The Dalio Foundation names COMPASS Youth Collaborative a founding member of the Connecticut Opportunity Project, an initiative to unleash the untapped potential of youth.

Part 1: The Power of One

At the age of thirteen, Angel Cotto returned to Hartford.

His homecoming was an achievement unto itself, an overcoming of more challenges than most experience in a lifetime.

He and his siblings moved four times during his childhood. Staying one step ahead of struggle meant stints living in Florida, Indiana, and Puerto Rico.

At one point, it all got to be too much. His mother wanted a better life for her children, she explained, at least until she could provide one on her own.

Angel remembers these periods of separation as particularly difficult. He missed a lot of school, but found respite when he could in the local libraries. At every opportunity, he and his younger brother and sister read until the lights flickered for closing time; when the librarians gently sent them on their way.

As his mom got back on her feet, she called them back to Hartford. It was a place he remembered and a place he dreamed about; it was a reunion he longed for. It also brought with it a new milestone – high school – and a chance to shape his future.

Angel enrolled as a freshman in a high school downtown. A security guard suggested he join COMPASS Peacebuilders as a way to make friends. Angel felt unsure. He didn’t necessarily identify with the kids in the program, but he instantly identified with Will McClendon, one of the COMPASS Peacebuilders.

In Will, he saw someone who successfully navigated similar circumstances. It was hard to ignore Will’s enthusiasm or his constant encouragement. Angel joined the Peacebuilders life-skills class. He quickly flourished, became a youth leader, and won a student research position at a local research institute.

Stories like Angel’s are a hallmark of the COMPASS Peacebuilders program, an innovative model for reaching in-risk youth and building peace within the community. Youth receive individualized case management and attend life-skills classes. The COMPASS Peacebuilders staff form strong and lasting bonds because they are credible mentors: they reside within the community, are on-call 24/7, and stay with their mentees for up to three years.

To the youth they serve, the COMPASS Peacebuilders are a lifeline. To Angel, this program is much more than all that. To join Peacebuilders, he says, is to gain a family.

As Angel found his footing in Hartford, a woman named Barbara Dalio began volunteering at an alternative school in Norwalk, Connecticut.  As a co-founder and director of her family’s foundation, Barbara felt a particular affinity for causes that affected children, and developed a strong passion for supporting public education in her family’s home state of Connecticut.

What she found in volunteering at the school was both inspiring and deeply confounding.  She witnessed the dedication of teachers and school leaders working hard to support their students with love and compassion.  She experienced the joy of becoming part of the school’s community.  She saw the inherent potential in every student, and the efforts they made to pursue their passions and goals.  And yet, she often worried about their futures.  For those that didn’t attain a diploma, due to a variety of social pressures and barriers, what would become of them?  What opportunities would they have to achieve their dreams?

She also worried about the broader societal implications. The situation of the school’s students could hardly be considered an isolated struggle, but rather a microcosm of struggle, one that plays out in communities across the country.  As she drove each week to Norwalk, Barbara wondered just how big the problem in Connecticut was.

Part 2: The Forgotten Half

Education emerges as an issue in every election cycle, and almost every modern president and governor takes a run at trying to fix it – naming an education czar, implementing policies, building a narrative to generate a shared sense of urgency, and funneling tax dollars and using the court system, when necessary, to work toward educational equity.

Wedged between the tectonic plates of federal and state power, nonprofit and philanthropic resources have grown exponentially, aimed at narrowing the achievement gap, leveling the opportunity gap, tempering the rising inequity, and addressing what has become the critical civil rights issue of our time.  Perhaps no one embodies this dynamic quite like Dr. Harold Howe II.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson hired Howe to engineer the desegregation of America’s schools.

Dr. Harold Howe II, 1985 | Getty Images

So reviled was he by segregationists that Howe eventually stepped down as the Commissioner of Education, but he remained in orbit – working first at the Ford Foundation and later as a lecturer at Duke and Harvard. At Harvard, he co-authored a paper called The Forgotten Half, outlining a set of recommendations to help young people who would not matriculate to college and faced diminished career prospects.

The Forgotten Half that Howe advocated for was not unlike the students that Barbara met in Norwalk, and it’s important to reflect on this historical context. In 1988, when the report was published, it described a country that was perilously close to losing a generation of young people if it did not take greater responsibility for their education, if it did not widen the net of support for them and their families, and if it neglected to provide adequate opportunities for meaningful work and service.

Although times have changed, the challenge of supporting all children remains. Howe, as a former teacher, principal, superintendent and government official, bore witness to the failures of leadership, fragmentation in policy implementation, and systemic racism and classism that mire so many schools and communities today.

Improving the odds for The Forgotten Half, Howe would later write, demanded both a rational understanding of the problems they face and the moral tenacity to change it.

Part 3: The Connecticut Opportunity Project

After more than five years of working with students, teachers, and community members in Norwalk, Barbara expanded her collaborative vision for strengthening public education across Connecticut.  She spent considerable time in high schools throughout the state, listening to students and teachers and hearing their creative ideas for improving their schools and communities.  These visits and conversations sharpened her resolve to help the most vulnerable.

Making a lasting difference would require the rational understanding that Howe described. For that, Barbara and her family’s foundation commissioned a study with a team of experts to answer one big question: What would it take to help disengaged and disconnected youth graduate from high school ready for the future?  The team spent more than a year conducting research and interviewing 150 individuals in Connecticut who work with youth who are showing signs of disengagement from high school.

The finalized report, Untapped Potential: Engaging all Connecticut Youth, released in September of 2016, estimated that 39,000 young people are considered disengaged or disconnected statewide.  In other words, one out of every five students in the state struggle with attendance, academic, or behavioral issues. This research helped to answer important questions about a challenge affecting almost every community in the state.

The authors also uncovered some compelling points for intervention.  By 9th grade, students have demonstrable patterns that may indicate their future trajectory.  Ninth grade, in fact, is a pivotal year for re-engaging them.  According to the report, as many as 88% of youth who can get back on track in the 9th grade will stay on track for graduation.  The research contends that intervening in 10th grade can still be impactful, but as students grow older without earning on-time promotion, their chances of graduating plummet, and they face a paucity of options for GED completion.

Barbara and her family’s foundation, the Dalio Foundation, responded to the report’s findings by conferring with stakeholders across the state to launch the Connecticut Opportunity Project to engage and empower young people.  The Connecticut Opportunity Project kicked off with a statewide innovation challenge, an invitation from Barbara and the Foundation to work together in supporting all students.  They solicited ideas from nonprofits, educators, and community leaders for ways to keep youth engaged.  In response, they received 80 proposals, ranging from systemic solutions to direct services; and they led a multi-step selection process to review every application for feasibility, scalability, and creativity.

In July of 2017, the Foundation selected nine organizations to join the Connecticut Opportunity Project, serving as its founding non-profit members.  The Opportunity Project provides tangible investment – $11,000,000 over two years across the nine pilot projects – and serves as a mechanism to build collaboration and innovation among youth practitioners.