Bob Rath

Committed to Continuous Improvement: An Interview with Bob Rath

Bob Rath’s career was launched in the youth field when he was still a youth. While in college, he got involved with a FIPSE-funded program with street academies to see if young people in alternative high schools would be interested in and succeed in alternative college. A stint working in community corrections drove him back into the field of education. He reflected, “Making sure every young person gets an education is more important than ever. Over-age, under-credited young people are the feedstock for corrections. Things have only gotten worse since I worked in corrections. At the time, it was one out of six young men of color who were locked up. Then in the 90s, it jumped to one out of four, and one out of three in the 2000s. This is an important time right now, we should capitalize on the second chance policy movement to insist that we dismantle all the policies and practices that lead to this level of incarceration.”

Rath is the Chief Executive Officer of Our Piece of the Pie® (OPP®), which is based in Hartford, Connecticut with sites in several other locations in the state. OPP operates as a relationship-centered model at the intersection of youth development, workforce development, and education. The organization has been steadily growing in terms of expanding the set of opportunities for young people and in terms of the number of young people served.

Rath reflected, “Participating in national networks has stimulated my thinking about ways we can improve the opportunities we offer. For example, I met Ernest Dorsey, who at the time was serving as the Director of Baltimore’s Youth Opportunity Grant and had created YO high school that inspired us to open our high school in 2009. We now have 300 kids enrolled in three schools and could easily increase to 500. Two key national organizations have influenced our work, the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) and Communities Collaborating to Reconnect Youth (CCRY) sponsored by CLASP, are both great learning exchanges. ” Rath is now participating with a relatively new network, Reaching At Promise Students Association (RAPSA), that started as an effort to address the need for alternative accountability strategies for OAUC.

In talking about his philosophy of how to best support young people, Rath said, “We have to personalize our approach for each young person. When every young person in your school is either behind in credits and/or skills, you can’t use a batch approach.” He continued, “We’ve also learned that we need to take the community context of each school. The culture and services will vary based on what the needs of students are in the different schools. In order to build a learning plan for students at all of our schools, we assess them based on where they are in terms of foundational skills as well as credits. However, we also have to consider social-emotional issues much more in designing the mix of services. Where there are many more students filled with hurt and anger, we must be prepared to address it as it has a direct impact on the culture and performance of the school.” Rath explained that they have begun to think differently about how to provide scaffolds to help students become ready to learn.

Rath is finding that the concept of student-centered learning is powerful for thinking about how to better structure the OPP schools as well as workforce development programming. In Seizing the Moment: Realizing the Promise of Student-Centered Learning, Rath and his co-authors argue that more student-centered approaches will create both greater personalization of services for young people and much greater flexibility and modularization in programming. “It challenges us to draw upon the strong relationships we create at OPP to offer students high interest curriculum and performance tasks that they can learn to apply their skills. With competency-based approaches, we can better mix and match skill building of the foundational academic skills with badges and credentials for workplace skills.”

Student-Centered Learning: The four tenets of student-centered learning according to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Jobs for the Future’s Students at the Center initiative are:

Learning is personalized: it recognizes that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced learning that starts from where they are, and formatively assesses their skills and addresses their needs.

Learning is competency-based: students move ahead as they demonstrate mastery, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or completed required times in classrooms.

Learning happens anytime, anywhere: learning takes place beyond the school day and year. Schools’ walls are permeable; learning is not restricted to classrooms.

Students take ownership: student-centered learning engages students in their own successes—incorporating their interests and skills into the learning process, and providing for self-reflection on their progress.

In investigating the national picture of the youth unemployment crisis, Rath had a number of observations. “The economic picture in parts of the South is so much worse than in Connecticut,” he said. “There is greater poverty and less opportunity. This makes the crisis much, much worse. There are too few opportunities to link them to wage-earning jobs.” He also noted that the context of each community can vary dramatically. The types of industry, the degree that leadership in the community has a shared vision, and the racial dynamics can all shape the strategies for supporting youth trying to connect to the labor market. He emphasized, “The field of workforce development and youth employment need to build the capacity to create different approaches based on regional or micro economies.”

Rath believes that philanthropy and the non-profit sector have become confused about the concept of growth and scale. “We are all tossing around the word scale as if social services delivery can mimic private for-profit sector businesses like Apple that created scale for the iPhone from a little over 1-million per year in 2007 to over 200-million in 2015. We need to manage our expectations about scale for the sector. For example, YouthBuild, a great organization serving disconnected youth over the last 30 plus years, has grown to serve 10,000 of an estimated 5-million disconnected youth. They have ‘scaled’ and gotten bigger, but is 1/500th ‘scaling’?, A focus on sustainable growth with meaningful performance seems a more reasonable goal and remains OPP’s target. The resource constraints to address the youth unemployment crisis are real, limiting scale and making growth difficult. The sector needs to innovate and find new models that will attract new kinds of investments because there are many more disconnected young people to be served. Perhaps, pushing ourselves to think about scale, will force us to consider other ideas that are outside of what we currently think of as the best practices.”

Rath wondered if the size of the youth unemployment crisis has been keeping foundations from tackling the issue. The cost of meeting all the needs of young people on waiting lists around the country is more than the philanthropic sector can meet (given current interest and giving). As a result, foundations end up focusing on high level thinking, systems change, and policy work. He suggested that we should actually be investing in what is already working or focusing on new models.

In looking at the next wave of innovation for programs serving youth, Rath also suggested that we need to begin to deconstruct our models to determine if there are more cost-effective strategies. “It costs us about $7,500 per youth to help them take the next step in their lives. Is it possible to do it for a lesser amount and do it just as well?” In this spirit, OPP is beginning to partner with College for America in the hope of giving young people the opportunity to get an AA and be debt free. They’ll be supported by OPP while taking advantage of College of America’s competency-based online model with virtual coaches. Although this is a first step, Rath wonders, “Can we deconstruct the current model in order to construct a more cost-effective one?”