How can the city of Cleveland enable all of its children and youth to realize their potential?
That was the theme of a daylong conference this spring marking the 20th anniversary of the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve. The event featured researchers from across the university, policy experts, service providers, educators and community residents. In addition, young people lent their voices to the occasion, both in person and in videos produced by the center’s assistant director, Samantha Hill, in which they spoke of their hopes and fears, needs and strengths.
A series of sessions took up such topics as early childhood, education, health care, and the role of the arts in child development. One panel, introduced by Schubert Center Director Jill Korbin, the Lucy Adams Leffingwell Professor in the Department of Anthropology, focused on conditions in low-income neighborhoods that undermine children’s physical and emotional health.
Members of the panel cited stark realities in Cleveland: a child poverty rate of 52 percent; rates of infant mortality and youth violence among the highest of any American city; a declining but still alarming percentage of children poisoned by lead. But they also offered proposals and descriptions of efforts to address these issues.
Associate Professor Robert Fischer, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, discussed the impact of lead poisoning on children’s reading skills and argued that the search for solutions must involve educators as well as health and housing officials. Associate Professor Scott Frank, director of the Master of Public Health Initiative at the CWRU School of Medicine, shared the encouraging results of a violence prevention program that he and his colleagues have implemented in the city’s recreation centers, recruiting and training neighborhood teens as peer educators.
Both of these conference participants are among the Schubert Center’s Faculty Associates—90 CWRU scholars and researchers, including almost 20 from the College of Arts and Sciences, whose work is related to childhood or child well-being.
Frank opened his talk by saying, “I feel both joyful and sobered. Joyful to be part of this panel, part of this conference, with all of these people caring about the children in Cleveland; and sobered by the extent of the problems that we face.”
Later, he praised the advocacy efforts of other Faculty Associates, and of Gabriella Celeste, the Schubert Center’s child policy director, saying they had helped make it possible to implement “a public health approach to violence prevention in the city of Cleveland for the first time.”
Like Frank, Korbin acknowledges the severity of the challenges confronting children and young people—not just locally, but also nationally and globally. A significant portion of her own research is devoted to the subject of child maltreatment. But the conference gave her a chance to reflect on the center’s contributions to policy and practice even in areas where the problems seem intractable.
“We have made progress in linking the university and the community, for the purpose of linking research and policy,” Korbin says. “We have aimed to bring together different perspectives to improve the state of children. We have also furthered the education of our students by helping them experience firsthand how research can impact the lives of children, their families and communities.”
Although the center has evolved over the past two decades, its fundamental purpose has remained consistent. Initially called the Schubert Center for Child Development, it aimed to facilitate research and make the results available to clinicians and institutions that worked with children and families. Under its first director, psychologist and Professor Emeritus Donald Freedheim, the center forged connections among researchers across the university and called attention to the impact of social problems on
Freedheim returned to campus for the anniversary conference, and so did another retired faculty member, Jane W. Kessler (GRS ’51), a groundbreaking researcher, clinician and educator. In 1958, Kessler founded Western Reserve University’s Mental Development Center (MDC), a service provider for children with mental disabilities, and she continued as director for almost four decades. Now the Lucy Adams Leffingwell Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychological Sciences, Kessler was a leader in changing public attitudes toward such children and improving the care they received. Her achievements were newly recognized this spring, when CWRU awarded her the 2018 Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize.
Kessler’s center benefited from the generosity of Helen Schubert and her husband, Leland, local philanthropists who endowed the MDC with a $500,000 gift in 1978. “Helen Schubert was a remarkable person who knew what she wanted to achieve, was involved every step of the way and was very much interested in doing things for the good of the community,” Kessler recalls.
When the MDC eventually left the university and was absorbed into a local social service agency, the family approved the endowment’s transfer to what became the Schubert Center. Today, the couple’s son and daughter-in-law, John and Barbara Schubert, take a lively interest in the center’s activities. In fact, John Schubert introduced the keynote event at the April conference: a forum on the media’s role in advocating for children, broadcast live in partnership with the City Club of Cleveland.
Under Korbin’s leadership (she was named co-director in 2001 and director five years later), the Schubert Center has expanded its mission by bringing research findings to the attention of legislators and other public officials. At the same time, it has cultivated an ever-broader range of partnerships with community agencies and nonprofits, in part through its Mann Child Policy Externship Program (see below).
“In urban settings, you sometimes have a large divide between a university, state and local government, and practitioners in the community who are serving children,” Korbin says. “So part of our role has been to bridge these different constituencies and advocate for policy change.”
