How Clark University works with the city of Worcester to improve the school and its host community
They say if you want to change the world, start in your own backyard. For Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, this truism became the place-based planning strategy that would revitalize its neighborhood and improve its host city.
By working side-by-side with its neighbors, Clark not only enhanced its campus environment, it set a precedent for anchor institutions involved in community development, and gained a reputation as a school that makes a difference.
The story of how Clark helped transform its neighborhood and how that effort, in turn, helped transform Clark, lays the groundwork for its latest campaign: improving the behavioral health of adolescents and young adults, particularly boys and young men, through the Mosakowski Institute.
Once again, it will engage with the community.
Clark’s president, David Angel, hopes the institute will shift the paradigm of practice around young adult mental health, reducing stigma and addressing root issues like trauma and racism. Instead of just identifying problems and examining best practices, Angel says, the Institute will change people’s’ lives.
Such high impact is aspirational even by higher education standards. But Clark’s determination to develop a “new way” in adolescent and young adult behavioral health is rooted in its own history of change-making.
From “Town and Gown” Tensions to Model Partnership
Worcester is what is known in Massachusetts as a “Gateway City”— a traditional manufacturing town where large employers provided an entrée to the middle class for generations of families and new Americans alike.
During the latter part of the 19th century, these cities, like similar urban areas throughout the country, languished from the decline of traditional manufacturing, factories relocating to cheaper labor markets, and families fleeing to the suburbs. The resulting disinvestment, blight, and crime continues to impact the city to this day.
But Worcester is making a comeback, buoyed by the state’s innovation economy that is bringing high-tech manufacturing to the city with follow-on investments in commercial and residential areas. Young people keen on urban life but wanting to avoid Boston’s exorbitant housing prices are moving in. The Boston Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, the Pawtucket Red Sox, is coming to town with plans for an innovative downtown ballpark.
Worcester is also a college town, home to College of the Holy Cross as well as Clark University. While Holy Cross sits atop a hill overlooking the city, Clark is situated on Main Street in the heart of what was once the city’s most impoverished section. A liberal arts research institution of roughly 3,000 students, Clark’s otherwise highly-regarded profile was handicapped by its location. Parents of prospective students worried about safety, and staff were reluctant to live close by.
From the late 1950s to the 1980s, the institution’s relationship with the city was well-understood: Clark students stayed on campus, and the neighborhood was not invited in.
This “moat” approach began to change when Richard Traina became president in 1984 and committed Clark to become a major player in the renovation of Main Street and its surrounding neighborhoods. At the start, the school purchased several properties adjacent to campus, which it renovated for its own use—including the president’s’ house, where all Clark CEOs are now required to reside.
“Dick Traina made a courageous decision that we weren’t just going to stay in Worcester, we were going to link our future very directly to the success of the community in which we were a part,” said David Angel.
But as inclusive as Traina hoped to be, the early days of neighborhood renovation were tough. Skeptical residents had yet to see what was in it for them, evoking what is known as the “town and gown” tension that many colleges experience when they purchase properties surrounding their campuses.
“The neighbors were judging us all the time, so we needed to start small and follow through on our promise to become a real community partner,” said Jack Foley, Clark’s Vice President of Government and Community Relations, who has been the man leading the plan since the 1980s.
Foley said small successes like planting trees, hosting barbecues, and inviting people onto campus helped. But it was the large-scale property renovations, led by neighborhood stakeholders, that brought everyone to the table, and showed the community that Clark was serious about doing things differently.
The school used what Foley calls an “alignment of enlightened self-interest” to engage local stakeholders in the planning process to purchase problem properties for re-use within the community. The vehicle for that approach was the Main South Community Development Corporation, created in part through a grant Clark received from the Ford Foundation for anchor institutions in underserved areas. Community Development Corporations, or CDC’s, are nonprofit, community-based organizations focused on revitalizing the areas in which they are located. The Main South CDC would be the primary planning instrument for the decades-long renovation of the area around Clark known as University Park. Clark took (and continues to take) just one seat on the CDC’s 15-person board.
“Right from the beginning, we said this is a neighborhood-based partnership where there is shared decision-making,” said Foley. “That’s very different from most institutions who engage in this kind of work. Typically, they want to be in control of what’s going to happen in their community. We weren’t going to control anything with one seat. People thought we were crazy.”
Jay Ash agrees that Clark’s approach was unique. Ash, a Clark alumni who recently stepped down as the state’s Secretary of Economic Development and now heads the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, has been involved in the redevelopment of underserved communities his entire career.
“Clark’s community development activities in Main South and beyond have been the source of significant effect and well-deserved admiration,” he said. “Frankly, too many institutions want to put up fences and turn inward, instead of opening up their gates and contributing outward.”
