A Boston non-profit is paying gang members in the city’s poorest, most dangerous neighbourhoods to earn their high school equivalency and go to college. In the three-year pilot, College Bound Dorchester plans to keep gang members and ex-offenders on the straight and narrow by offering them a $400 weekly incentive. For comparison, having someone in prison costs the state just over $1,000 a week.

Results & Impact

College Bound Dorchester began working with the pilot participants six months before its official start in May 2017. Thus far, 85% of participants have not reoffended and 21 have already achieved their high school equivalency and enrolled in community college. While there are currently 40 participants in the pilot, the non-profit plans to expand the program to 600 gang members as it receives more funding.

Key Parties

College Bound Dorchester, Boston City Council, Boston Police Department, Public Health Commission, district courts, probation officers and the Department of Youth Services, private donors.

How

Gang members in the Boston Uncornered pilot earn their high school equivalency, enrol in community college and graduate with a two-year associate’s degree. College Readiness Advisors – former gang members hired by College Bound Dorchester – keep the students on track with one-on-one mentoring, goal setting and emotional support. The non-profit works directly with Boston City Hall, Boston Police Department, the Public Health Commission, district courts, probation officers and the Department of Youth Services to identify program participants. The non-profit aims to attract “core influencers” – natural-born leaders with charisma – to the program in the hopes that they will work with College Bound Dorchester to bring their peers into the fold. Students enrolled in the pilot earn their stipend by attending 33 to 35 hours of weekly schooling, tutoring and work-based learning. College Bound Dorchester signed MOUs with three local community colleges, and maintains a presence on each of their campuses. The non-profit also works with MIT and Northeastern universities to evaluate the impact of the program.

 

Where
Boston, Massachusetts
Beneficiaries
Low-income people, general public
Cost & Value
College Bound Dorchester has raised $4.8 million for the pilot thus far. The non-profit hopes to raise $18 million in total to expand the program to 600 students.
Stage
Running since May 2017
Hurdles:

After a pilot participant was shot and killed, College Bound Dorchester was concerned about the safety of the students. But thus far, gang retaliation hasn’t proved to be a problem, and the non-profit now finds most of its students through referrals.

Replication:

A similar program in Chicago, Cure Violence, pays ex-felons to mediate between drug dealers and gang members on the streets.

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The Story

Boston is paying gang members $400 a week to get their high school equivalency and go to college.

In a three-year pilot, Boston non-profit College Bound Dorchester (CBD) plans to keep gang members and ex-offenders on the straight and narrow by offering them a financial incentive to stay in school. Through the intervention – called Boston Uncornered – gang-involved and formerly incarcerated students will earn a HiSET (high school equivalency), enrol in community college and graduate with a two-year associate’s degree. Thus far, there are 40 students enrolled in the pilot, which officially began in May 2017.

“The program could easily be scaled, if you have a deep understanding of local communities. The actual model isn’t that complicated: you have to know the target population, names, where they live, why certain conflicts have arisen – but the program is straightforward,” said Mark Culliton, the CEO of CBD and an educator with 20 years of experience. “It’s one of the most scalable, powerful interventions I’ve seen for community change.”

“What we’ve found is it’s really important to be there at a particular infection point: when somebody has just gotten out of jail for the umpteenth time, had a child or saw a close friend shot and killed. At these moments, people think harder about the choices they’re making, and the different paths they could take. More often than not, they just need the support and access to make a positive choice,” said Culliton.

CBD has close ties with Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, and the Boston Police Department, particularly its Gang Unit. “The city has been a great partner throughout the course of building toward the Boston Uncornered pilot. The mayor and police commissioner were both kids who needed help themselves, needed second chances – so they’ve been hugely supportive,” said Culliton.

The Gang Unit, Public Health Commission, district courts, probation officers and the Department of Youth Services pass on names to CBD and help it to identify “core influencers.” By isolating influencers, CBD hopes to harness gang leaders’ natural charisma to encourage others to join the pilot.

According to the non-profit, Boston is home to 2,600 gang members, who are altogether responsible for half the city’s homicides and close to three quarters of all shootings. People from Dorchester, where the non-profit is based, are jailed at twice the rate of residents from the rest of the city. The neighbourhood is home to a quarter of all Boston’s low-income residents. Meanwhile, in the US, people with an associate’s degree earn 40% more than high school dropouts.

Culliton is currently consulting with City Hall and the mayor’s office to see where the intervention could be further implemented in Boston. The organisation received a small grant from the city, although the majority of funding – CBD has raised $4.8 million thus far – comes from private donors. The mayor and commissioner help CBD engage private resources to support the project.

Culliton plans to expand the program to 600 gang members, felons and high school dropouts from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods, which would cost $18 million over three years. About $5 million would fund the $400 weekly stipend. For comparison, having someone in prison costs the state $53,000 annually – just over $1,000 a week – which does not take into account other related state expenses, like rehabilitation and public financial assistance.

CBD’s strategy is to use former gang members to recruit new ones. The non-profit employs ex-offenders as College Readiness Advisors (CRAs), who work one-on-one with students to help them pass the HiSETs and set goals for college. CRAs provide emotional and educational support throughout the program, and regularly check in to keep students on track. CBD has thus far hired 45 CRAs to work with the students.

“The CRAs know these neighbourhoods, know these crews – they were often involved in the gangs, and are these kids’ uncles, dads, older brothers,” said Culliton. “There are thousands of potential CRAs across the country, looking for ways to return to their community.”

Students enrolled in the program earn their stipend by attending 33 to 35 hours of weekly schooling, tutoring and work-based learning. CBD decided on the $400 figure after surveying current and former gang members the non-profit has worked with, as well as inmates from the South Bay House of Correction, a local prison. CBD wanted to provide the students with enough of a stipend to sustain themselves without having to work during the program – but not so much that they would lose out on other benefits related to childcare, housing and food assistance. The idea is that by making it feel like a job – and giving them something to lose – the students will stay motivated. Moreover, the non-profit’s financial investments in students’ ability boosts their confidence, said Culliton.

While the pilot officially began in May, the 40 participating students had been working with CBD for six months prior. Thus far, 85% of participants have not reoffended and 21 have already achieved their HiSET and enrolled in college. The participants range in age from 18 to 31, and nearly 100% had been to prison before enrolling in the program. About 10% are women.

The non-profit has signed MOUs with three local community colleges: Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College. None of the colleges ask applicants whether they have a criminal record. CBD is embedded in offices on each of the campuses, to provide students with immediate support if needed.

To achieve its goal of creating a replicable national model, CBD is also working with local universities to measure impact. MIT’s Adbul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice are evaluating the three-year pilot.

In January 2016, CBD carried out a trial run of the Boston Uncornered pilot with seven gang members, all of whom already either had a high school diploma or GED (another high school equivalency). While six of the students are still studying, one scammed CBD, taking the money while he was still in a gang. The man later died due to his gang involvement. As a result, interference from gangs was a major source concern for Culliton and his colleagues – but it hasn’t proved to be a problem, and the non-profit now finds most of its students through referrals.

“If we were given additional funding, we could scale immediately. Our goal is to scale throughout the city, and really have Boston be a shining example of making real progress against gang violence in this country.” said Culliton.

(Picture credit: Romana Vysatova Photography)