Enduring Legacies of University-Community Engagement: The Office of Child Development Celebrates 30 Years
The Origin and Foundation
Beginning in 1983, Mark S. Strauss, from the Department of Psychology, and Carl N. Johnson, from the Program of Child Development and Child Care in the School of Social Work, observed that many of their faculty colleagues had interests in children, youth, and families, they were scattered across the university landscape, and they often worked in isolation from both their academic colleagues and professionals in the community. Strauss and Johnson reasoned that collaboration across disciplinary barriers might enrich University projects with complementary perspectives and skills, and academic information might be put to better use for the welfare of children and families if projects were conducted collaboratively with community professionals.
So Strauss and Johnson organized an interdisciplinary group of faculty to create a unit that would facilitate interdisciplinary education and research, promote mutually beneficial partnerships between faculty and community professionals, and disseminate information to service professionals, policymakers, and the general public. The new Office was to be an all-university support unit—it would create, facilitate, and serve collaborative projects that eventually would be owned and operated by the participants. It would not operate the projects it spawned.
In 1986, Strauss and Johnson got the University to contribute the salary for a director, and The Howard Heinz Endowment and the Buhl Foundation provided initial operating funds. Robert B. McCall was hired to be the Office’s Director, and he hired Christina J. Groark to be the Office’s Human Services Coordinator and eventually Co-Director. These two provided experience in scholarship, public communications, human services, and policy—a combination that would provide the foundation for 30 years of University-community projects.
The Early Years
Much of the first two years were devoted to meetings with people from the University, policymakers, and funders to explore potential services and collaborations and create a climate in which interdisciplinary collaborations could germinate. Soon Dr. Strauss succeeded in obtaining a federal grant for an interdisciplinary training program in child abuse and neglect, and later an Interdisciplinary Child Welfare Training Grant was obtained. The Office also helped United Mental Health get a grant in 1987, the first of many significant grants it would help other agencies obtain.
During the next four years, OCD would develop the first major projects in interdisciplinary research, needs assessments, indicators, university-community networking, service demonstrations, program evaluation, and policy studies—domains that would endure as project foci for 30 years.
Legacy 1. The Study of Children’s Lives. For example, OCD brought together Jay Belsky from Penn State and Susan Campbell, Celia Brownell, and Jeff Cohen from Pitt’s Department of Psychology to create one of nine national sites of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Children’s Lives. This study of a generation of children continues to operate, and it contributed substantially to the nation’s movement toward quality early care and education. It was the prototypical example of how the Office was to operate; namely, to facilitate a collaboration and step aside once it was funded to organize the next partnership.
Legacy 2. Indicators of well-being. This model process, however, was not often duplicated. Instead, OCD began to conduct projects on its own and with community colleagues. In 1990, the Office published Overcoming the Odds, which documented the risk of child and family problems in various Allegheny County neighborhoods. The report, which was widely used to target resources, led to the Office’s State of the Child series, which function was later replaced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s series which continues annually. Thus, the Office was an early leader in publishing indicators of child and family health and welfare.
Legacy 3. Special Reports. The Office also wrote its first background paper, Preventing School Failure, for United Way. Dozens of Special Reports and Briefing Papers on issues related to children and families would follow that summarized research for faculty, community service professionals, and local, state, and national policy makers.
Major Service Demonstration Projects
Legacy 4. The Alliance for Infants. When the Allegheny County MH/MR/D&A decided to organize the county’s outreach, screening, and referral effort for families with children with disabilities to conform to new federal mandates, it needed someone to hold in balance the medical professionals from five area hospitals and the early intervention specialists and social workers who would follow-up with participating families. The Office stepped in, wrote the grant application and then operated the Alliance for Infants, the nation’s first organized community outreach to at-risk children. After several years, The Alliance became an independent organization that still exists.
Legacy 5. Family Foundations/Early Head Start. The Office worked with Community Human Services and Laurie Mulvey to conceptualize and fund a local site of the federal, multi-sited Comprehensive Child Development Program. The local project, called Family Foundations, still functions but now as one of the original federal Early Head Start demonstration and evaluation projects.
Although the original intent of the Office was not to operate programs, the partners of the Alliance and Family Foundations insisted that the Office manage the projects, reasoning that if collaborative projects needed an independent convener, they needed an independent manager when there was money and administrative decisions to make. This operational change led to the substantial expansion of the Office.
Legacy 6. Healthy Start. In 1991, President Bush initiated the Healthy Start Program to reduce infant mortality. Co-Director Groark was asked to help organize and write the grant application. The planning grant was funded, the Office managed the planning and implementation phase, and the plan was then approved without alteration with an initial grant of $30 million. The project continues to operate.
Strategic Planning and Policy Studies
The Office then began to conduct more strategic planning activities and policy studies. For example, it was awarded one of the five national sites of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Starting Points initiative to improve the outcomes of young children in situations of government transitions.
In the late 1990’s, the Office was instrumental in putting together faculty from Penn State and Temple Universities into the Universities Children’s Policy Consortium (UCPC), which was devoted to improving policies for children and families. In 2001, Governor Schweiker created the Governor’s Task Force on Early Care and Education, and the UCPC provided the Task Force with basic information on the availability and nature of training early care and education staff and professionals in the state’s colleges and universities, the needs of parents in Pennsylvania, and the quality of early care in Pennsylvania. The Task Force Report became the blueprint for early care and education policy in the state.
Legacy 7. Family Support Policy Board/Partnerships for Family Support. The Office worked with communities to establish family support centers, and ultimately a network of centers was created that provides professional development for staff and continual quality improvement strategies for the centers. These activities are staffed by Partnerships for Family Support, which is managed by the Office. The oversight board, the Allegheny Family Support Policy Board, a collaboration of 25-30 parents, stakeholders and family support center representatives, has achieved national recognition and been awarded grants to demonstrate innovative community efforts.