Ash credits his early experiences in Worcester for deeply influencing his role as a public leader.
“The basis of much of my work and evolving theory has been rooted in the very experiences I had as an undergraduate at Clark working in the Main South neighborhood and now for decades watching, and occasionally contributing to, the way the university has interacted with and on behalf of those in need of a champion,” he said.
The most tangible demonstration of Clark’s commitment to community-driven change came in 1995, when it launched the University Park Neighborhood Restoration Partnership, a strategic plan that focused on five areas identified by community members as their greatest concerns. It included the physical rehabilitation of dilapidated properties owned by absentee landlords, as well as education, public safety, economic development, and social and recreational opportunities.
According to the document, the vision for the plan was to “restore University Park to a vibrant community whose residents are committed to the neighborhood, to education, and to the safety of all.” The theory was to build equity in the neighborhood with a base of committed families and individuals willing to stay and rebuild their community.
“Our efforts were successful because it was the opposite of gentrification,” said David Angel. “Instead of pushing low-income immigrant families out of the neighborhood, the reverse happened. A lot of families are moving into the neighborhood because of the housing and educational opportunities.”
Clark received a transformational grant from HUD for $2.5 million to kick-off the effort—one of only five schools across the country to get the funding. The plan provided some immediate benefits like free tuition for neighborhood residents who are admitted to the university; significant incentives for faculty and staff to buy homes in the neighborhood; after-school programs on campus; professional development for teachers in neighborhood schools; and the opening of the University Park Campus School—a 7 through 12 “innovation” high school jointly developed by Clark and Worcester Public Schools.
The plan also called for the acquisition of key properties by the Main South CDC – a forward-thinking investment fueled by a vision and optimism.
A Successful Blend
Casey Starr was a middle schooler in New York City when Clark University issued its strategic plan. Nine years later, she began working at the Main South CDC just after she graduated from Clark, and received a Vista service grant in community development. Today, she is the Director of Community Initiatives and holds a graduate degree from Clark in community planning, which she earned tuition-free, thanks to her work with the CDC.
“CDCs are a place-based thing,” said Starr, who lives in Worcester with her husband and young son. “The idea behind a CDC is to ensure that its residents and community members are identifying the priorities and driving the change in that neighborhood.”
Starr stewards the work begun back in the 90s, when the CDC was aggressively acquiring problem properties and renovating them for family housing. At the time, Clark provided unsecured equity for their projects, since they didn’t have any capital of their own. It would later issue a $1 million line of credit.
The CDC receives federal subsidies and state tax credits to purchase properties, renovate them, and sell or rent at below-market rates to individuals or families at a certain income level. First-time home-owners of multi-family units are encouraged to buy properties, live in one of the units, and rent out the rest to other members of the community with some restrictions. Owners cannot resell their properties at market rates until they have lived in them for 15 years. For CDCs, stability is the end-goal.
The organization has come a long way since its early days. The Main South CDC owns and manages its properties, generating a significant portion of operating costs itself and giving back more then $400,000 a year to the city in real estate taxes. It now has more than 340 new or renovated housing units in the neighborhood, including over 70 first-time home-owned properties.
But to understand the real impact of the Main South CDC—the stuff that makes advocates like Casey Starr excited to go to work every day—you need to walk through the two-mile University Park corridor and see how the “block-by-block” planning strategy is connecting the dots.
In a series of large-track development projects that involved dozens of acres of burned-out buildings and abandoned factories, the CDC built new houses and rehabbed historic Victorians that now line clean, well-lit streets.
Just up the road from Clark, the new state-of-the-art Boys and Girls Club building sits adjacent to a new professional-grade athletic field, owned by Clark and used by the Club.
As Starr will tell you, community development work is a lot more than fixing up properties.
“More and more, we have been focused on broad community programming, including public spaces, engaging families, and working to address safety concerns,” she said.
One of her proudest achievements is the “programs in the park” initiative, where a once-feared and neglected space is now home to farmers’ markets, free concerts, and soccer games for kids.
“What makes people feel safe is other people,” said Starr.
Clark students are also using the park.
“It is amazing to me to see Clark students playing basketball or joining in with the grandmothers for Zumba class. That would never have happened when I was an undergraduate,” she said.
In many ways, the rolling green of University Park represents the bridge between the school and community, a relationship that has evolved dramatically over the years. Starr says that when residents have conversations about the best things in their neighborhood, Clark is always on the list.
“Clark is probably the most powerful institution in our community, but to the residents, it’s just another part of the community,” she said.
