It’s hit or miss at city-run centers; Despite calls for reform, some still get little use

By 
Stephen Kurkjian, Rachel Zarrell, and Gal Tziperman Lotan, Special To The Reporter
Mar. 17, 2011

This article was reported by Stephen Kurkjian, Rachel Zarrell, and Gal Tziperman Lotan, and written by Kurkjian.

Moments after the buzzer sounded ending classes for the day, a dozen Harbor Middle School students burst through the doors connecting the Fields Corner school to the Cleveland Community Center, one of 38 such facilities established by the city to provide a variety of after-school athletic, arts, and tutoring programs for kids just like them. The youths seemed raring to go.

But the Cleveland, with no educational or arts programs in place, was hardly ready for them. So the students rushed over to the back corner of the room, pulling money out of their pockets, and stopped at the vending machines.  After they had bought their fill of snacks and soda, they exited as boisterously as they had entered, leaving the center’s large recreation room empty and in silence, save for the sounds from a courtroom drama droning from a wide-screen television on the wall.

Seven years after the Menino administration pledged widespread reforms in the wake of a scathing management report that had found weak leadership throughout Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) and inadequate levels of programming at the facilities, improvements at many of the community centers remain a case of promises unmet.

Although centers in some neighborhoods are meeting the primary goals of providing an enriching, safe environment for children outside of school time, as well as active social programs for adults in the community, a majority of the centers, including two of the four that are located in Dorchester, are falling short of the mark articulated just last month by their director.

“We also wanted to make sure…we had a program alignment that focused on arts, community and civic engagement, an education component, and a focus on sports and fitness, but more so really getting into the health, wellness and nutrition,” said Daphne Griffin, executive director of the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, at a City Council hearing in late February.

Despite that pledge, there are no BCYF education or arts programs for children or adults at the Cleveland Community Center. Day in and day out, the principal activity at the center, which is staffed by four full-time city employees making in total more than $150,000 a year in salaries, is a three-day a week girls leadership class and pick-up basketball games that take place in the adjoining Harbor School’s gymnasium.

A mile away, the community center at the John P. Holland Elementary School offers an after-school program attended by about 40 pre-teens and a one-night-a-week line-dancing class for adults. Other than that, activity at the center revolves around its basketball court and swimming pool, just the kind of “gym and swim” focus that Griffin says she is trying to take the community centers beyond.

But at the two other city-run centers located in Dorchester – the Perkins Community Center at the Joseph Lee Elementary School and the Leahy-Holloran Community Center at the Richard Murphy School – the director’s goal of offering dynamic programming is being met. (See accompanying story.)

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in an interview Tuesday that while improvements are needed, he is hopeful that changes being made by Griffin will realize the goal of producing more active and diverse programming at the centers. “We could do a better job with it. That’s what Daphne Griffin has started to do is merge some of the community centers that aren’t performing to its utmost and get more diversity in the programming. That’s key,” Menino said.

“We don’t want status quo. We want to make the community centers an active place in the neighborhoods of Boston for young people, older people, where everyone has the opportunity to go to,” he said.

In an interview with the Reporter, Griffin gave the Cleveland Center a C– for the minimal programming it puts on and said what was being presented at the Holland center was “right in the middle” of the pack. That a minimal level of programming was found at these two community centers suggests there has only been slight progress in meeting the criticisms of BCYF’s performance that were detailed in a study commissioned by the city in late 2004:

“At many BCYF local sites, attendance and building use is low, the population served is narrow, ties between adults and youth in the building are weak, and program quality is unreliable or poor,” concluded the report by Community Matters, an independent management consultant.

After spending a month looking into BCYF’s operations, the Reporter has found that across the city, successful centers seem to be the exceptions to the rule rather than the standard.

And any near-term progress at either the Holland or the Cleveland centers is likely to become more difficult in the coming weeks. The BCYF administrator who supervised the two centers and often clashed with their staffs returned to work this week after a 45-day suspension without pay.

Gloria Moon, who earns more than $76,000 a year, had been investigated by the city’s Labor Relations Department for failing to comply with city protocol in filling out her time sheets. According to city officials who asked not to be identified since personnel matters are considered confidential, Moon had been seen having her hair and nails done when she was recorded in her time sheets as being on the job.
It was the second suspension in recent years for Moon, who is the “cluster administrator” of the two centers. In 2005, the city suspended her after determining that she had spent time on the job running her small catering company. The city tried to fire her, but settled for a suspension after an independent arbitrator found that she could not be terminated since there were no standards in place to determine if her conduct had violated BCYF rules, the sources said.

Asked if she welcomed Moon’s return, Griffin said, “I would defer to the simple fact that she’s coming back March 15, and I hope she comes back happy and ready to go to work.” Moon did not return phone calls or reply to a written request for an interview left at her home.

However, some who work at the Holland and Cleveland centers said they were disappointed to learn that Moon would be returning to her position, asserting that they did not feel she had supported them in their efforts to improve the performance at the two facilities she oversees.

There is a possibility, however, that while Moon will be returning to the BCYF payroll, she may not hold the position overseeing the performance of the Holland and Cleveland centers for long. According to one official, the city is considering eliminating the position of “cluster administrator” in the program hierarchy. The 11 individuals, including Moon, who work in those positions would be put in charge of community centers that currently are not headed by a program director or given other assignments, the official said.

Although the 2004 consultant’s report recommended streamlining decision-making and supervision within BCYF, that remains another unmet goal. The department, which was established in 1974 to provide after-school programming for students, has grown into the largest human service agency inside city government, with an $21.6 million budget and the staffing of more than 400 people in its community centers and at headquarters on Tremont Street in Roxbury.

