Leader to Leader: Debra-Ellen Glickstein

The founding executive director of NYC Kids RISE discusses her organization’s work, the expansion of the Save for College Program and its legacy.

Debra-Ellen Glickstein, executive director of NYC Kids Rise

Debra-Ellen Glickstein, executive director of NYC Kids Rise NYC Kids Rise

Scale is the holy grail in the nonprofit sector. Everyone wants to see their favored program implemented as broadly as possible. But the harsh reality is that very few nonprofits have the kind of resources and institutional relationships necessary to take an idea to scale in a city as large and diverse as New York. 

NYC Kids RISE and the Save for College Program are an exception to this rule. Launched in 2017, the Save for College Program is designed to provide students in New York City public schools with a financial asset that can help them pay for college or other types of post-secondary education. The idea is simple: each kindergartner receives a NYC Scholarship Account in a 529 plan with $100 deposited in it. Over time, there are opportunities to add to this pot, both from personal investments from the student’s family and from various community sources.

The Save for College Program began as a three-year pilot program in Community School District 30 in Queens but it is now being expanded citywide under the leadership of founding executive director Debra-Ellen Glickstein. NYN Media Thought Leader Greg Berman recently spoke with Glickstein about the challenges of scale and the intricacies of making a complicated inter-agency partnership work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Greg Berman: Looking at your career, one of the through lines seems to be an interest in using financial tools to combat poverty. Do you think that's a fair characterization?

Debra-Ellen Glickstein: That's interesting. I hadn't thought of it exactly that way before. I think about the through line as having three components. One is a focus on neighborhoods and the idea that where you come from shouldn't determine where you end up and shouldn't determine your opportunities in life. Another piece in the puzzle for me is about public-private community partnerships and how each different sector must be part of any sort of solution. And then the third piece is about what can be created that's sustainable and that really has long-term community ownership. Throughout my career, from starting Urban Upbound with Bishop Mitchell Taylor to my role with NYC Kids RISE, those three pieces have been consistent.

Berman: Talk to me a little bit about how you think about public-private partnership, because those are buzzwords that people throw around a lot. And it sounds good in theory, of course, but it can be hard to realize in practice. The vocabulary and the values of the private sector and the nonprofit sector and the public sector are often very different. So, in your experience, how do you make public-private partnership real? How do you make it work in a way that is mutually beneficial to all of the parties?

Glickstein:I know “public-private-community partnership” can sound like jargon. Concretely, in the case of NYC Kids RISE, how this works on the public side is that elementary schools are using the program as a tool for college and career readiness and working with families to activate their NYC Scholarship Accounts. City-sponsored Financial Empowerment Centers are working with families to open up their own college and career accounts. And free tax preparation sites are making sure everyone with a five year-old knows about the program. On the private side, businesses and philanthropy are stepping up with resources to fund the Community Scholarships. On the community side – I am talking here about families, civic associations, religious organizations, small businesses and the essential role they have to play in supporting our children’s success. That might mean an afterschool program taking first graders and their families on a college trip or churches coming together to organize a concert to raise money for the children in their community. It is our belief that by bringing these different stakeholders together, children will best be positioned to build real financial assets.

Berman: One of the things that you have in common with a number of other people that I've profiled in this column is that you've worked in both government and the nonprofit sector. How would you compare and contrast those two environments?

Glickstein: The way I think about my work is that it's almost sector agnostic. I'm really committed to partnering with communities to think about how we can create change for the folks that live in neighborhoods. Whether I’m sitting at the Housing Authority, or the Office of Financial Empowerment, or at NYC Kids RISE, it feels very similar to me in terms of building teams and bringing folks around to a common vision.

Berman: Rewind for me: what’s the origin story of NYC Kids RISE and the Save for College program?

Glickstein: So the Save for College program originated as part of the Department of Consumer Affairs, which is now called the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. When Julie Menin was the commissioner over there, she looked at what San Francisco was doing and was really excited. San Francisco had been the first city to launch universal child savings accounts. She was able to connect with the Gray Foundation and the mayor to make this model happen in New York City.

Through numerous conversations with families, government officials, philanthropies and others, it was decided that there would be a separate nonprofit, NYC Kids RISE, that would work with the city and the Department of Education to run the Save for College program. District 30 in Queens was selected to be the pilot because it is the one of the most diverse school districts in the country.

From the onset, what the folks who were around the table really wanted was to make sure that this effort was inclusive. It had to be accessible to everyone – to every kindergartner in the city. They also wanted this to be a neighborhood platform that different folks would be able to plug into in different ways. And they also wanted to expand access to capital markets, which was something that was really important to the Gray Foundation and others in terms of closing the racial wealth gap. 

For me though, the story really goes back nearly 20 years. When Bishop Taylor and I co-founded the East River Development (now Urban Upbound), we would discuss what we can do to further support Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country, to be a springboard for economic success. We would ask, “What if families would move to Queensbridge and know that their child would have a financial resource for their higher education?” It’s crazy to look back at my emails from circa 2005 where we were trying to figure out how we could set up what we now call “the account infrastructure” for young children in Queensbridge. It took twenty years, and a bunch of different roles in between, but here we are. As you might imagine, all this is very personal for me. It’s also the story of many different people across many different spheres believing in a vision and coming together to make it happen.

