A noble push for excellence at FDNH

Next Thursday, Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses (FDNH) will host its fifth annual event at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The dinner will honor Governor Deval Patrick, but it is also a celebration of the agency’s own achievements of the past several years — and a chance to put a brighter spotlight on the important work that lies ahead.

FDNH has long been a critically important agency in the neighborhoods. It is the umbrella organization that runs education programs for more than 1000 individuals— both adults and children — at sites across Dorchester and Mattapan. It also works with some of the neighborhood’s most vulnerable in after-school and summer settings. Under Mark Culliton, the agency’s CEO who took charge there in 2007, FDNH has set an ambitious course. It’s primary mission, according to Culliton, is now to help the neighborhood’s young people— all of them— graduate from college.

“We feel like its important that a college degree be the baseline expectation, because it keeps open a range of options that are too often shut down by adults in their lives,” Culliton said. “We want to change the way that we as adults in our students lives talk about it. We want them know that we expect it and be explicit about the expectations of the work we’re doing.”

It’s a subtle, but important, shift in the organization’s fundamental purpose. Having now ‘sold’ the staff and board of directors on that mission, Culliton and FDNH have made it their job to convince the parents of the neighborhood’s youngsters that it is not only feasible, but absolutely necessary. Teachers in FDNH’s various programs have begun making home visits to discuss this goal with parents one-on-one.
“There is a lot of push back about other options, like joining trade unions,” Culliton said. “And, we’re not saying that they’ll all go to Harvard, but we’re making the case that they’ll have those options available to them.”

Driving FDNH’s concern are frightening figures about drop-out rates among Boston’s school-aged children and teens. According to a Boston Foundation analysis released earlier this year, only 7 percent of Boston students will graduate from a college by age 26. Half will drop out before completing high school.

“We really feel like a lot of it has to do with those expectations and kids playing out the expectations,” said Culliton. “We understand the challenges when you get a 2-3 year old who has been neglected or God forbade abused. It’s going to be tough. But hard work and high expectations work.”

One tool in the FDNH arsenal that seems to be having an impact is its summer ‘Out of School Time’ programs targeting kids 5-13. The program uses an innovative, project-based curicculum to encourage learning through the vacation months.

Culliton is the first to acknowledge that his goals are sometimes scoffed at by those who have grown cynical about the prospects of a turn-around locally.

“We have to be work harder to be closer to that organization that we know we have to be,” he says. “I still get frustrated at the lack of ability to do more in two years and wish that we could be much better.”

Part of that transformation is well underway, though, and Thursday night is a moment to reflect on the good progress that Culliton and his team have made.

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