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Dance Revolution

Dance Revolution

Suppose you lead a very effective but small nonprofit dedicated to helping disadvantaged local youth attend college. You want to scale your innovative program, but you worry about losing the tight-knit and fluid connections that have been forged between your organization and the community. What should you do?

Eight years ago,  (TWF), a nonprofit based in Santa Ana, California, faced this dilemma. That is when its leadership, while deliberating about its strategic plan for the next decade, confronted the key question of how to grow its model beyond what its current operations supported. For more than three decades, the organization's arts-based program had worked to address systemic poverty through youth development, empowering children and teenagers to achieve academically by committing them to a rigorous dance regimen. Every student who completes TWF's curriculum goes on to college, and is usually the first person in his or her family to attend.

TWF's leadership team decided that they had a responsibility to share the TWF program but preserve the effective execution of its local operations. It was serving less than 1 percent of Santa Ana children who were eligible for the program, and local funders needed assurance that their donations would be utilized for operations nearby, not across the country.

"We wanted to remain nimble and flexible locally and be sure national growth would not create excessive overhead," CEO Dawn Reese says. So the organization decided instead to disseminate its comprehensive, high-touch model by using a licensing partnership agreement with other nonprofits. Under the agreement, TWF provides consulting and other services needed to implement the program over several years, and the terms of the arrangement ensure that the licensee fees cover related costs so that TWF's locally sourced funds are not used elsewhere.

"We provide each licensed partner with The Wooden Floor in a Box: consulting, training, and curriculum to implement our program model for a license fee," Reese explains. "In this way, organizations can function independently under their own governance, financial, and branding structures."

The first licensing partner initiated contact with TWF in early 2013. , a nonprofit located in Washington, D.C., has been teaching dance in multiple genres to underserved youth since 2005. The licensing agreement was signed in November 2015, after a comprehensive vetting process to assess whether CityDance DREAM had the leadership, financial, and programmatic capacity to execute the TWF model.

"Licensing can create immediate impact in a partner's community, as they work alongside TWF to implement strategies that lead to student success," Reese says. "We help them learn how to talk to students, families, and supporters to understand the importance of the ten-year journey."

Rising to the Best

Founded in 1983 by Beth Burns, a former sister of St. Joseph's Catholic order, TWF began as Saint Joseph Ballet, a pilot program designed to serve at-risk children. It operated out of a one-room, 1,200-square-feet space until 1999, when, after raising $6.8 million to fund building construction and an endowment, it moved to its current 21,000-square-foot home. In 2005, the year that Burns retired as CEO, TWF achieved, for the first time, its longtime goal: All its students went on to college after graduating from high school.

TWF continues to help youth reach their full potential and boasts a twelve-year track record of 100 percent college enrollment among participants, most of whom are of Hispanic descent. Capacity-building grants from major foundations in 2006 and since have been critical in deepening and expanding the organization's service offerings.

At the core of TWF's program are highly disciplined ballet and modern dance classes built around an eight-to-ten-year commitment from students and their families. The frequency and length of the classes increase with the age of the child, starting at two classes per week and increasing to five, right on through twelfth grade.

"Students express emotions through dance, including school-related frustrations," says Jennifer Bassage Bonfil, a TWF dance faculty member since 2006. "We see that movement helps them change their outlook and opens up conversations, increasing their potential for success."

TWF provides comprehensive academic and emotional support aimed at improving the overall well-being of students and their families, including individual counseling sessions focused on each child's emotional development; family counseling services for parents and children; social service referrals; workshops on health, parenting, and financial issues; and college readiness programs.

A guiding TWF principle is: We believe that if our students are provided the best, they will rise to the best. The custom-built structure that houses TWF reflects this sentiment, starting with a lobby filled with contemporary Latin American art. The three professional-quality dance studios range from 1,700 to 2,000 square feet, and each has a mirrored wall and shock-absorbent oak floors.

