The Urban Family Institute


History and Mission of the Urban Family Institute

The Urban Family Institute was founded in 1991 by Kent Amos as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Prior to founding the Institute, Mr. Amos spent eleven years opening his heart and his home to 87 children from the District of Columbia and cities across the country, who blossomed in a loving, family environment. The children were respected for their abilities, helped with special needs, and encouraged to achieve. By establishing the Institute, Kent Amos has expanded his capacity to systemically reform the way communities nurture and develop children.

The mission of the Urban Family Institute is to create urban neighborhoods in which every family has the resources and the support necessary to realize their full potential -- individually and as a community -- and to ensure that all of the children in these communities will grow up with the close guidance, discipline, and nurturing of caring adults. In order to carry out this mission, the Institute shares its message of caring and commitment in diverse public forums and encourages the public to help shape policy on child and family issues. The Institute also creates options for direct involvement at the family and neighborhood level through its Kids House and Urban Family University models.

How was the idea for the Urban Family University born?

In June of 1995, the Institute worked with five parents to start a Kids House for 25 children, located at the Park Morton public housing apartments in Washington, DC. A Kids House is a safe place for children to develop and grow during the non-school hours. The idea for Kids Houses originated with Kent Amos' personal experience sharing his home with so many young people. The Urban Family Institute serves as a catalyst to inspire and motivate community adults to nurture children during the non-school hours. Kids Houses are run entirely by neighborhood volunteers who receive training and technical support from the Institute.

After several months, nearly one hundred children, ranging in age from 3 years to 16 years old, were participating in the Park Morton Kids House. Fifteen parent volunteers were helping children with their homework, supervising enrichment and recreation activities and cooking and sharing a family-style meal with the children of their neighborhood. Because of the multiple needs of many Park Morton families, the Institute found that it was expanding its role to provide intensive leadership development, conflict resolution training, GED preparation, mental health counseling, and advocacy around housing and legal issues.

The Institute's experiences in public housing raised concerns that helping community volunteers to start Kids Houses might not be sufficient to support the healthy development of all families. In some neighborhoods, problems are so severe and entrenched that strategies which focus on the development of the whole family are needed. Public housing as it is currently configured creates human development zones which produce predictable outcomes such as crime, violence, teenage pregnancy, school failure, poor health outcomes, and vandalism. The Urban Family Institute looked to another human development model which produces positive outcomes: the university system. This residential learning model offers resources, opportunities, and support services to students, It expects that students will follow certain rules and participate in a pre-determined curriculum. The result: independent, employable individuals. Why not create such environments in public housing?

What is an Urban Family University?

An Urban Family University (UFU) is a strategy created for public housing communities which delivers comprehensive educational and family services in a university-like setting. The goal of the UFU model is to enable families to become independent, stable, healthy, and functional in the larger community. The UFU is a place where families live and learn -encouraging parents to nurture and support their families, further their education goals, obtain jobs, adopt healthy lifestyles, and move out of public housing and into home-ownership. The transformation takes place through participation in a hands-on, comprehensive curriculum which includes the following components: residential life, health/social services, academics, and economic development.

How was the idea developed?

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development supported development of the Urban Family University concept with a planning grant. The Urban Family Institute then solicited the input of over 80 individuals from the following organizations and groups:

*Public Housing Residents

*The Center for Urban Progress (business)

*Howard University

*The Private Industry Council (job training)

*Howard University Hospital (and university medical community)

*Manna, Inc. (low-income housing development)

*The University of the District of Columbia

*The District of Columbia Housing Authority

*Catholic University

*Women in Community Service (social skill building)

*The Center for Mental Health

*The Small Business Development Center

*Georgia Avenue Community Renaissance (creators of the Washington Technology)

*The Foundation for Educational Innovation (business/economic development)

*Children's Hospital

*McDonald, Williams, Banks, Inc.(architects Initiative)

*Decades, Inc. Health and Fitness


These individuals formed a large planning team, which broke down into several smaller subgroups to address areas such as: health and mental health, business development and career preparation, education of adults, education of children, and housing/residential life. Over 18 months of bi-weekly meetings and several weekend-long retreats, this team designed multiple learning modules which together form the basic structure for a comprehensive curriculum which would move families from dependency to self sufficiency.

