A Builder of Community Schools

Jane F. Quinn has lead a movement to engage social service agencies with the work of education

By Elizabeth Duffrin

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Jane F. QuinnIn her first week at the District of Columbia Health Department in October 1971, social worker Jane F. Quinn, AM '69 noticed an elementary school outside her window and decided to visit. Outreach was a health department mission. But Quinn, SSA's 2015 Edith Abbott Award for Lifetime Achievement recipient, was the first to cross the street to find out what the nearest school actually needed.

The principal and counselor sat down with her immediately, she recalls. "They looked at me, and they said two words: 'Sex education.'

"I said, 'Look, I went to Catholic school for 17 years, I don't know much about sex education. But let me see what I can do,'" recalls Quinn.

Soon she was working with school staff to design a sex education program and recruiting colleagues to help her teach it. Parents loved it. Other public schools called requesting it. And one day, to her surprise, came a call from the local Catholic school, requesting a similar program for its students.

Listening and innovating are the bedrock of Quinn’s 46-year social work career. Her jobs have spanned the spectrum and include direct service, program development, philanthropy, research, and non-profit leadership. And the path from one role to the next has not evolved according to a pre-determined plan, she says, but rather as a series of leaps, frightening at times, towards enticing new challenges.

A single mission drives her, however: a desire to improve the lives of low-income children. Now vice president of The Children's Aid Society in New York City and director of its National Center for Community Schools, Quinn helps districts across the country create community schools through partnerships with outside agencies that provide after school programs, social services, and other resources to students and their families at their school sites. These might include homework help, sports, and academic enrichment for kids, GED classes, or English classes for parents and, in some cases, full-service health centers for the whole family.

"She's one of the modern architects of the community schools movement," says Edward Lawlor, dean of Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis, Missouri and formerly dean of SSA. "And a lot of her work is designed to improve not only social supports to kids but their academic achievement."

Yet whether working with a client or leading a national movement, Quinn has always considered herself a social worker. "To me," she explains, "social work is about social change, whether it's with individuals, groups, or systems."

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Quinn says that she fell into social work almost by accident. As an undergraduate at the College of New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York, she had followed her father's practical advice and majored in economics.

After earning her BA in 1966, she went looking for a job in her hometown of Buffalo, New York, and found one as a caseworker at Catholic Charities, where her uncle served on the board. She discovered that she loved helping families locate what they needed, whether healthcare, jobs, immunizations, free furniture, or summer camp for the kids.

"I had a great boss," she recalls. "After a few months he said, 'You're really good at this, you need to get a master's degree.'"

She chose SSA, not only for its reputation, she says, but also for its generous financial support (she received an SSA-administered fellowship from the US Children's Bureau) and for its commitment to working in urban areas with low-income families. She found what she was looking for—in one field placement she served as a caseworker doing home visits and resource referrals for clients of the Cook County welfare department. Her supervisor was Arnita Boswell, sister of civil rights leader Whitney Young. She modeled the "idea that everybody had dignity no matter what their situation," Quinn recalls, "It was very meaningful to me."

The academic demands of SSA "instilled a rigor," she says, and influenced her to be a life-long learner and "a voracious reader of professional literature."

A favorite class was "Social Work and the Police" taught by Peggy Rosenheim, a leading juvenile justice researcher and later SSA dean. The course examined different ways that social workers interact with the police such as through foster care or the juvenile justice system. That class led to Quinn's decision after graduation to become a caseworker with the Juvenile Protective Association in Chicago, assisting and investigating families accused of child abuse or neglect.

Not long after graduation, she met her husband, Terry Quinn, AM '71 (now a teacher, novelist, playwright, and lyricist) through friends from SSA. In 1971, she followed him to Washington, D.C. and began a social work job with the District of Columbia Health Department.

Quinn found direct service so rewarding that she passed on many offers to become a supervisor or administrator, she says. "Because I was doing a lot of work with adolescents, I learned how young people think, how they make decisions, and about the conditions in their neighborhoods [and] homes. I draw on that every day."

