R.O.C.K. Brings Public-Private Partnerships to Support Youth Development in One of San Francisco’s Less-Advantaged Neighborhoods
In 1994, Michelle Groe started an after school program at the local elementary school in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley. She and small group of volunteers started helping in the classroom, coaching soccer after school, hosting Saturday sports clinics and taking kids to an overnight camp.
Together, they founded R.O.C.K – Real Options for City Kids – and today it serves more than 500 students every year.
Throughout the years, R.O.C.K. has expanded to fully integrate with two school sites, El Dorado Elementary School and Visitacion Valley Middle School. At Visitacion Valley Middle School, R.O.C.K. runs one of nine Beacon Centers in San Francisco, public-private partnerships that bring together communities, families and schools to support kids in their social-emotional development, as well as academic achievement. The San Francisco Beacon Initiative transforms public schools into youth and family centers – a hub of activity for the community.
“In the first few years, the kids who were coming to R.O.C.K. programs got older and became middle schoolers and high schoolers, but they still wanted to be involved with R.O.C.K.,” said Curt Yagi, the Executive Director. “They wanted outdoor adventures, they wanted volunteer and community service opportunities, they wanted jobs, and as a result, we expanded our programs.”
The kids R.O.C.K. serves are 6 to 17 years old. About 85% of them qualify for free and reduced lunch. The crime rate in Visitacion Valley is about 25% higher than the citywide average, so they don’t always have a safe place to play.
R.O.C.K. staff and volunteers support teachers in the classroom at El Dorado Elementary and Visitacion Valley Middle School. They also offer after-school programs, with activities such as soccer, basketball, cooking, art, dance, audio/media production and computer skills. After more than 22 years, many of R.O.C.K.’s original programs, such as Saturday sports clinics, are still an important part of the organization’s services.
During the summer and winter, R.O.C.K. takes kids on overnight trips to go camping, whitewater rafting, and snowboarding.
Keeping Up with Fast Growth
Until 2010, R.O.C.K. was entirely privately funded. Then, the City of San Francisco and San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) asked R.O.C.K. to be an official partner with the schools in Visitation Valley. That was also the year Metta Fund made its first grant to R.O.C.K.
“The City and SFUSD asked us to do everything we were already doing, just scale it up,” said Yagi. “Basically, to provide more programs to more kids at more sites, and more opportunities for parents to be involved.”
R.O.C.K. took on the expanded role, and its budget doubled in less than two years.
“We experienced a large amount of growth in a short amount of time,” said Yagi. “We went from a handful of staff, full-time and part-time, to nearly 40 staff members. And there were some challenges with that.”
R.O.C.K.’s biggest challenge was providing their programs at the same level of quality, with the same student-to-volunteer and student-to-staff ratio as before. We made our first capacity building grant to R.O.C.K. to help them manage this growth and maintain their high level of quality.
“Scaling up forced us to work on infrastructure,” said Yagi, “to put in place better processes and procedures and step up our fundraising. Metta Fund’s support helped us deal with the administrative side of expanding our programs, with human resource controls and retention. It provided a backbone.”
SFUSD understood the greater administrative burden of expanded programs, and with the public funding came the requirement to increase R.O.C.K.’s private funding as well. As one of R.O.C.K.’s largest private supporters, Metta Fund helped the organization grow its donor base with major funders.
“Receiving capacity building grants allowed us to focus on what we’re good at,” said Yagi. “We went through some growing pains and came out in a much better place.”
Partnering and Using Data
Through over 22 years of serving kids in Visitacion Valley, R.O.C.K. has grown and maintained its high level of quality largely thanks to its close relationship with SFUSD, but there are other organizations R.O.C.K. has partnered with to diversify its services.
“There are a lot of great organizations serving youth in San Francisco,” said Yagi. “There’s a wrestling program that comes to R.O.C.K. and a lot of the other Beacon sites. We have partner organizations that run sleepover camps, and another organization that provides gear for our camping trips.”
Data-gathering has also been essential for program design. Reviewing surveys of youth and staff, as well as participant evaluations is how R.O.C.K. decides when to launch a new activity.
“We’re very intentional about asking the kids what’s working,” said Yagi. “We’re focused on long-term metrics, just as we’re intentional about safety, leadership, and relationship-building.”