the students and families we serve to not be great. If we're really going to serve well, we have to have an incredibly high standard."

According to board member Sean Curran, it was Culliton's vision for Federated's education mission that was second only to his proven track record of "creating things from scratch" that won over a search committee. Board members, including Curran, spent months looking for a new CEO after Culliton's predecessor, Mark Hinderlie, left the agency last year.

Carol Donaher, Federated's new board president effective June 1, says Culliton's skill as "an expert communicator" will help spread the news to funders and constituents that the non-profit with roots in the first years of the 1900s is now poised to enter a whole new era.

"We went through a difficult time five years ago and I think we're at a point now where we're ready to make the case for what Federated has become," says Donaher. "We are very fortunate that Mark crossed our threshold when he did."

Much of the initial work, Culliton explains, is internal management issues that are aimed at better assessing the outcomes that the agency needs to document its strengths and weaknesses.

One of the more concrete signs of Federated's commitment to improve services, he says, is happening right now at the Log School, where a $100,000 makeover is underway at the Bowdoin Street site where Federated runs after-school and GED programs. One of Culliton's first decisions was to pump an additional $30,000 into the effort.

"We wanted to rehab the exterior of the building back to its original condition, rather than to go with a less expensive way of rehabbing it because we felt as though if we're going to have high expectations for kids, we should have high expectations for what we do. Just because they're on Bowdoin-Geneva, they shouldn't have a second rate building," Culliton says.

"Our goal as an organization is to get great and then grow. The one place I'm looking for growth in the next year is the young adult GED class serving Bowdoin-Geneva. That's because I know that we have a solution right now that we can roll out right now to address the horrific violence we've seen on the streets."

If there is a fundamental philosophy that will drive much of Culliton's efforts at Federated, it is this: he adheres to a belief that a college education is something that all kids- whether or not they opt to follow that course - should have the opportunity to pursue. It's a philosophy that even an earnest optimist would acknowledge requires a long-term approach.

"I don't see myself as a caretaker CEO," Culliton says. "I see an incredible opportunity to make dramatic, lasting, systemic change in this neighborhood.

"I have a sense of urgency about doing that, but I don't think it will take two years. I don't think it will even be cemented in five years," he says. "I never want to be in place where I'm just kind of going along and doing what we've always done. There's too many challenges to think that we can't constantly get better and do a better job for whomever we're serving."