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Investment in Inner-City Teens Yields Communitywide Benefits

(Page 3 of 3)

But as Boston budgets were tightened and the political winds shifted, his program simply faded, and Pollack resigned. Then, just as he revived the program in 1992 at one location in the South End, Jorge Ramos, a popular youth worker, was murdered there as a result of gang warfare.

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"We hired 16 youths then, the highest risk group we've ever had, and many were angry friends of Ramos," says Steven Godfrey, a Teen Empowerment coordinator who grew up in the South End and became a staff member after the Ramos murder.

Using the Teen Empowerment methodology, the hired youths defined community problems and designed a strategy of change to stop gang hostility. Over a period of months, the group organized conflict resolution sessions, planned Teen Empowerment's first "Youth Peace Conference," and arranged the signing of a peace treaty among five gangs.

It also developed a network of contacts reaching deep into the community, enabling Teen Empowerment to squash rumors and defuse tempers. "People trust Teen Empowerment," says Lieut. Gary French, commander of the Boston Police Youth Violence Strike Force. "Time and again they have resolved volatile situations before things exploded." At least one murder was solved when Teen Empowerment persuaded eyewitnesses to step forward.

This year Teen Empowerment operates at two neighborhood sites in Boston, and two institutions - Madison Park Vocational High School and inside the J. Connelley juvenile facility of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. "In the future, we hope the schools and institutions will offer to fund the programs," Pollack says.

Sarah Repetto, the Teen Empowerment coordinator at Madison, learned from her teens that the No. 1 problem at the school was poor relationships between teachers and students, a common problem in inner cities. "Our goal was to help students and teachers see each other as people [and have] mutual respect," she says.

In the strategy that defines the program, the teens were trained across a spectrum of skills by Ms. Repetto and staff member Luis Santos, while they organized to meet their goals. The outcome was a series of separate workshops for students and teachers, followed by joint workshops that helped lessen intimidation on both sides.

They also planned and organized a student/teacher talent show that brought the school closer together with humor and spirit. "Sarah constantly reminded me that if you really want to involve students," says Diana Jones, dean of the Health Academy at Madison, "you don't make decisions for them; you involve them all the way."

Building communication

Richard Fields, executive director of technical and vocational education for Boston Schools says communication at Madison improved because of Teen Empowerment. "Positive bonds have been created that weren't there before," he says, "and the student body organizations were greatly strengthened." He wants to continue with Teen Empowerment but can't promise ample funds to support it.

Pollack, ever the entrepreneur who believes in his program, says, "We can change schools, lower absenteeism, lower the rate of fights, increase the level of satisfaction for teachers and students. All this for about $110,000 a year. If your school budget is $3 million or $4 million, you can afford us, because we empower youth to be assets not liabilities."

Pollack copyrighted the Teen Empowerment curriculum to ensure that it is used with appropriate training and understanding at school sites or in neighborhoods. "In the past, when people would steal pieces of it and use it without training," he says, "they would say, hey, it doesn't work. You need at least two full-time trained staff, continuing training support, and you have to pay the youths."

Those who support Teen Empowerment see its success now as closely linked to Pollack, but if the model is to be replicated widely, they suggest he has to step back and focus on staff development.

"Stanley is one of the most talented entrepreneurs I've even seen," says Angel Bermudez, program director for The Boston Foundation, which contributed $50,000 to Teen Empowerment.

"He can be headstrong too, but his results speak for themselves, and he is willing to detach himself and shape a replication strategy that will allow his work to become institutionalized," he says. "The issue is how to import it without weakening his anchor project, and that takes resources."