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The Trinity Reporter Spring 2003
In it for the long haul

With the help of major funders, Trinity reaches out to its neighbors

by Jim H. Smith


Last summer, a group of Trinity and Hartford community leaders traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to discuss with Kellogg Foundation officials options for extending the five-year grant through which Trinity has been reinventing its relationship with the city since 1998. Reviewing the remarkable range of successes Trinity has achieved with the funding, Kellogg asked the delegation to generate a proposal for a transitional “bridge grant” which, it is hoped, will set the stage for additional Trinity funding.

“What we mean to do with additional Kellogg funding is continue initiatives that have proven worthwhile since Trinity received the initial grant and also figure out how to most effectively institutionalize those things so their perpetuation will not be dependent on external funds,” says Trinity president Richard Hersh. “This project has had a very successful beginning, but it will take time to deeply root the programs and initiatives that have emerged from the Kellogg grant.”

In late May, immediately after graduation, the entire faculty of the College will go on a three-day retreat to continue a dialogue begun last year about the future of curriculum and pedagogy. The issues being discussed are directly related to how further Kellogg funding will be invested.

It’s a timely meeting. If the proposal, submitted last fall, meets with Kellogg approval, the bridge phase will start this summer, says Professor James Trostle, associate professor of anthropology and director of urban initiatives, who was intimately involved in crafting the bridge grant. Evaluation and consolidation, Trostle says, are key objectives of the bridge. To understand what Trinity hopes to accomplish, it is useful to reflect on what the College has accomplished with Kellogg funding to date.

Can an elite liberal arts college fundamentally recast its approach to liberal education?

Trinity has always been a part of Hartford. But the College’s relationship with its home city has sometimes been ambivalent. And during the closing decades of the century, as the Frog Hollow neighborhood immediately surrounding the College fell into decline, the relationship with Hartford became increasingly distant.

Leaders of the College realized it was time to step up to the plate. Trinity could ill afford to ignore the urban squalor around it. Research showed that many prospective students were turned off by what they and their parents perceived to be a dangerous neighborhood, where gang warfare over drug “turf” resulted in many deaths in the early 1990s.

The question, though, was what Trinity should do. Should the College merely try to “fix” Frog Hollow, a task so monumental it was probably beyond the College’s means and complicated by so many issues that it was almost certain to fail? Or should it seek to embrace the community as a valuable educational resource and play a leadership role in helping the community rebuild itself?

  Classes at Hartford's Jubilee House use computers provided by Trinity as part of a community outreach program. Also shown: A Trinity dance class works with students at nearby Parkville Community School.

A visionary solution

The solution, announced early in 1996, was visionary beyond most people’s wildest dreams. In partnership with a group of businesses and community organizations called the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (SINA), the College would pursue comprehensive community revitalization of the 15-block surrounding area. It would invest in the community, but it would also strive to empower the community to reclaim itself.

The centerpiece of that initiative was the Learning Corridor, a 16-acre complex of schools adjacent to Trinity’s campus. No other public school campus in the nation combines the Learning Corridor’s mix of educational institutions (a Montessori Magnet School, a Magnet Middle School, and two Greater Hartford academies that teach mathematics, science, and art) and support programs for youths, including a Boys & Girls Club, the Aetna Center for Families, and the Connecticut Valley Girl Scout Council.

While the Learning Corridor was being developed, the College simultaneously launched a strategic planning initiative aimed at maintaining the vigor and responsiveness of Trinity’s liberal arts education in a rapidly evolving world. The ambitious plan called for integrating urban experience, increased globalization, collaborative learning, and the extensive use of information technology. The result, if it worked, would be a broad slate of activities simultaneously enriching the surrounding community and Trinity’s educational vision.

Whether it would work was the question that then-president Evan Dobelle posed in 1998 when Trinity received the Kellogg funding. “Can an elite liberal arts college fundamentally recast its approach to liberal education? Can (Trinity) simultaneously help the neighborhood, of which it has long been a part, transform itself? And can it carry out these tasks not as two separate and distinct projects but as one integrated, essentially seamless process?”

Lesson one: The importance of evaluation

Five years later, the answer to the rhetorical questions Dobelle posed would seem to be a qualified “yes.” Not only has the Learning Corridor been completed, but it has also become a source of pride for the neighborhood and for the city. Additionally, Trinity has spearheaded a remarkable array of programs to serve and interact with the community.

How effectively those programs have met the community’s needs, however, is not entirely clear. “We’ve learned some important lessons while producing these programs,” says Trostle. “The first is about the value of ongoing evaluation and assessment.”

Evaluation has not only been an ongoing process for Trinity, but is also a matter of paramount interest to Kellogg. The foundation made it clear, from the outset, that it wanted the College to regularly monitor progress. Trinity’s innovative approach to evaluation, which includes understanding community perceptions, has produced strategies that Kellogg may seek to replicate elsewhere.