Just beyond the park is the University Park Campus School (UPCS). Created through Clark’s strategic plan, UPCS started as a seventh grade in 1997, and now enrolls 250 students in grades 7 through 12. The award-winning public school is staffed almost exclusively by Clark graduates and is open, by lottery, to anyone who lives in the district. Its students are predominantly of color; 54 percent are Latino, 68 percent speak English as a second language, and 82 percent meet federal poverty guidelines. It is known as “The School with a Promise.”
Dan St. Louis is the school’s principal. With education degrees from Clark, St. Louis has been involved with UPCS since he was first drawn to its unconventional style while student-teaching there as an undergraduate.
“I saw this place where the kids and the teacher were on the floor, reading together and telling stories and laughing together, and I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s not how I remember high school,’” he said.
St. Louis says the informal, engaging relationship UPCS teachers have with their students sets them apart from more traditional high schools and motivates the students to come to school every day.
It is a key part of a student-centered, active learning environment where heterogeneous classes with no tracked curricula help kids from poor backgrounds beat the odds year after year.
“For us, the heterogeneity is absolutely huge,” said St. Louis.
“We provide truly differentiated instruction that allows multiple types of learners to achieve along many entry points. We don’t have a lower class for kids to get bumped down to. Everyone deserves everything we are here to offer them.”
Aiming high is the school’s mantra. And college preparation is its primary focus. For the teachers, this means going above and beyond for kids with significant disadvantages.
Students entering UPCS are typically two to four years behind the state average in reading and math. By using small steps called “scaffolding,” University Park students are well caught up by tenth grade, with St. Louis reporting that none have ever failed that grade’s high-stakes English exam.
Overall, the school’s results are remarkable. The percentages of University Park students passing the Advanced Placement exam is on par with the state’s average. It has a 100 percent graduation rate and a 97 percent college acceptance rate.
“We started out hoping to establish one of the best public high schools in the state, and we now have one of the best schools in the country,” said Jack Foley.
The UPCS connection to Clark is no small factor in its success. Clark offers free college courses for the high school’s sophomores, juniors, and seniors, free tuition for accepted graduates, and professional development support for staff. The students spend much of their time on Clark’s campus, using the gym, library, and other facilities as part of the college-going culture.
But Clark’s most powerful influence on the school may be in the way its teachers teach. As Dan St. Louis says, “I was trained at Clark to take the kids that are here in our neighborhood and prepare them for college, whatever it takes. This is what we’re all about.”
Part of the DNA
Clark’s President David Angel is unapologetic that Clark’s 30-year journey to improve its section of Worcester began with self-interest. The transformation this effort has created within the institution was far less deliberate, but also of value, particularly to its brand.
“What has happened is the notion of taking on really difficult problems in your own community, and the experience of actually moving the needle on that has become part of Clark’s DNA. It has actually come to define the mission of the university in a way that I think none of us anticipated.”
For Jack Foley—who has, more than any individual, built Clark’s credibility with Worcester over the years—this means a commitment from trustees that every president from Dick Traina to David Angel to Angel’s successor will embrace the school’s ongoing work with the city.
“It is now part of the job description,” he said, noting that these kinds of campus/community partnerships often end when the president who started them leaves the post.
The institution’s experience taking on real-world challenges motivated Angel to remake the foundation of Clark’s educational program. Its current framework, Liberal Education and Effective Practice, known as LEEP, seeks to graduate students that have highly-attuned skills in solving real-world problems.
“So we’re not just developing liberal arts graduates in the classic sense, with great critical thinking and communication skills,” he said. “We’re putting knowledge into work in the world.”
Part of that effort involved rethinking Clark’s scholarship and research work, which led to the new vision for the Mosakowski Institute. Established in 2009 through a $10 million endowment gift from Clark alumni William and Jane Mosakowski, the Institute supports research on major issues of social concern.
After examining areas for which it could make a significant difference, Angel said they arrived at behavioral health of adolescents and young adults, particularly boys and young men.
“In many ways, we’re interested in the hardest problems,” said Angel. “There is a large group of young adults who never make it to college, who never complete high school, who end up in the criminal justice system or homeless, based, in large part, on their behavioral health. If we can figure out a way, a new paradigm, that addresses this issue, we will be making a major contribution.”
Angel does not want the Institute to be thought of as a “think tank” where problems are addressed through examination or legislation. He envisions implementational work in one form or another where the measure of success will be changing young lives. A natural starting off point will be working within the neighborhood schools where the college already has a presence.
“What we hope is that 10 years from now, behavioral health is thought of differently in our society, and its intersection with other challenges in society will be more broadly recognized,” he said.
Angel has announced he will leave Clark in the spring of 2020 and says the Institute’s focus on behavioral health will be well underway by then. He is passionate about this initiative, but he is not worried that his departure will impact its success. In fact, he’s betting that the experiences Clark has had in changing its own backyard will be the foundation for bigger things to come.