Celeste leads the Schubert Center’s activities in this area. This past spring, for example, she testified before an Ohio Senate committee in support of legislation to reduce school suspensions and expulsions, and invest in social-emotional learning, for children in pre-K through grade 3.
“I conveyed the data that we’ve been assembling for years about school suspensions—who is impacted, what grades and what geographies,” Celeste says. The data show that low-income, minority children make up a disproportionate percentage of those who are suspended or expelled.
Lawmakers ultimately approved the bill, and Gov. John Kasich signed it in July. Child advocates had hoped for a measure that would apply to students all the way through 12th grade and invest more in professional development for teachers and school resource officers. Still, Celeste says, the law “is a huge success for the state and for kids, given the alternatives that were in play. Policy is almost always a compromise but hopefully moves us closer toward better outcomes for young people.”
There aren’t many organizations that connect academic research to policy and practice, says Lisa Damour, a senior advisor to the Schubert Center. Damour, a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, is the author of the bestselling book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood; during the anniversary conference, she moderated a panel on strengthening children’s and adolescents’ relationships with adults. “The Schubert Center communicates and expands how we use research to provide the proper services and increase the quality of programming for kids,” she says.
As the Schubert Center enters its third decade, it has welcomed Anastasia Dimitropoulos, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, as its first research director. “We have faculty members on campus who are doing wonderful work in child studies,” Dimitropoulos says. “So finding a way to bring support to the faculty, and then have their research reach the community more effectively, is important.”
“There is always more to do,” Korbin says. “However, we’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be able to work on meaningful issues for children, families and communities, and engage with our outstanding colleagues and Faculty Associates at the Schubert Center.”
The Schubert Center’s anniversary conference was made possible by the generous support of the Cleveland Foundation, Dr. Donald and Gerda Freedheim, Ideastream, Dr. Jane Kessler, Saint Luke’s Foundation and United Way of Greater Cleveland.
Policy in the Field
Carol and Robert Mann support student externs in the Schubert Center’s Childhood Studies Program
Alumni siblings Carol Mann (FSM ’71) and Robert Mann (WRC ’73) have a long history of funding experiential learning opportunities for CWRU undergraduates through an endowment they created in their mother’s memory. Most recently, they have enabled students in the Schubert Center’s Childhood Studies Program to work as child policy externs in local public agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Shelby Mitchell (CWR ’18), who graduated in May with a psychology degree, sought an externship where she could pursue her interest in juvenile justice. During the spring of her senior year, she obtained a placement in the Probation Department of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court. Mitchell got a firsthand look at the operations of the juvenile justice system, shadowing several of its key players. She conducted a detailed case review of juveniles committed to the Ohio Department of Youth Services and found that signs of trauma were common among them. On the basis of her research, she recommended interventions and policy reforms that would enable the system to serve these young people more effectively.
Her time at the juvenile court, Mitchell says, was “one of the most meaningful opportunities during my college experience. It allowed me to step outside of my textbooks and witness many of the topics and policies I had been studying as an undergraduate.”
Since 2005, when the Schubert Center created the Mann Child Policy Externship Program, the placement sites have included Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services, the Cleveland Department of Public Health, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, child and community behavioral health providers and child advocacy organizations.
The Manns’ endowment also underwrites an annual trip to Washington, D.C., for students enrolled in a policy course that Gabriella Celeste, the center’s child policy director, teaches each spring. During their visit, Celeste and the students meet with members of Congress and their staffs, officials from administrative agencies and policy experts from research organizations and advocacy groups.
“The students pick a policy topic they are interested in, such as immigration or child health,” Celeste says. “Then they see what it looks like at the federal level and have a distinctive hands-on learning experience made possible by the Manns.”
Graduates of the program often seek out further opportunities to serve children and youth. Mitchell, for instance, has joined City Year, a nonprofit educational organization, and is helping students at Cleveland’s Glenville High School improve their academic and social-emotional skills. Eventually, she plans to become a lawyer. Three of Mitchell’s fellow externs, Grace Chu, Delaney Jones and Brittany Rabb, began pursuing master’s degrees in social work at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences this fall. Jones’ interests include engaging in “macro-level policy work or work with community change.”
In Celeste’s view, policy education and experience serve undergraduates well whatever path they ultimately follow. “Part of what we are trying to do is help our students understand how public policy impacts nearly every aspect of their lives,” she explains. “No matter what career they choose, understanding policy is a valuable skill.”