Other groups have provided information, support and/or advice without being directly involved in the initial UFU curriculum planning process. These groups include:

Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools Center (FOCUS)

Suited for Change

Community Partnership for the Prevention DC Public Schools of Homelessness

New Commandment Baptist Church

Committee on Public Education (COPE)

DC Department of Employment Services

DCPS Head Start Program

School Futures Research Foundation

DC Control Board

Sverdrup, Inc.

Park View Community Development Corporation

DC Police/Law Enforcement

The LaShawn General Receivership Office

Time Dollar Institute (DC's child welfare agency)

Wider Opportunities for Women, Inc.


What will be included in the academic curriculum?

An Urban Family University supports the education of children and adults of all ages. The education of children is supported through linkages with the Head Start program and with local schools. In addition, an early childhood program will be created to support children who do not qualify for Head Start due to age or limited space. The UFU will work with Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center in order to design a developmentally appropriate early childhood curriculum.

The Institute plans to create a system of public charter schools in the community of an Urban Family University where a year-round, family-centered, rigorous education will be offered. These schools will link what happens during the traditional "school day" with what is being taught during traditional "family/community" time. The themes of hard work, service, and respect for family and community will connect school and home at the UFU. If it is not possible to start charter schools, Urban Family University staff and volunteers will work with local school leaders to create a partnership between the UFU and local public schools.

Academic instruction for adults will focus on basic skills. Adults who wish to advance to college-level courses will have opportunities to take courses at local Colleges/Universities which are partners in the UFU. Several examples of academic courses to be offered include:

Basic literacy - According to Wider Opportunities for Women, "limited literacy is increasing linked to America's deepest problems: long-term welfare dependency, poverty, teen pregnancy, crime and chronic unemployment." Literacy development at UFU will include a focus on prose literacy (understanding and using information from texts), document literacy (locating and using information in materials that include job applications, transportation schedules, maps and tables), and quantitative literacy (applying arithmetic operations using numbers in print materials such as loan applications and order forms).

Computer/Technology Literacy - Learning is a building process and the tools must be available at every step. Technology is one tool that drives and supports change. Therefore, every student/family at the UFU will attend a week long educational experience that will offer instruction in the use of technology, the use of the Internet, how to apply technology in everyday life and the basic skills needed to fully utilize the technology, i.e. reading, writing, typing, word processing and spreadsheets. After the initial week long course, instruction will be customized to allow each student to make the most of the technological tools available to them. The group which is coordinating our technology piece is also working with multiple partners to create the Washington Technology Initiative which would use technology to link public schools, churches, public housing, and community centers through active two-way communication.

GED preparation - This would provide regular instruction to prepare individuals who dropped out of high school to take the General Educational Development tests, in order to earn a high school equivalency diploma. These tests are in the areas of Writing Skills, Social Studies, Science, Literature and the Arts, and Mathematics. Depending on individual needs and learning styles, GED instruction at the UFU will range from selfpaced computer software to a more structured, traditional classroom learning experience.

Tutoring - This is a course aimed at teaching adult volunteers and teenagers how to effectively tutor younger children or less well-prepared students in the community. The module includes training in child development - how and when children learn specific concepts, positive discipline, specific tutoring techniques, and how to teach children with different learning styles or with learning disabilities.

What will "residential life" be like at the Urban Family University?

Transformation is apparent when you can "see" it. Therefore, renovation and redesign of the existing property to create a more "campus-like" environment will be important. Creating specially designated spaces, such as a community center where learning, health and recreation activities take place is a first step. Adding courtyards, playgrounds, and gardens will also make a difference. These changes to a community's physical appearance will inevitably forge changes in the mind set of students/families.