The health department clinic was in inner-city Washington, D.C., a virtually all-black neighborhood, and "Jane was one of a handful of white staff members," her former colleague Pam Wilson recalls. "But she was so able to make authentic connections with all kinds of clients. It was amazing."

Wilson recalls Quinn’s resourcefulness in forging professional connections, as well. The sex education program initially was taught only by health department social workers who were all women, and the youth needed to talk to men, too. So Quinn reached out to a colleague at Howard University Medical School and arranged for medical students (who included a significant number of men) to co-facilitate the program. "She was always putting things like that together," says Wilson.

In 1978, just as the health department had promoted her to a supervisory position, Quinn discovered a job posted on a professional conference bulletin board for the Center for Population Options. It involved working with 20 youth organizations to develop programs on adolescent sexuality. It sounded exciting and she got the job but wasn't certain she had the skills to succeed.

After giving notice at the health department she was so anxious, she says, "I would wake up in the middle of the night sitting straight up. It was the most scared I’ve ever been."

The risk paid off. On that job she learned how to raise funds, a skill that provided a competitive advantage for the rest of her career. It also propelled her into the national arena.

In 1981, Girls Clubs of America in New York, her favorite of the 20 groups, recruited her as their national program director. Girls Clubs (now Girls Inc.) served low-income children in 38 states, and she spent the first year visiting sites across the country. Based on what she learned, she launched a number of programs still operating in some form today. One, funded with the National Science Foundation's first-ever grant to a national youth organization, builds girls' interest in science and technology careers with hands-on projects and internships. Another, launched with proceeds from the 1984 Olympic torch race, teaches girls basic sports skills, such as running and throwing and then connects them with other organizations in the community offering the sports they want to try. "We had kids trying archery and fishing and squash and all sorts of unexpected things," she says.

While at Girls Clubs, she served on a national commission led by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to reform middle grade education. There Quinn spoke about the need for learning outside of the school day. Intrigued, Carnegie President David Hamburg asked her to lead a followup study on American youth organizations to better understand what kids do out of school and the community programs available to them. The job was based at the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in Washington, D.C. and led to the Council’s book-length report, A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours, published in 1992.

"It was a seminal piece of research," says Gina Warner, CEO of the National Afterschool Association in D.C. Before the report, after school programs primarily were viewed as childcare, she notes, but Quinn demonstrated their potential to develop youth, improve children's safety, and reduce their participation in crime. Warner credits the report with inspiring the creation of the community schools model, major collaborations to create afterschool programs in New York, Providence, and Chicago, and new state and city funding streams to support those programs.

In 1993, Quinn returned to New York, recruited by the Wallace Foundation as their program director. Her chief accomplishment was leading a strategic planning process to determine how best to invest $30 million a year to serve low-income children.

Missing direct contact with children and families, she left Wallace in 2000 for the Children's Aid Society in New York. The society has 22 community schools that, according to outside researchers, have raised academic achievement, student attendance, and parent involvement, among other accomplishments. The programs serve as a national model, and Quinn and her team provide technical assistance to other schools and districts that want to adopt it. She even helped former Dean Lawlor design an SSA program to train social workers as community school directors.

"When you walk into a New York City school with Jane, the love and admiration for her pours out," Lawlor says. "She appears to know everyone by name, their stories and challenges."

Jane receiving the Edith Abbott Award

Under Quinn's leadership, the model has spread to 75 US school districts, 76 countries, and thousands of schools.

Still crossing the country almost weekly, Quinn has no plans to retire. Finding varied work for a cause she feels passionately about has sustained her enthusiasm, she believes.

It's a cause she discovered by chance. The US Children's Bureau fellowship that helped pay for her SSA degree required her to spend at least two years working on behalf of children. "That was 48 years ago," she says. "I think they might feel they got a bargain with me."