The following is a conversation between Richard Berlin, the Executive Director of DREAM, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: In 1991, DREAM, then known as Harlem RBI, was founded by a group of volunteers that transformed a neglected garbage lot into two baseball diamonds in East Harlem. It took off from there. First, with after-school and summer programs, and then with the DREAM Charter School to become one of the most highly regarded programs for underserved youth in the nation. And here with us tonight to discuss how they did it is Richard Berlin, the Executive Director of DREAM. Good evening, Richard, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Richard: Good evening, Denver. Thanks for having me here.
Denver: You know, it’s been a fascinating journey over this past 27 years, and you’ve been on board for most of the trip. Give us a brief history of how this organization evolved from those two baseball diamonds to Harlem RBI and now, DREAM.
Richard: It’s hardly been a linear path, but one that has been mostly upward and always guided toward impact. The organization, as you said, started when a group of volunteers took an abandoned block on what was then one of the worst blocks in New York City. It was actually on the cover of the New York Times under a banner headline, “Worst Block in New York City,” straight from central casting. East 100 Street and East Harlem at that time really was a model of generational poverty.
There may have been a lot of highfalutin pretensions about what this thing could be. At the beginning, it was 75 teenage boys playing baseball– an alternative to gang violence, an alternative to the streets; a safe place for kids to play which most of us take for granted, but if you lived on that block, you were actually afraid to let your kid out during the day, let alone at night. It was such an unsafe place. The minute kids were out, not surprisingly, not only were they having fun, but doing something productive. And you started building a little bit of community, and alongside all these positives, everybody quickly saw all the gaps and negatives too.
It was great that we had kids a few hours a week, or even more than that during the summer. But kids would sort of come and go. Even the children, and maybe even the children who are most engaged, were the ones who would sort of fade away, and you couldn’t keep connected to because really what you were running was a seasonal recreation program. That led us to think about what we were doing and why we were there, and started to think a little bit more intentionally about how to grow our business, but most importantly, how we grew our mission. And it led to what I call a desire to scale our program, not outward but to scale in; to go deeper into our community, first with summer learning and then with after school, ultimately, with the charter school, and now into multiple communities. But always looking at a set of impacts which could help get kids out of the cycle of poverty into which they are born and help transform the fabric of their communities, which didn’t always provide enough support and opportunity for them to thrive.
When you take people with limited resources and then you put them in places that are broken or failing, the idea that people will somehow pull themselves up by the bootstraps is really a fallacious notion…
Denver: Let’s talk about those communities a little bit. In New York City, as you said, you work or you serve in East Harlem and the South Bronx– two of the most under-resourced communities in the city. Give us an idea of the challenges that those communities face.
Richard: I think at root in poor communities, urban or rural, but particularly urban communities like East Harlem and Mott Haven and the South Bronx where we work, what you see is a failure of the institutions that almost all families rely on to navigate their daily lives. So, whether it’s public hospitals or public schools, all these versions of the public sort of failing families. Public housing, very much in the news these days.
These are families who are already very much on the edge of really dire poverty, often in violent neighborhoods and challenging places. When you take people with limited resources and then you put them in places that are broken or failing, the idea that people will somehow pull themselves up by the bootstraps is really a fallacious notion, which most people in the country have left behind. Over the last 20 or 30 years, I think it’s come to organizations like DREAM to fill that gap, and to do so really intentionally, and to really upend a model of support which is broken and replace it with something that provides lots of opportunity, lots of support, but really high expectations for kids and families about what they can achieve.
Denver: With your operations in New York City, and I know you’re also over in Newark now, how many boys and girls do you serve in any given year?
Richard: DREAM is now serving a little bit over 2,200 young children from pre-K through college, always with the goal of making sure they’re academically successful, ready for work and life beyond DREAM, whatever their engagement may be, and also with a desire and willingness to come back and return to the fold and give back to the communities that helped raise them. There are waiting lists in almost everything that we do, but our view has always been: Let’s do really high quality work that transforms kids’ lives; doesn’t just water the leaves, so to speak, but gets at the roots. If we do that well, we’ll grow plenty over time. And if we never added another kid, the responsibility for serving 2,200 families is hardly inconsequential.
