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Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 07:31 pm

Boy Scouts leave United Way

Organizations dispute how to measure career program’s success

The Boy Scouts' Venturing and Exploring program allows young adults to test drive potential careers, such as firefighting, nursing and engineering.
When Curtis Penfold was a sophomore at Auburn High School, he picked performing arts as his primary interest on a career interest survey — not for a class, but for the Boy Scouts’ Venturing & Exploring program. He soon joined theater Explorer post 420, a co-ed group of 15 teenagers who meet twice a month at the Hoogland Center for the Arts to study the acting profession.

Three years later, as Penfold heads to Brigham Young University, he credits the program for boosting his leadership skills. After becoming vice president of the theater post, he scored leading roles in his high school’s productions, joined Tri-M, the music honors association, and won the vote for senior class president.

“I wasn’t so great into class politics before my sophomore year,” Penfold says. “I think it helped that I started out being a representative of the theater club.”

The Boy Scouts’ Venturing & Exploring program connects youth from ages 14 through 20 with local professionals in all career fields, from aviation to law enforcement to medicine. The program, which grew from 583 participants in 1997 to 1,052 participants in 2008, recently became the center of contention between the Abraham Lincoln Council of the Boy Scouts of America and United Way of Central Illinois.

Since 2005, United Way of Central Illinois’ funding for the Abraham Lincoln Council has supported the Venturing & Exploring program. In 2008, $49,675 was received. This year, the council requested $60,000 from the $1.7 million United Way community fund, but was denied any funding (10 other programs also received zero funding for 2009).

The Abraham Lincoln Council launched into a lengthy appeal process, which included an attempt to obtain school records to prove the effectiveness of the Venturing & Exploring program, but ultimately decided last week to withdraw its membership from United Way of Central Illinois.

“The United Way has shifted its focus and no longer includes Scouting and other traditional, time-tested agencies,” Damon Hofstrand, the council’s volunteer president, announced on Aug. 11.

When asked about the Boy Scouts’ decision, United Way of Central Illinois president John Kelker told IT: “The United Way is disappointed that our local Boy Scouts council has decided to end their membership. We believe the Boy Scouts are a very strong organization and do a great deal of work here in the community.”

The dispute between organizations sparked earlier this year, after United Way of Central Illinois modified its allocation process and suggested that the Abraham Lincoln Council fall in line with the changes.

In previous years, United Way allowed agencies to offer their own objectives and detail how their programs would meet those objectives. Mark Cullen, vice president of the Abraham Lincoln Council’s executive board, volunteered on a United Way allocation panel for nearly 10 years.

For Venturing & Exploring, Cullen says, objectives were: “Are you prepared to go to college? Do you have a better knowledge of a potential career? Do you understand the educational requirements or training needed for that career?” The program has always used participant surveys to measure those objectives, he says.

This year United Way of Central Illinois switched to the “continuum of learning,” a more objective plan that separates applicants by age groups served and scores programs based on their ability to meet outlined objectives.

The Abraham Lincoln Council submitted Venturing & Exploring under “Stage 3: Grade 6 through 12.” The organization believed the program fit that stage’s aspiration statement: “To develop competent young people with the tools and skills for making appropriate decisions on their way to graduating from high school and becoming productive members of society.”

“That’s what Scouts does,” Cullen says. “I know that’s self-serving, but that’s what we do.”

The United Way also recommended that applicant agencies in Stage 3 demonstrate how their programs would increase standardized testing scores and graduation rates and decrease truancy and dropout rates. Venturing & Exploring doesn’t measure its success by those factors, Cullen says.

“We’re concerned with, ‘When you finish high school, you’ve got to do something — what are you going to do?’” he says. “Hopefully, you’ll get an idea from our program. Or you’ll try something out and find out it’s not for you.”

The Abraham Lincoln Council was told that Venturing & Exploring needed more concrete indicators and outcomes, Cullen continues, so the council appealed United Way’s decision and contacted Springfield School District 186 to obtain school records for all of its participants.

In a letter sent from district superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., to scout executive Daniel O’Brien on May 18, Milton denied Boy Scouts’ access to records. “At this time we view the Boy Scout Organization as a mentoring agency that is not federally funded and would not qualify to receive access to student information under current guidelines,” Milton wrote. “This is in accordance with district policy and consistent with state requirements.”

Even though the Abraham Lincoln Council later discovered that parental consent would grant the organization access to school records, its appeal for United Way funding was still denied.

Kelker maintains that school records were never required, since the Venturing & Exploring program application submitted to his organization was unrelated to academic improvement.

“They believe that they were denied funding because of their inability to access school records,” Kelker says. “That is not true. This is not an academic program.”

Kelker acknowledges that Venturing & Exploring was perfectly aligned with the objectives listed under the continuum of learning’s Stage 3. But, he continues, the Abraham Lincoln Council scored the lowest of all applications received this year, in part because the organization failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of their program. Instead of surveys, United Way of Central Illinois suggests that Venturing & Exploring test participants on career knowledge before they join the program and after they have spent a certain amount of time in the program.

“When we compare [surveys] to other agencies that are actually determining changes that are taking place, having people say that they like being in the program is not really measurable,” Kelker says.

David Risley, vice president for Venturing & Exploring, believes that the large number of teenagers, who come from different schools, wouldn’t show up for programs if they weren’t learning. That’s a measure in itself, he says.

“It would be nave to say that if you can’t prove it on paper, it doesn’t exist,” Risley says. “Ask people involved. Ask their parents. We think that’s a reasonable way to evaluate the program.”
Even though the Abraham Lincoln Council cut ties with United Way of Central Illinois, it still remains a member and receives funding from United Way’s Christian County, Greater St. Louis and Prairielands organizations.

The Boy Scout organization faces a $70,000 shortfall, Hofstrand says, as the executive board will divert funding to cover the $50,000 gap once filled by United Way of Central Illinois. In addition, the Boy Scouts expect to lose the $20,000 previously designated during United Way campaign drives.

Hofstrand says the council will soon begin new fundraising initiatives and does not plan to lay off staff or cut programs.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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