Unlike other youth dance performance programs, TWF does not peg technical ability to acceptance into the program. "We take into account coordination and potential for dance — do they enjoy moving?" Bonfil says.

Currently, three hundred and seventy-five students are enrolled in the program. This has made admissions extremely competitive. In recent years, approximately four hundred candidates have auditioned for only seventy-five spots, with families lining up many hours in advance for a chance to participate.

The highlight of the year is TWF's annual concert, an event produced by outside modern dance choreographers who create a high-value artistic production. It's a pivotal experience for the students, who showcase their dance abilities, honed by more than one hundred hours of intensive practice, in a formal theater setting over three days of performances. Up to two hundred students are typically cast each year, and each must meet GPA, behavioral, and attendance standards in order to participate.

Academic achievement is integral to the program and is consistently reinforced by TWF staff and a myriad of offerings. For example, third- to eighth-graders can attend five-week workshops on critical subjects — reading, math and science, or test-taking skills — that are offered year-round and meet twice a week. The focus on long-term goals intensifies once students reach the sixth grade, when they are invited to career nights featuring community members and invited to join discussions about academic diligence and its impact on college and career choices.

Once students enter high school, an array of college-related curricula becomes available. Classes include SAT and ACT test preparation, college and career search assistance, financial aid workshops, and interviewing skills. To help defray the costs of attending college, TWF awards scholarships ranging from $4,000 to $10,000 to approximately 80 percent of its alumni. Since 2005 (its first year of formal data tracking), two hundred and forty-five students have completed the TWF program and gone on to college.

Providing such a rich and holistic program is not inexpensive. Financial sustainability has been a cornerstone of TWF's model, however, and total expenses for programs and support activities for fiscal year 2015 were $2.6 million, or a cost per student of approximately $6,900 annually. The funding sources are diverse: individuals provide 60 percent, foundations 30 percent, and corporations 6 percent, while 4 percent is earned income. The organization's endowment is currently $3.4 million, and 96 percent of students pay no fee. TWF sets clear expectations for the parents at the audition and over the course of the year, however: All parents are asked to volunteer their time, purchase concert tickets, and donate supplies for concerts.

Splashing the Model

D.C.-based CityDance DREAM used to be an afterschool program for third- to fifth-graders at six public schools. But students in the program expressed a strong yearning for it to be extended to middle school, and that prompted the interest in expansion.

"In the past, we have offered ad hoc academic support to our students," says Kelli Quinn, founding director of CityDance DREAM. "Now, through our partnership with TWF, we have a strategic initiative featuring a proven model of success and TWF's mentorship to guide us."

CityDance DREAM is currently in the midst of a $9 million capital campaign to raise funds for a permanent facility in Washington, D.C., and a significant expansion of its programming. The building will allow for increased enrollment and will include dance studios, a theater, an education center, and counseling offices.

"The licensing model helps us with fundraising and family orientations. We can show everyone how we plan to grow — financially and programmatically — through our partnership with TWF's time-tested and successful model," Quinn adds.

As for TWF, its local efforts remain strong. A second Santa Ana studio, slated to open in late 2017, will accommodate a hundred additional students, all of whom will be selected through the audition process. The location is within the Depot at Santiago (low-income) housing complex currently under construction, a new project that will provide apartments for families who meet income and other requirements. The developer, who is impressed with TWF's program, has agreed to provide 3,000 square feet of ground-floor space to the organization rent-free for at least ten years, and without any governmental subsidies.

Breaking the cycle of generational poverty is a complex proposition. TWF's youth program has achieved extraordinary results, and its highly intensive and comprehensive service offerings cover nearly every aspect of successful child development. And now that impact can be replicated in other communities, where TWF-inspired dance programs will uplift and give many more youth and their families a meaningful path to a better life.

Kathy O. Brozek is a management consultant and the author of The Transformation of American Agriculture. Her work has also appeared in Community Development Investment Review, The Guardian, and GreenBiz.com.