There’s a reason places look like this in affluent communities because that is the expectation and model of success. That is the type of environment people want to be in. That is the type of environment people come together to create health and safety and opportunity for kids.
Denver: Doing it well is somewhat dependent upon your theory of change, which is informed in part by the Maslow hierarchy of needs, and I think it’s best exemplified, Rich, with those four core elements of your program. I’m going ask you to walk us through those if you would. The first is to provide a safe and inspiring place. I’ve been up to your place, and it is a wonderful, wonderful facility. How do you think about it? How do you think about space? How do you think about facility?
Richard: If we go to our founding metaphor, which is baseball, the most important thing you’ve got to be in baseball is safe at home. I think this idea that children can learn and grow and thrive in places that aren’t comfortable for them is really, really dangerous. You go into typical public school, they feel more like a jail or a bomb shelter or something really institutional. The first thing you see when you walk into a public school is usually a police officer, a public safety officer, which hardly gives you the idea that you’re probably in an unthreatening place.
Our view is twofold. One is that love surrounds these kids all the time, whether it’s their families or teachers or mentors or coaches. But the second is that, everywhere you go is inspiring and elevating in itself. It’s why our baseball field looks like a mini-Yankee stadium. It’s why our school looks like an institution of higher learning, not simply a grade school because these are the places we expect our kids to go when they grow up, but this is also what it takes. There’s a reason places look like this in affluent communities because that is the expectation and model of success. That is the type of environment people want to be in. That is the type of environment people come together to create health and safety and opportunity for kids.
We are collaborators. We are partners. We are part of the fabric of neighborhoods.
Denver: Your second core element is collaboration with community and family. What are some of the elements there?
Richard: DREAM, formerly Harlem RBI, is also built around the concept we call the power of teams. We think you can almost separate the world between people who grew up playing on a team and those who didn’t. We just believe deeply that the idea that we’re here to fix something is really mistaken. We are collaborators. We are partners. We are part of the fabric of neighborhoods. This isn’t a place where a parent sends their child, and we inject them with a dosage of something, and magically, they return to them healthy and happy. A kid is a kid 24 hours a day. No matter how much time with their kids, they’ll always spend more time with their families as they should. So, families, extended and immediate, really need to be part of this work.
Close collaboration and understanding of our mission, the ability to have healthy disagreements about what’s best for a kid. But fundamentally, our belief that every parent is their child’s best advocate. Nobody knows a kid better than a parent. Nobody wants a kid to succeed more than that parent. Now, they may not always have all the tools they need, and that’s where we come to work, but we’ve got to do that work together. And that starts with having a place where families want to be, and that starts with always having parents and families part of the dialogue about work, so that when there is a tough conversation we have, it’s easy because there’s trust. For every 10 times we call a family, hopefully, only one of them is for something where your kid fell off the tracks. Typical East Harlem family when an institution in their life calls, it’s probably not for a good reason. We try to upend that model.
We know they always have it in them; we want to be pushing them hard, supporting them a ton, and making failure a safe place because that’s where we believe learning and development happen.
Denver: Third, you place a tremendous value on developmental relationships. Explain that.
Richard: Kids are different at different times of their lives. Got to be thoughtful about what you’re asking kids to do. Mostly, at root it’s this. Baseball is a game of failure if you succeed 3 out of 10 times. If you fail 7 out of 10 times, you’re a hall of famer. Never mind all-star team. We think that is where the growth happens, in failure. Nobody learns anything from success. The minute you’ve succeeded at something, you should be trying harder to do the next thing. That’s our organizational viewpoint; you’re either growing or dying, and we want our kids to always be testing those boundaries. We want it to be safe for them to fail because in failure, you’ve got to imagine a different way of succeeding. We know they always have it in them; we want to be pushing them hard, supporting them a ton, and making failure a safe place because that’s where we believe learning and development happen.