In order to sustain and build on the physical transformation, it will be vital for families to be personally invested in the success of the University. The UFU will encourage resident ownership of the project by requiring service of every family member. University residents/ students will be strongly encouraged to volunteer in the following areas:

running support groups

maintaining buildings and grounds

forming neighborhood watch groups

working on construction of new facilities

student teaching/assisting with education process

working at Kids Houses and other child-centered activities.

working in community businesses which, in turn, support the UFU.

In other words, residents will "pay" for their involvement in education, health, and other opportunities by contributing "sweat equity" -- by working in and taking ownership for the community. In addition, each UFU curriculum module and hands-on experience will emphasize the importance of being a good neighbor and will promote responsible citizenship in the community.

What social supports will be available?

Family Support Teams will be available to work with each family attending the Urban Family University. A Family Support Team will consist of one individual who is trained in social work or another related social service field and one or more local residents who will receive training in outreach, advocacy and case management. As families enroll in the University, they will begin working with their Family Support Team to determine what are the goals for each individual family member. Each member will create a plan with goals and action steps to help them reach that goal. The Family Support Teams will provide ongoing support to make sure families are able to reach their goals.

Substance abuse is a serious problem in public housing communities, which prevents many families from moving to self-sufficiency. If it is not possible to locate substance abuse treatment on-site at the UFU, referrals will be made to local agencies. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are both widely recognized as successful substance abuse intervention and relapse prevention programs. An Urban Family University would invite existing support groups to hold regular meetings on-site or would form its own support groups. Since AA and NA are run by recovered substance abusers who participate on a volunteer basis, this program also promotes local role models and provides service opportunities for individuals who otherwise might be overlooked.

Child Care will also be offered to families who are attending school at UFU. Local residents will receive training to provide home-based child care to infants and small children. The Institute has also worked closely with the Head Start organization in order to offer UFU's young children pre-school opportunities. After-school care will be available through Kids Houses, which will be run by neighborhood volunteers. Kids Houses operate from the time school ends until bedtime. Children in an Urban Family University will be fortunate to have a supervised, structured, and nurturing environment.

In addition to the Family Support Teams, Child Care, and Substance Abuse support groups, many University courses will be available to support family development. For example:

Adult Development: Introductory and Life Skills - This module was designed to foster community awareness, social consciousness, cohesion and citizenship while enhancing basic life skills and developing leadership skills. Specific elements of this course would require participants to conduct hands-on, walk-through assessments of their neighborhood, to participate in focus groups, and to construct expectations for community life goals.

Parent Involvement - The purpose of this course is to teach parents to effectively advocate for their children and to become decision-makers in the schools. Parents would learn to be key resources in their own children's educational success and the quality of education for their schoolmates. Parents would discuss concepts such as their rights and responsibilities regarding participation in their children's education, identifying and addressing problems which face individual schools, understanding the implications of placement decisions, governance and decision-making in the public school system, and home-based educational support. Hands-on activities might include participating in a PTA meeting.

Leadership Development Retreats - These overnight events will serve several purposes. Because they are located away from the stresses of everyday life, they allow people to relax and concentrate on the issues at hand. These retreats are 100% hands-on, and use role-plays, group games, group discussions, and other situational activities to encourage problem-solving, conflict resolution, and team-building. The Leadership Retreats encourage participants to bond with family and community members, with the goal of leaving behind the types of petty disputes (such as turf battles and family feuds) which arise from time to time during typical community-oriented meetings.

What health services will be available?

A model Urban Family University will operate a small to moderate sized Health and Wellness Center on its campus. This does not need to be a large health clinic, merely a place where students could come to consult with health professionals. This center may be staffed by volunteers from a local School of Medicine, Nursing, or Allied Health. A UFU on-site wellness center would focus on preventative health care such as immunizations, blood pressure and cholesterol testing, testing for adult-onset diabetes, and basic first aid. Referrals to a larger medical facility, such as a nearby hospital, clinic or doctor's office would be a method of follow-up care. The Family Support Teams would work in conjunction with the Wellness Center to ensure that all family members received the proper medical care.

