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Measuring for success

A unique after-school program at Our Space Our Place—a small nonprofit organization housed at the Tobin Community Center, in Roxbury, Massachusetts—is helping visually impaired and blind children gain more self-confidence and build lifelong skills.

And Northeastern students are making sure the youngsters get the most out of their experience there.

Over the spring semester, two students taking “Techniques in Program Evaluation,” a graduate-level political science course taught by Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy senior research associate Laurie Dopkins, worked with the resource-strapped nonprofit to develop a way to gather data on student participation, measure the program’s effect on students’ lives and assess the organization’s future goals.

The project was part of the university’s Stony Brook Initiative, a large ongoing partnership that links Northeastern with community and nonprofit organizations in neighboring Roxbury, Mission Hill, the Fenway and the South End. The goal of this particular project is to help these nonprofits develop new methods, leverage resources, and become more efficient and effective, despite all the funding cuts prompted by the economic downturn.

“It sounds easy,” says Cheryl Cumings, founder and executive director of Our Space Our Place. “But you really need to do research to make sure you have the right tools. We just don’t have the time to do the additional work. And, because of our size and limited budget, we cannot afford to pay someone to do the work Northeastern did.”

Our Space Our Place, founded in 2005 and currently serving 11 students, aims to introduce visually impaired or blind kids to new worlds of possibility and adventure. From September through June, the 6- to 18-year-olds take lessons in dance and Tai Kwon Do, learn to play chess, write and perform in plays, engage in team sports, host radio shows and participate in college and career exploration.

Meg Bossong, MS’09, who earned her degree in the Law, Policy and Society program, and Diana Wogan, a graduate student studying political science, developed surveys for Our Space Our Place that elicit feedback from students, instructors and parents, and created a spreadsheet-like tool for tracking student participation.

Keeping the reality of budget restrictions and the need for ease of use in mind, Bossong and Wogan also suggested that all students keep a portfolio of their work, so that, at the end of the year, the nonprofit will have a tangible way of measuring student accomplishments.

Having easy-to-access data will come in handy when the nonprofit applies for grants, says Bossong. “It is critical to establish why a program is unique and valuable, and be able to effectively communicate that information to funders, potential volunteers and others interested in the program,” she explains.

“Now, when we apply for grants, we will be able to provide numbers, in addition to the great stories we can tell,” Cumings adds.

According to Dopkins, the Stony Brook partnership is a much-needed forum for open discussions about the community’s needs.

“Together, we’re coming up with ways of addressing the issues,” she says.

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