We think the best classroom we have is the batting cage or a pitcher’s mound.
Denver: Your fourth core element is that you provide developmental experiences. Give us an example of a few of those?
Richard: We love that we educate kids in lots of formal ways. At root, we actually think, the best type of learning happens when kids are teaching each other, if kids are exploring on their own. Most importantly, where learning relates to the real world, not a textbook or what’s on your whiteboard or smartboard, as the case may be now. First and foremost, we think the best classroom we have is the batting cage or a pitcher’s mound. When it’s not that, the most recent and powerful one for me is that our entire ninth grade of our first high-school class was in Washington, DC two weeks ago for the March for Life. That was midterms week. Did we want to stretch and do that? Not only did we want to stretch and do that, the principal decided, can we get to DC a day early, so they can go visit the Capital and Chuck Schumer can host them, and we can get to the African-American History Museum or maybe get a college visit in?
Because that is real life. That is what this is preparing them for. We’re not preparing them to be in the next classroom. We are preparing them to be leaders and citizens which this country so desperately needs. It is experiences like that which force you to relate your academic learning to real world circumstances and make you an agent, an actor in the world… which we think helps transform how these kids see themselves and what they think they can do in the world.
Denver: Active civics. Get them out of the classroom, and get them out there on the streets.
DREAM Charter School was established in 2008. It was just kindergarten and first grade, initially. Tell us how it’s grown over the past decade?
Richard: Today, DREAM is pre-K through 9. We’ve grown downward and upward. Soon there will be a high school and probably will be another K to 8 coming soon enough. I have to say, it’s probably been the hardest thing we’ve ever done, not just because school is hard but because our idea of school is an extended-day ,extended-year learning model; really believing that 9am to 4pm; or in our case, 8 to 4 simply won’t do it. If you want to hit all those ways of learning and living that we talked about in our theory of change. Integrating what we grew up with as an organization… out of school time and extended-day learning… with a formal school curriculum has been an enormous challenge, but one that’s paying off.
DREAM now outperforms the city, state, and district by substantial margins. But I think what we’re most proud of is alongside of that, DREAM serves an extremely diverse population of students. A higher percentage of Special Ed and English language learners than our district, which has one of the highest populations of Special Ed students in the city. So, this is a place that serves every child and expects excellence from every child.
Denver: Speak a little bit more about that impact, because you really do have some outstanding results, and I want you to share them with our audience. What has been the impact of these programs and the charter school compared to others in the district… and the state and across the country?
Richard: The school itself outperforms district, state, and city by substantial margins on standardized testing, but of course the standardized test is a snapshot of a kid’s life. It’s not where they end up. So, we really focus on high school graduation and now, college graduation as well. Over the last 10 years, close to 99% of the kids who come to our program have graduated high school and gone on to college. And in the last five or six years, we’ve really focused on college success as a metric or a measure, a proxy for how we’re doing with our kids.
When we started looking at high school graduation, less than 25% of our kids were on track to graduate in six years. It’s only 60% nationally across a heterogeneous population. Since that time, we’ve started investing in kids college success with what we call our Legends Program; today, almost 70% of our kids are on track for a five-year graduation. That number is steadily climbing every year. Of course, most importantly, we’ve got 13 of our legends or alums who are college graduates who work for our organization and have earned their job. And when we think about our really virtuous cycle for our young people and our communities, it is those people becoming staff and volunteers and board members and donors, and eventually taking my job, I hope, which makes us a truly sustainable place.
At the end of the day, forget all the metrics. Is DREAM a place you would send your own child? And if the answer to that is “No,” then I think you’ve got to reflect pretty hard on what you’re really up to.
What’s the process for selecting students who will be admitted to the DREAM Charter School?
Richard: Charters are done by lottery with a few preferences. In our case, the first preference of course goes to siblings of students who are in the school. So, families don’t get broken up. The second is, 50% of every new kindergarten or pre-K seat is set aside for students and families who live in public housing in East Harlem. That’s a way of ensuring that we’re always serving the most vulnerable populations.