Model Interventions and Evaluation Projects
The Heinz Endowments and the R. K. Mellon Foundation among others began Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Initiative to bring to scale quality early care and education for low-resource families, and they asked the University, which asked the Office, to create and operate an Early Childhood Initiative Demonstration Model Early Care and Education Program for low-resource children in two Pittsburgh communities. Ultimately, these centers demonstrated what it would take to provide high-quality care to low-resource children and that it could be accomplished, and simultaneously these centers achieved the highest environmental quality ratings in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Legacy 8. Keystone Stars Technical Assistance. The Office became the Keystone STARS Technical Assistance Center for the south-west region of Pennsylvania to help early care and education centers and family-based providers improve their quality, a function the Office still performs.
Legacy 9. Strengthen Early Learning Supports. This project was aimed at helping more low-income children with and without special needs to have access to better quality early care and education and be better prepared for school through improved parenting and better literacy skills. Transition activities in some targeted schools and some coaching programs for early care and education providers have been sustained.
Legacy 10. Early Childhood Partnerships. In 2011, the Early Childhood Partnerships (ECP), formerly housed in Pediatrics, joined the Office and brought complementary projects and skills, especially in providing technical assistance to teachers, broad experience in evaluating early care and education programming in the region, and a specialization in young children with disabilities. ECP is dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable children and families especially those at developmental risk and with disabilities (birth to 8 years) and to enhancing the practices of the professionals who support them. Core programs include HealthyCHILD, HeathyInfants, COMET (Center on Mentoring for Effective Teaching) and SPECS (Scaling Progress in Early Childhood Settings) applied research.
Legacy 11. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants. These projects highlighted the need for mental health consultation in early care and education facilities that led to the creation of the statewide Early Childhood Mental Health (ECMH)project. The Office continues to provide support to early care and education centers having children with behavioral challenges.
Legacy 12. Pathways to School Success (“Ready Freddy”). A major limitation
on children’s educational success is the fact that many young children from low-
resource environments do not enroll or start school on time and often do not attend regularly. So the Office created Pathways to School Success, which prepares parents, children, and teachers for the transition of young children to and through kindergarten, a program that has been implemented in Pittsburgh and numerous locations across the country.
Legacy 13. The Office’s Program Evaluation Unit. The Office obtained two grants from the federal Department of Education to create a program evaluation unit that would conduct process and outcome evaluations of primarily community created and operated service programs. Among its more prominent projects were a statewide evaluation of post-traumatic stress disorder services and a Juvenile Justice Quality Improvement program. More recently it has conducted the evaluation of a large teenage sexual activity and pregnancy prevention intervention conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. Its interdisciplinary program evaluation function soon became one of the largest of its kind in a USA University, and one of the few devoted almost exclusively to evaluating community-created and operated services. Over the years, the unit has collaborated with dozens of community agencies to evaluate their projects; most recently the Office is working with the State and Allegheny County Human Services to evaluate the SAMHSA funded LAUNCH project.
Legacy 14. International Orphanage Intervention and Evaluation. In the 1990’s, the International Assistance Group, an agency that specializes in placing Russian children for adoption in the Pittsburgh region, asked the Office to go to Russia to assess emerging services for families and how to improve the quality of orphanages in the post-Yeltsin era.
In 2000-2005 a model intervention in a St. Petersburg (Russian Federation) institution for children birth to 4-years of age was implemented collaboratively with Russian colleagues and funded principally by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The restructured orphanage produced substantial improvements in the children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development relative to children in unimproved orphanages. In 2007-2012 the Office also followed the parents and children who lived in these and other orphanages who transitioned to families in the USA and St. Petersburg. As a consequence of this work, the Office was asked to assess institutions and evaluate interventions created and implemented by other groups in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and China. Indeed, the Office is now among the most experienced organizations in the world at evaluating institutions for infants and toddlers and interventions designed to improve their quality of life.
Legacy 15. Positive Racial Identity. Most recently, the Office collaborated with the School of Education to conduct a needs assessment of practices and materials available to parents and early childhood educators to promote positive racial identity in young African American children. The project determined that the need was great, and efforts are continuing to develop and implement strategies to address this need.
The Office has become probably the largest, most comprehensive, and most applied university-based unit devoted to forging collaborations among faculty, community professionals, and policy makers to create, fund, implement, and manage innovative projects that attempt to directly contribute to the health, education, and welfare of children, youth, and families in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the nation, and beyond.
It started with essentially three people and a budget of $150,000 per year and ultimately grew to employ a staff of 50-60, mentor 10-15 students per year, and operate with an annual budget of $6-8 million of which 90+% is external grant funding. Further, this operating budget does not include millions of dollars the Office has brought to the community and helped other agencies to obtain. As an investment, the Office has consistently leveraged every dollar invested in it to raise approximately $20 of specific project funding.
More importantly, The Office itself represents a highly successful example of a university-community engagement unit that originated before such a theme became popular in some universities across the country. Its program successes are best represented by the 15 enduring legacies outlined above—projects and services that the Office created, initially funded, implemented, and/or managed that have become independent agencies or continue to be operated by the Office.
But the Office’s most crucial contribution has been to improve the well-being of countless children and families. Some have been supported with respect and dignity so they achieve life success, many children have been given better quality early care and education, some children at risk of disability have been placed on a path toward success and accomplishment, and many services and policies have been given research-based information that has improved their quality and made them more successful in helping untold numbers of children and families. These are the enduring legacies of university-community engagement in general and the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development in particular.