Berman: You just used the expression “neighborhood platform” to describe what you’re doing. I don't think I quite understand what you mean by that. 

Glickstein: The vision of the Save for College program is that every child who goes to public school in New York City will graduate with a real financial asset for higher education, and that they will have support along the way. What we have already accomplished in School District 30 is that now, 96% of first, second, third and fourth graders across 39 schools actually have a scholarship account that has been seeded with $100.

When you ask the question around “neighborhood platform,” that is just the beginning. Going forward, there will be opportunities for additional monies to be added into those accounts. And ultimately, we want to get to a place where after-school programs at your neighborhood settlement house are working with you to make sure that your family has activated this money. Or that your school is teaching financial education in the classroom. Or that your local tenant association is working to raise money for your account. This is meant to be a community-wide endeavor.

Berman: What is the funding model for NYC Kids RISE going forward?

Glickstein: We are really excited to be expanding citywide after our pilot in School District 30. For the first time, we're getting substantial funding from the city to make sure that every kindergartner will have a NYC Scholarship Account. We have to continue to raise philanthropic dollars to support additional activities. And then the third piece is what we call community scholarships, and that is where communities can come together to add to these accounts for families.

Berman: What you are doing is enormously ambitious. You are attempting to go to scale and you’re doing it as a startup enterprise, rather than an organization that already has a citywide infrastructure.

Glickstein: Well, from the onset, this was designed so that it would operate at a citywide scale. Whether it be the account infrastructure, the technology, the policy … all those by design are intended to scale from one school district to all 32 school districts. So while it might seem like we are scaling quickly, the team has been working on this for years. We are looking to build, at minimum, a 12- to 13-year partnership with participating families. In support of that, we are building ongoing, structural relationships with the city and the Department of Education. At the end of the day, this is meant to be a tool for communities. We know that will take time. But the first step is working to get the account infrastructure in place and working with the schools.

Berman: When I was at the Center for Court Innovation, I must confess that we sometimes struggled to develop a good relationship with the Department of Education. How have you found dealing with DOE? Part of what you are trying to do, as I understand it, is to embed the program into school operations. That’s hard to do in a single district, let alone across a system that serves more than a million kids.

Glickstein: None of this is easy, but DOE has been a really strong partner, starting with District 30 and the superintendent here. From the onset, there has really been a very deliberate sort of co-creation element to this work. We've had monthly meetings with parent coordinators across School District 30. They have informed the design of this from the onset. Almost the full elementary school population here has these accounts now and schools are the ones working directly with families to make sure that they see that they have these resources. We know that there's going to be a ton of lessons learned as we apply this model across the city and we're going to keep learning together alongside our partners at DOE.

Berman: One of the things that appeals to me about your model is that you have a long-term vision. You mentioned wanting to work with kids and families for a minimum of 12 years. I think making any kind of real change will require long time horizons. But one of the challenges long time horizons present is evaluation and measuring success. How are you thinking about outcomes, both in the long term and the near term?

Glickstein: We've worked very closely with the Mayor's Office, and with the Urban Institute and MDRC, to put together the pieces for longer term evaluations. In the short term, however, we're looking at making sure that every child has a scholarship account. The research suggests that just by having that account, you're three times more likely to go to college -- even with accounts of $500. 

Berman: I'm a big believer that even modest things can make a difference. I imagine that the size of the accounts will ultimately vary from kid to kid, but do you have a goal in terms of what you’d like the average amount to be in an account when a participant graduates from high school?

Glickstein: We have some preliminary estimates that we've looked at, but the real hope is that families and kids who need it the most, who have historically been excluded from meaningful opportunities, are able to accumulate significant assets. In the pilot, there are third-graders who already have nearly $2,000 saved, which is significant. And obviously, there's the power of compound interest in capital markets over time.

Berman: How has COVID-19 kind of affected your plans, if at all? I would imagine the community piece of your vision has been hard to implement over the past two years. 

Glickstein: I mean, it's a tough time for everyone. And School District 30 is in the epicenter of the epicenter. In addition to all the trauma from the health crisis, you’ve got food pantry lines running down the block. So, these are really tough times. From a very practical perspective, many New Yorkers are consumed with the here and now: how am I going to eat? At moments like these, saving and building assets for the future can feel pretty far off.

When I talk about building this decentralized, community-driven, wealth-building platform, part of what we are trying to do is to support social cohesion and build social capital. We are bringing people together across community and within community. One of the things that we are really proud of is the platform was able to be leveraged to support emergency cash distribution. We had the relationships and the agreements with the schools already in place, so we were able to work with them to get gift cards on the street quickly. What was great about that was that it obviously helped people out in an emergency moment. But when families got the cash, they also were also able to view and activate their college savings accounts, which also enabled them to earn some additional money for their kids' future.

Berman: in his presidential campaign, Cory Booker talked about baby bonds, which is a slightly different idea, but related conceptually to what you are doing. What's your sense of the national conversation about college savings and other efforts to address inequality? 

Glickstein: It feels like folks are finally paying attention to what it means to build intergenerational wealth in communities in a very different way. Seven years ago, when I was trying to beat the drum about this neighborhood level platform, it was just a very different time. So I'm excited. This is something that I've been thinking about for 20 years. We're trying to execute something excellent here that other folks can look to across the country.

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