A recent addition to change in state law which we’re starting to see reflected in our student population is, we have a 10% preference for children of staff. We think it’s a particularly powerful way of retaining teachers who might have a hard time staying in the city because they can’t find a great public school for their kids. And talk about a testimonial to what we’re doing. At the end of the day, forget all the metrics. Is DREAM a place you would send your own child? And if the answer to that is “No,” then I think you’ve got to reflect pretty hard on what you’re really up to.
Denver: The ultimate net promoter question for sure.
Let’s take a step back for a second if we could. There are so many myths and misunderstandings about charter schools. Are they public schools, or are they not? How are they financed? What impact do they have on the public school system in the community? Provide us if you would with a charter school 101.
Richard: I think we call charters a political hot button issue, right? Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated schools… in New York State, privately operated almost exclusively by private nonprofit organizations. Nationally, there are some for-profit operators who for the most part have been less successful at doing this than their nonprofit brethren. New York State has particularly strong charter laws, and politically, Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Cuomo have been particularly strong backers of this movement, which in fact started as a teacher-led and family-led movement to replace failing public schools… with community- and teacher-led schools that were better serving their kids, or at least not the same old model of failure.
In East Harlem and the South Bronx where we work, public schools in those districts have been persistently failing for close to four decades at this point in time. By failing, I mean kids not only can’t pass their standardized tests, but drop out of school at an alarming rate as they become teenagers. One of the transitions that’s happened in the proliferation of charter schools is that politically, they started largely as community-based reform efforts. They’ve now become supported by a much more diverse political spectrum of money and policy backers. At root, the war to open new charters– which are typically non-unionized schools– is between teachers unions and those who would like to see these schools grow.
I think here’s where we come down on it. There are lots of great public schools, and there are lots of great charter schools, and there are lots of versions of both that aren’t necessarily doing all the things that you’d like a school to do. But I think what we can say about traditional public schools… particularly in poor communities… is that there is now a long and clear history of intractable failure in these schools. You can see it in lots of places. I point to facilities as an interesting talisman in this. Almost every public school you see in low income communities is a 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year-old building.
Find me an industry that has not retooled in 50 or 60 years. You can’t find one because they’re all dead. Public education is not dead because our government rightfully continues to support it. But without changing of the model of how we work, and I think most importantly in that model to us is the idea that schools are run around the kid’s needs. I think too often public schools are tailored and organized around the adults’ needs, specifically in the case of public schools around very thick collective bargaining agreements which state how much, what days teachers can teach, and how many hours teachers can teach.
Education is not like that. Education, particularly in low-income communities, is a whatever-it-takes game. I think the vast majority of teachers are incredibly hard-working, talented, committed people. But structurally, if they work in systems which, (a) limit the time, places, and ways they can influence and create change; and (b), very clearly do protect low performers within their midst, you create a system of dysfunction. Charters are intended to disrupt that dysfunction. But to me, it is in fact the public disruption. Nobody complains about the fact that there are nonprofits running after-school programs. Everybody’s okay with public dollars going to that. Why is everybody so up in arms about public dollars going to more formal education? Well, because there’s no after-school workers union. There’s a teachers union. That’s very powerful. It does a lot of good things for teachers, as it should. But I think sometimes it’s in the way of kids getting what they deserve.
Denver: I asked a lot of people on this show what sector is ready for disruption, and education would be the number one answer that I received. Speaking of dollars, what’s your business model for DREAM? And what are your key sources of revenue?
Richard: When we started… and we were just a little league baseball program… there was no institutional money, public or private, to support this. What there were was a lot of wealthy people in New York City who thought baseball was the most important thing in their lives. So we go, and we get a guy to give us a thousand bucks to sponsor a team or whatever it would be. We didn’t know at that time, we were building a fairly robust, individual-giving, fundraising machine, but that’s what we were doing.