The department has been bigger. Last April, due in part to the recognition that the centers were failing to provide ample services to the neighborhoods they served, the city shut eight of the facilities, including those at the John Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester and the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.

From all accounts Griffin has worked hard to improve the performance and productivity of the centers. Among her principal accomplishments are rewarding with smaller grants innovative programs that have succeeded at individual sites; more accountability of the community centers by tracking attendance of their programs, and initiating a three-day training session so all 400 BCYF employees can improve their skills in the programs they offer.

However, Griffin acknowledges that progress has often been blunted by the volunteer community councils that have a role in BCYF decision-making. Made up of neighborhood residents, the councils were established to allow local input into decisions about the kinds of activity their centers would take up and also to enhance fund-raising for that programming in their communities.

But over the years, the councils far too often have lost their effectiveness, says Griffin, their members either unable or unwilling to insist on maximum programming at their centers or to keep up with and react to the demographic changes in their neighborhoods. Instead, many of the councils have busied themselves with internal squabbles. “What’s happened with a lot of them,” she says, “is that they haven’t been able to evolve with the changing times.”

According to several who have served on the community boards, such problems were rife on the council that oversaw the Holland, Cleveland, and now-closed Marshall community centers, and they had a direct effect on the lack of quality programming at the facilities.

One member, Ted Loska, a Boston school teacher, said he quit the council several years ago after William Milligan, a long-time president of the council, refused to listen to any of his suggestions for bringing more programming geared towards the arts, such as violin and guitar lessons, to the three Dorchester centers.

Frustrated with Milligan’s control of the panel, three other members called a community meeting in late 2005 to try to gain residents’ support for their efforts to bring in new leadership and increase activity at the community centers. While dozens showed up to the meeting, the initiative died out after Milligan reportedly said there would be no changes without the assent of the existing council. Milligan, who stepped down as president of the Dorchester council last year, did not return telephone requests for an interview.

Although for the sake of efficiency it might make more sense to dissolve the community councils and set up a city-wide panel to divide grants and public funds among the various centers, such a step lacks political support. Maureen Feeney and Charles Yancey, the two Boston city councillors who have spent the most time trying to improve the performance of the community centers, declined in recent interviews to call for the elimination of the individual councils.

In addition to the failure of so many centers to sustain any sort of effective programming, questions remain about the fundamental operations of the councils: the raising and spending of funds and the hiring of staff members. Each council is established as a private, non-profit corporation and its primary function is to raise money from grants and donations for the programming that takes place at the city-operated centers they oversee.

The Reporter found that while a few councils had minimal money in the bank, 12 of the 22 surveyed had more than $100,000 in their accounts. And although most of the councils are in compliance with the law requiring that they file annual tax and disclosure statements with the IRS and the attorney general’s office, the city does not require that the councils undergo independent audits to show how they raised their money and how they spent it.

Yet, according to press reports at the time, when the city suspended Moon in 2005, it had found that she had spent thousands of community center dollars on food and supplies to operate her catering business. Additional questions were raised recently when the financial books were opened at the council that oversees another Dorchester center. This review found that the council had been issued a credit card by a home improvement outlet and that unexplained items had been purchased with the card.

Despite problems with their governance, the biggest challenge for Boston’s community centers may come from competition. Hundreds of private non-profit organizations offer social service programming in the same neighborhoods where the centers are located, in effect reducing opportunities for the centers to meet the needs of those it should be serving.

In Fields Corner, for example, the Vietnamese American Community Center offers a variety of educational, social, and literacy programs for young and old in the thriving Asian-American population there. At the Cleveland itself, about a dozen young immigrants who are Boston school students receive language skills and tutoring help several days a week – but the instruction is provided by student volunteers from Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association, not by the Cleveland center staff.

And throughout Boston, there are 13 Boys & Girls Clubs, each offering a variety of programming in athletics, child care, fine arts, and music to youths of all ages. Five of the clubs are located in Dorchester. Mike Joyce, vice president of programming for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, estimates that his organization, which run three of the five, attract some 350-400 kids on a daily basis.

Daphne Griffin knows first-hand how difficult it is for the community centers to compete with the programming offered by privately run organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs. Before being appointed in 2007 to head BCYF, she supervised the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club which, she recalled, had a waiting list of about 200 kids seeking to join. At the same time, the nearby Perkins Community Center was out looking for higher enrollment for its programs.

“From my experience,” she said, “the neighborhood had an association with the Boys & Girls Club brand, which is difficult in general to compete with, [because] it’s associated with high-quality programs.”
Last month, the mayor may have made Griffin’s job of improving performance at the centers even more difficult: He promoted her to chief of the city’s Human Services Department, which gives her oversight of all human service agencies, policies and programs.

If Griffin needs a mark to measure improvement, she may benefit by looking at the city of Chicago, which maintains a network of community centers much like the one that exists here. However, comparisons between the two departments end with their structures. According to the Chicago program’s website, each of the more than 200 community centers in that city offer a wide variety of programming and many offer at least one or two adult activities along with sports, teen clubs and creative, educational classes that include science.

All of which is a far cry from the situation at the Cleveland center when two writers from the Reporter paid it an unannounced visit in late February. The only programming being offered that day was scheduled for later in the evening, when the gym was to be opened for pickup basketball games.
Ernest Hughes, the program director of the Cleveland center, acknowledged that more needed to be done to attract kids there. He said he hoped that a volunteer could be found to help teach youngsters computer skills on the ten new laptops that had recently been delivered to the center. Also, he said, some youngsters in the adjacent Harbor School had expressed an interest in learning how to play chess and checkers, and he was hoping to find money in his budget to buy the board games.

“Come back in 60 days,” said Hughes, who has been in charge of the community center for only several months. “I promise you we’ll be doing a lot more in 60 days.”

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