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The Kids Count Survey: Saving the Future

The first part of this submission focused on useful lessons from the past. What did the story of the Youth Multi-Service Center tell us about where to go in the future? About converting the findings of Kids Count into the kind of action that turns around the dire numbers in this year's report? The focus of these recommendations is solely on youth-related issues. They do not address the equally critical concerns related to younger children. (See "Latest Data on V.I. Children Brings More Bad News.")
In the hierarchy of challenges facing the Virgin Islands, this one is right up there, but it gets pushed out by immediate events and crises, and also by the fact that adolescents are the least-popular age group in society. That being said, here is an approach to transforming the Virgin Islands into a model for giving young people the opportunities, tools and protections that they will need to succeed in life.
A targeted focus and a services strategy: Within a context of the overall needs of youngsters in the Virgin Islands, those related to youth should fill three niches. First, engaging and meeting the needs of what are referred to in the Kids Count survey as "detached" youth. Second, the needs of in-school young people when school is not in session (out-of-school time). And third, the pressing needs of young people who have been incarcerated or are "aging out" of foster care. The strategy for these groups should be comprehensive — that is, a full range of educational, vocational, health/behavioral health, cultural and recreational services. These services should be integrated and holistic, focusing on the overall needs of the young person, rather than his or her "problem." There is no magic in any these approaches. They have all been used elsewhere. We know they will work.
Think big: There is no small-scale response to these problems that will succeed and produce visible community impacts. The logic is to think in terms of five centers: two on St. Thomas, two on St. Croix and one on St. John. The cost to successfully operate these centers would likely be in the range of $15- 20 million per year. No one knows what the costs of youth violence, idleness and stunted opportunity are, but they certainly far exceed this number. In Milwaukee, the local newspaper last year did an analysis of the costs of shootings in which the victim did not die. They were stunned by the results and the magnitude of previously unidentified costs — human and dollar costs — that continue on, year after year. Whatever the investment in these services, if they are delivered at a high level of quality, it will be a huge bargain in the long run.
A secure funding stream: Financing an undertaking of this scale in the Virgin Islands is extremely difficult under the best of circumstances. To achieve sustainable success that can be measured in hopeful young lives and community well-being will require approaches that can be identified through a simple process of elimination. In the end, the only source for sustained support at this level for youth services is government. Local foundations cannot provide this level of support over a prolonged period of time, and mainland foundations have always struggled in figuring out what to do with the Virgin Islands. Many, but not all, of these services will be reimbursable at some level. The ideal solution will be designated funds — for example, a small increase in a tax, directed specifically toward these services.
Political insulation: A non-profit organization should be established to run these centers and deliver the services. The composition of the governing board will be critical. This was a flaw in the initial phase of the St. Thomas-St. John Muliti-Service Center. This board should not include public officials, but should consist of prominent business and civic leaders who are willing to make a commitment and to raise money. Along with deep-seated poverty, there is a lot wealth in the Virgin Islands. Some of it should be tapped for this noble cause. There must also be insulation to protect the centers from becoming jobs programs for connected people.
Be realistic: This is an ambitious undertaking. To succeed, it will have to acknowledge and then defeat three V.I. norms. The first of these is grandiosity, the tendency to exaggerate what is possible and then criticize anyone who disagrees. The second is pessimism, the direct outcome of grandiosity, the belief that in the end everything will fail. And, finally, there is a need to think in terms of the whole community and not just some small slice or group that stands to benefit from jobs or "funding." It won't be easy, but the starting point is to acknowledge these barriers.
Focus on execution: No big talkers need apply. Success here will require the sustained efforts of doers. There is a simple formula for success: success equals execution, and execution equals a clear and effective strategy, plus adequate resources, plus the right people in the right jobs, plus operations (basic systems, processes, programs and implementation tools).
High standards: If launched, this will be a community-transforming undertaking, and not just a "program." Its success will be measured in the short term by young people being engaged and in the long term by lives transformed. Getting there will require achieving and then sustaining high standards of quality and building cultures of success where none exist today. The pool of talent needed to succeed probably isn't available today, and that means investing in training and development. Entities such as UVI CELL will play a critical role in developing this talent pool and supporting high standards.
Where to start? The logical starting point is to identify a group of key leaders and bring them together to define a vision for youth and youth services in the future. In a basic sense, this vision should describe the optimal engagement of young people five years in the future, how their lives have been improved in concrete ways and the structures, policies, approaches and resources needed to get from here to there. The process of developing the vision will also tell everyone who is serious about change and who is not.
The Kids Count survey is a "hook" for action. There will be another survey next year, but in that time the chances for success for some number of V.I. young people will have further dwindled. The 15 year old who could have benefited from a youth center on St. Croix in 1983 is now 40 years old. Why wait?
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, a management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to visource@gmail.com.

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