In addition to locating a wellness center on-site, many courses have been developed to encourage families to be advocates for their own healthy development. For example:

Encouraging Good Nutrition - This module teaches proper eating approaches, low-fat cooking techniques, managing high blood pressure and diabetes through diet, eating during pregnancy and shopping for healthy food. Hands-on activities would include: creating a food budget and taking a trip to the supermarket as well as a participating in a cooking class using low-fat recipes.

Maternal and Child Health Promotion - This course is really a series of short courses, each one focusing on a different stage in the developmental process, including: prenatal, post-partum/newborn, infancy, toddlers, and school-age children. Families could participate in one or more of the modules, depending on their interests and the ages of their children. Courses would include information on health care during pregnancy, labor and delivery as well as nutrition for babies and children, how to prevent injuries in babies and children, common illnesses in children, taking advantage of primary health care providers, and psycho-social development of children.

Health and Physical Fitness - Participants will improve their knowledge of the various body systems and functions as they relate to health maintenance and fitness. Participants would be involved in aerobics, weight training, yoga, Tai Chi Huan and meditation. Students would measure progress against their stated goals, whether weight loss, increased muscle tone, or increased stamina/endurance.

Defining and Preventing Drug Misuse and Drug Abuse - This course would discuss methods of avoidance, treatment, and elimination of drug problems in the community. Residents would be taught to take responsibility for their personal medication therapy, including how to talk to their physicians and pharmacists. Experiential activities would include a trip to the pharmacy and/or the doctor's office to ask questions about certain drug treatments. Other activities would include a workshop with leaders of a local drug treatment or prevention program such as Narcotics Anonymous.

Elderly Health Maintenance - This module seeks to educate elderly members of the community about their own health maintenance and health issues associated with aging. This course would attempt to deconstruct some of the common misconceptions about achieving and maintaining good health in old age. One response to this course could be to create an exercise program dedicated to keeping elderly residents active - for example a walking club or stretching classes.

How will economic independence be fostered?

At the Urban Family University, economic independence will be nurtured by preparing families for the world of work and encouraging them to create a plan for savings and investment in their future.

In preparation for entering the working world, each adult at the UFU will choose a career mentor in their area of interest. Mentors will be selected from UFU community partners who will volunteer their time in this capacity. Students have the option of selecting mentors from outside the UFU as well. Students will "shadow" their mentors, spending time with them each week and gaining hands-on workplace experience. This opportunity allows students to gain experience and to build a network of contacts to call on when they begin looking for a job.

Families at the UFU will be encouraged to begin saving money for their future needs. They will have the opportunity to open Individual Development Accounts - dedicated savings accounts - that are similar in structure to Individual Retirement Accounts. These accounts can be used only for purchasing a first home, for job training/education expenses, or for capitalizing a small business.

There would also be an academic curriculum built around achieving economic independence. Possible courses include:

General Career Preparation - This course would assist adults who are entering the work world for the first time or after a prolonged absence. Students would learn to prepare resumes and cover letters. They would role play different situations including job interviews, handling tension/conflict with an employer, taking the initiative in a job, and presenting a positive attitude. Other components of this course would include learning how to dress appropriately for work, how to present yourself in a job. There will be an emphasis on showing up for work every day and on time.

Skills Training - Training will be offered which will provide direct links to employment. Examples of training areas include: computer system networking, computer software and office skills, highway and bridge construction skills, carpentry, plumbing skills, allied health training (nurse's aide/home health aide), and preparation for the Child Development Associate credential (for child care/Head Start).

Home-ownership Training - This module provides a forum for UFU students to prepare for buying a home -- by repairing credit problems, budgeting and saving, and

understanding the home purchase process -- in a supportive environment. This serves as an educational experience as well as a support network for families who are saving money and preparing to buy a home in the future.

Entrepreneurship Development and Small Business Incubator - Each student would learn about identifying business opportunities, developing business plans, managing a small business, planning for business expansion, and financial planning. This course would also involve partnering each interested student with a successful business person who would serve as a mentor. Subsequently, students would develop business plans and apply, through a competitive process, to participate in an existing micro-loan and small business incubation program. These businesses would, in turn, provide jobs in the neighborhood.