Today, we raise about $15 million a year in privately-sourced money of all types–from huge New York City foundations, places like Robin Hood and Tiger and Clark Foundations, from prominent New York City corporations and many many wealthy individuals… and even not so wealthy individuals who really believe in our cause. I think somewhere in the ballpark of 4,000 or 5,000 donors a year contribute to this number. On the other side, we do have a lot of formal public grantmaking. And of course, the charter school funds do kick off a significant amount of funding to allow that school to grow.
Today, of our $30 million budget, it’s actually about half public, half private. Maintaining that balance is really important to us. We think the public dollars do need to be subsidized to do all the things we want to do in extended-day, extended-year contexts. We think the private money also provides lots of fodder for innovation and excellence… and particularly supporting the excellence of our people, who if we don’t retain them and grow them in our organization, we will really have nothing.
No grand plan makes the difference. It is only excellence in the relationships between adults and children, and children and their peers.
Denver: Some of those unrestricted dollars can really allow you to do a lot of other things.
I thought I saw in your strategic plan that you have a vision to become a national organization serving young people across the country. Where do you stand with that?
Richard: We’ve got a toe in the water. I’d say, I think actually the plan says we’ll explore this idea. I think it’s pretty heady stuff. The work that I’ve been talking about is ultimately extremely local and relational. At the end of the day, it is all about your coach and your teacher and your mentor. That is what makes the difference. No grand plan makes the difference. It is only excellence in the relationships between adults and children, and children and their peers. That means what you are building is in fact a culture– a culture of high support, a culture of opportunity, of high expectation and excellence. Those types of cultures are not easily replicated. Not impossible. But not easily replicated, and I do think they are slow to grow.
A first step in this is the summer learning program we’ve started in Newark. We committed to five years of growing in that community, and our first summer last year felt really successful. But it felt like it had to be, just to get to year two. We’ll see. I think philanthropically, we can figure it out. I think there’s a real question about whether excellence is as scalable in other geographies as we want it to be. We struggle every day to make things as excellent as we want in our home communities. But we’ll keep kicking at it. Won’t do it too fast, but of course, we are always looking for leverage and impact and then scale, and then to scale those two things first and foremost.
America is a place of inclusivity and voice and agency of all citizens. If we don’t figure out a way to leverage everything we have, we will end up in a very bad place. And clearly, that is today’s battle.
Denver: You’ve already crossed state lines, so you’re on your way.
Let me close with this Rich. As we were discussing, there’s so much frustration on the part of many Americans that we’re just unable to improve our schools as much as we would like and really as much as we need to, to remain competitive on the world stage. And you’ve been doing this work very successfully for 20-plus years. What lessons, what insights have you absorbed that if applied broadly, would really serve our nation’s schools and our nation’s children well?
Richard: There’s one lesson I’ve learned around the public education and the raising of our kids over the last 20-25 years. Unfortunately, it is this. When there’s ever a choice between institutional power and what kids need in poor communities, institutional power prevails. We have to disrupt that cycle. We have to become committed to our children’s needs above the adults’ needs. That’s hard. It’s not like those things are not interconnected in many ways. But we’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t educate our kids. Not just prepare them to be the next generation of consumers, but the next generation of citizens.
We’re going to end up in a place where people perhaps can’t distinguish between real and fake for instance. That’s scary and dangerous, and I think really sad. But we’ve got to get committed to kids’ needs, and we’ve got to get committed to the idea that only in embracing our diversity and the diversity of opinions and experiences in this country, from women, from men, from people of color, from immigrants; that is what America is. America is a place of inclusivity and voice and agency of all citizens. If we don’t figure out a way to leverage everything we have, we will end up in a very bad place. And clearly, that is today’s battle.
Denver: Richard Berlin, the Executive Director of DREAM, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For those listeners who want to learn more about DREAM and your impact, what’s your website? And what will they find there?
Richard: Our website is: wearedream.org. They will find ways to volunteer, to donate, to learn great things about our work and beautiful pictures of our kids and our team, busy at play and work… most importantly, growing into amazing young adults.
Denver: Great, Rich. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Richard: Thanks, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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