At Trinity, it has produced a veritable mountain of data. One of the key objectives of the bridge grant will be sorting through that information and getting clarity about what it reveals. But, says Trostle, that is only one of the values of research. “Evaluation has also allowed us to bring groups of stakeholders together, identify objectives, and determine how we have or haven’t been making progress.” In doing that, the College has built stronger and more enduring bridges to the community.

But evaluation has not been easy. “It was difficult on many levels,” says Kent Smith, Trinity’s director of institutional research and planning. “The College-community connections related to the project reached well beyond the scope of funding, so the evaluation had to enlist the cooperation and assistance of organizations, both on and off campus, that were not receiving any funding as part of the project. Our challenge was to gain access and engender respect and cooperation. Evaluation also had to reach beyond the traditional, formal evaluation used for smaller and more focused projects.”

And then there were communications challenges within the community that required creative solutions. Daniel Sibirsky, who served as Kellogg evaluation coordinator under Smith for two years, cites a good example of this process.

The College’s Trinfo.Café, just off campus, is a facility designed to provide access to computer technology, including classes, for people living in the area. After the Café had been open for a few months, “We needed a snapshot of what changes were occurring in the neighborhood,” says Sibirsky.

So, in the summer of 2000, Trinity conducted a survey, using a door-to-door approach, similar to a census. Local residents were hired and trained as interviewers. To maximize the chances of obtaining data, they visited every housing unit in the area, up to four times. When they found people at home, they interviewed the one who’d celebrated his or her birthday most recently, thus ensuring age diversity.

“When residents didn’t know about the Trinfo.Café and our other programs, the interviewers gave them information and discussed it with them,” says Sibirsky. “The process by which we evaluated community awareness of and use of the Café turned out to be as important as what we learned.”

Why? It revealed significant communications barriers, such as language and illiteracy, that could not be bridged easily. In an impoverished community, many of whose members are essentially ambivalent about a college they perceive as an exclusive enclave, it is not enough merely to provide tools and services like the Trinfo.Café. Standard approaches to public relations may not work.

“The research showed there is significant poverty in the neighborhood still,” says Sibirsky. “The majority of residents had limited knowledge of our programs. Hiring residents, training them, and sending them door-to-door humanized the programs and the College.”

As an immediate result of the interviews, Trinfo.Café reported an increase in walk-in business. And the Aetna Center for Families, an educational and family resource for neighborhood residents supported by a $1-million grant from the Aetna Foundation, also experienced a spike in inquiries about high school equivalency programs that it offers. Equally important, Trinity learned the importance of one-to-one communications in Frog Hollow. Today, that approach has been institutionalized. “Street captains,” local residents who serve as communications liaisons in the neighborhood, have been identified for every block in the neighborhood. They regularly convey information from Trinity and gather information about community reactions.

Lesson two: Community is a complex word

This system goes directly to the heart of the other major lesson Trostle says Trinity has learned from the Kellogg project. “The word ‘community’ is much more complex than we might have imagined,” he says. “If there’s one thing we now understand, it’s that there’s not just one community surrounding the College. And there’s not just one Trinity trying to change the community. This discovery has compelled us to take a hard look at how the College transforms itself in the process of trying to transform neighborhoods and communities.

“There are no easy answers. Through the Kellogg grant we’ve invested, for instance, in both physical facilities for the community and in computers and connections. But it’s not enough to simply provide these things. The challenge is helping people in the community know how to use them. What do people in the community want to use computers for? And what do they need to know to achieve those goals?

“Similarly,” he adds, “we’re working toward institutionalizing the College’s sustained ability to create curricula, administrative structures, and programs where Trinity students inevitably end up being involved in some capacity with the city. We’re not there yet, but we’ve made progress. It’s one of the long-term goals of additional funding.”

In the meantime, the demand for ongoing evaluation, says John Langeland, Trinity’s director of information technology, has “compelled the institution to rethink how we use information, how it is taught, and, thus, how it is gathered. From an information technology standpoint, we’re now being called upon to formally track things that were never tracked in the past. Not long ago, we couldn’t tell if community learning was part of a class. Now all of the classes are monitored carefully and we are constantly engaged in trying to build systems that better support our goals.”

The most profound change that has happened at Trinity as a consequence of the Kellogg funding, says Langeland, is that “the institution has discovered that the neighborhood is a truly valuable resource. More and more, faculty members and administrators have discovered that we strengthen the neighborhood and learning opportunities for our own students when we interact.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jackie Mandyck, director of community and institutional relations. “The Kellogg grant has helped us develop multiple access points to the community,” she says. “As a result, the College no longer views the community as a liability. An institution such as ours needs to step up and say, ‘This is our home. This is where we reside. We care about our community and its health. We’re going to do things academically and institutionally to help the community. We’re in this for the long haul.’”

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