The Park Morton Model: A Community Ready for Transformation

The first Urban Family University will be located in the Park Morton public housing development located at Georgia Avenue and Morton Streets in Northwest Washington, DC. As described earlier in this paper, it was the Institute's work in the Park Morton community which led to the UFU model. Parents in the Park Morton community have taken steps to build a better environment for their children through participation in the local Kids House. In addition, several Park Morton residents served for 18 months on the UFU planning team, With the assistance of Walcoff and Associates, Inc., UFI conducted focus groups with over thirty additional Park Morton residents who were not Kids House participants. These focus groups assessed local needs and resources, especially with respect to possible UFU opportunities and with the end goal being self-sufficiency.

As a community-developed plan, the UFU model contains the necessary imprint of the residents, as well as the larger community of which it is a part. Many of the organizations who participated in the original planning team are invested in making the Urban Family University a reality. They have demonstrated their commitment by offering some of the modules on-site at Park Morton free of charge. For example:

  • The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) has offered a GED preparation course on-site five days a week for two years. UDC secured their own grant funding to subsidize this course which has helped fifteen residents to prepare for the exam.
  • The Center for Mental Health has offered two psycho-educational support groups onsite, one for parents who volunteer at Kids House and one for pre-teen and teenage girls identified as being at-risk for school failure, teenage pregnancy, and juvenile delinquency.
  • Two professors from Catholic University taught an expanded module on child development, tutoring/teaching techniques, and effective parenting.
  • Howard University's School of Nursing has signed a contract to provide free health assessments and educational workshops at Park Morton, using undergraduate and graduate nursing students and professionals as resources.

The District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) has demonstrated its support for the Institute's Urban Family University plan at Park Morton. DCHA has supported the Park Morton Kids House financially for two years and is committed to continuing that support in 1998. In 1996, DCHA partnered with the Institute to submit an application to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to fund the physical transformation of Park Morton into a "campus-like" environment through HUD's HOPE VI grant program. Unfortunately, this proposal was not funded, but DCHA remained committed to helping the Institute to implement the Urban Family University model at Park Morton.

In addition, the Housing Authority has taken responsibility for over $1 million in renovations to the Park Morton complex. They renovated the entire basement where Kids House is located. With the help of several newly hired residents, they also completed an occupied unit rehabilitation in which they painted, fixed cabinets, installed showers, and did general repairs to individual apartments. Common hallways received new lights, doors that locked, and a new coat of paint. The exterior fences were re aired and the grounds were landscaped. Graffiti was removed from the interiors and exteriors of all buildings.

Most recently, DCHA has asked the Institute to implement one of the city's Family Investment Centers . This center will be located at Park Morton. The goal of this program is to help families living in eleven public housing family developments to increase their access to educational and training opportunities which will lead to self-sufficiency. The Housing Authority will renovate the basement of the building across from Kids House to use as the Family Investment Center location. UFI is looking forward to opening this center and using it to begin small-scale operations of the Urban Family University.


How can the UFU model be replicated in other communities?

If you think an Urban Family University would be an asset to your community or if you are doing similar work and would like more information or technical assistance, UFI can help. The Institute is developing a training and technical assistance package, which will include the following:

Curriculum Guide - This will include outlines of the modules described in this paper as well as a host of other possible courses which could be offered at any live and learn "campus." A collaborative team of university experts, public housing residents, and community-based organizations contributed to the design of this curriculum. Some of the modules will be tested at the Park Morton UFU before the guide is published and some modules have already been offered in other settings by local Universities or community-based organizations.

"How To Get Started" Guide - This guide will lead future UFU's through the technical process of creating and coordinating a planning team/coalition, locating resources, and moving from concept to plan to implementation.

These two documents will be published in Summer 1998. Staff from the Institute will be available to travel to sites around the country, to share our experiences, and to help people move through this process.

Contact person:

Kent Amos, President/Founder, Caitlin Wood Sklar, Associate Director

Urban Family Institute, 1400 16th Street, NW #101

Washington, DC 20036, Phone: 202-234-KIDS, FAX: 202-232-FAX

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352

Copyright 1999, US Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.