The seed for what was to become the University of Pittsburgh
Office of Child Development was sown in 1983, when two junior faculty members
set out to organize an interdisciplinary conference on child development and
Mark S. Strauss, from the Department of Psychology, and Carl
N. Johnson, from the Program of Child Development and Child Care in the
School of Social Work, observed that although many of their faculty colleagues
held interests in children, youth, and families, they were scattered across the
university landscape and often worked in isolation from society, whose problems
they sought to relieve.
They reasoned that collaboration across disciplinary barriers
might enrich University projects with complementary perspectives and skills.
Also, if service professionals and policymakers were brought into the
collaborative mix, perhaps the broad-based information academics had to offer
would receive more of their attention and be put to use to benefit families and
Although the University had attempted for several years to bring
groups together around issues of children and youth, the effort had not taken
hold. "We decided the reason it never lasted was because it had to go on the
inertia of individual faculty. There was nothing organized. There was no money
behind it. No sort of mission. That got us thinking about the idea of having
this facilitative office," said Strauss.
So, Strauss and Johnson organized an interdisciplinary group of
faculty to create a unit that would help to bring a wide range of expertise to
bear on issues important to children, youth, and families.
“When Mark and I were thinking about this whole thing, we went
back and forth on the idea of an office or a center,” said Johnson. “The
problem with a center is that it would not serve the purpose of
interdisciplinary connection because it ends up becoming another unit, another
discipline. Conversely, the idea of having a facilitating unit was a hard sell
within the University. The University is constantly thinking a unit like this
should support itself. But if we did, we’d have to get our own funds, we’d have
our own indirect costs, and we’d become self-serving. The whole reason for this
organization was to serve other groups.”
The interdisciplinary committee embraced the concept of a unit
devoted to facilitating interdisciplinary education and research, promoting
mutually beneficial partnerships between faculty and community professionals,
and disseminating information to service professionals, policymakers, and the
general public. The proposal for the Office of Child Development was taken to
the Provost, who provided a senior professorship with which to hire a director.
It was also well received outside the University, gaining financial backing
from the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Buhl Foundation.
The new Office was to be a support unit. It would facilitate,
create, support, and serve collaborative projects that eventually would be
owned and operated by the participants. It would not operate the
interdisciplinary projects it spawned.
Among the first orders of business was to hire a director, preferably
from outside the University, who would represent the kind of academic credits
that the University valued, but also have a value for, and some experience
with, the applied activities that were to be the focus of the Office's agenda.
The Office hired Robert B. McCall, whose experience
covered the scholastic, services, and dissemination themes of the Office. Dr.
McCall was a scholar of infant mental development and longitudinal research
design and analysis. He had been Chairman of Psychology at Fels Research Institute,
and then Executive Assistant to the Director for Program Planning and
Evaluation at Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town. He also had been contributing
editor, columnist, and feature writer for Parents
The Office of Child Development was born when Dr. McCall arrived
in September 1986. Among his first actions was to seek out a Human Services
Margaret Petruska, Program Officer at the Howard Heinz
Endowment, mentioned the position to Christina
J. Groark, formerly a services administrator for the Association of
Retarded Citizens and the Allegheny County Mental Health/Mental
Retardation/Drug and Alcohol Department, Groark decided to interview, in part,
to meet McCall, whose columns in Parents
magazine she had read. She accepted the position. It was a hiring that would
serve the Office well. In 1993, Groark would become its Co-Director and the
main architect of its program direction.
Much of the first two years were devoted to meetings with people
from the University, policymakers, and funders to explore potential services
and collaborations and create a climate in which interdisciplinary
collaborations could germinate.
It wasn’t long, however, until a group of faculty and community
professionals organized by Dr. Strauss succeeded in obtaining a federal grant
for an interdisciplinary training program in child abuse and neglect that was
to have a substantial role for community agencies.
The grant would be followed by several other planning grants
with Edward Sites of the School of Social Work over the next decade,
including the Interdisciplinary Child Welfare Training Grant. The Office also
helped United Mental Health get a grant in 1987, the first of many significant
grants it would help other agencies obtain.
The Office would have a short, but torrid, childhood. During a
four-year period, it would develop the first major projects in
interdisciplinary education, interdisciplinary research, needs assessments,
indicators, university-community networking, service demonstrations, program
evaluation, and policy studies.
One project arose when Jay Belsky was invited to give a
lecture as part of the Office's colloquium series. A specialist from
Pennsylvania State University on the effects of day-care, he lamented that a grant
request was out to study the effects of different early childhood service
experiences on later development, but he did not have the number of children in
State College that were needed nor the faculty expertise in some of the
The University of Pittsburgh had such resources, however. Dr.
Strauss organized Susan Campbell, Celia Brownell, and Jeff Cohen --
a collaboration that eventually received substantial funding as one of
nine national sites of the NICHD’s Study of Children’s Lives. It was the prototypical
example of how the Office was to operate; namely facilitate collaboration and
step aside once it was funded to organize the next partnership.
This model process, however, was not often duplicated. In
1988-89, for example, the Office organized faculty at the University of
Pittsburgh, Temple, and Penn State, in addition to Ethel Tittnich,
Martha Isler, and Barbara Smith from the Pittsburgh community to
conduct a needs assessment of early childhood services in Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania
State Board of Education. When no one stepped forward, the Office took the
Meanwhile, the Office conducted its first program evaluation of
the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Clairton. In 1990, the Office
published Overcoming the Odds, which
documented the risk of child and family problems in various Allegheny County
neighborhoods. The report, which has been widely used to target resources, led
to the State of the Child series,
first prepared by Elena Shair and then by Martha Steketee.
The Office also staffed the nascent Allegheny County Commission
on Children (Andi Fischhoff), a predecessor of the Allegheny Policy
Council, which was its first strategic planning project. The Office also wrote
its first background paper, Preventing
School Failure, for United Way. Dozens of Special Reports and Briefing
Papers on issues related to children and families would follow.
Also, Kathryn Rudy was hired as Assistant Human Service
Coordinator, and she organized and funded the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Task
Force for Runaway and Homeless Youth, the first of several networks she would
undertake to organize.
“Growth was really not part of the original idea,” said McCall. “On
paper, we were to coordinate and stimulate interdisciplinary activities within
the University and between the University and community professionals. Once
groups were created and funded they would pick their own directors and go off and
do their projects.” Increasingly, however, the Office was asked to take a continuing
role. “Groups asked us to stay to manage the project once it was funded. That
had not been anticipated.”
For example, two major service demonstration projects were
undertaken during this time. When the
Allegheny County MH/MR/D&A decided to organize the county’s outreach, screening,
and referral effort for families with children with disabilities, it needed
someone to hold in balance the medical professionals from five area hospitals
and the child development specialists and social workers who would follow-up with
participating families. The Office stepped in, wrote the grant application,
organized, and then operated the Alliance for Infants.
The same year, the experimental federal Comprehensive Child Development
Program was created. Families Facing the Future, operated by Community Human
Services, Corps, was one of three national pilot projects. The Office worked
with its project director, Laurie Mulvey, to organize what became Family
Foundations, now one of the original federal Early Head Start demonstration and
research/evaluation projects. Although the intent of the Office was not to
operate the program, the partners insisted, reasoning that if collaborative projects
need an independent convener, they needed an independent manager when there was
money and administrative decisions to make.
“The Office was established to facilitate collaborations. But
once a project was to be implemented, the neutrality we brought sometimes was
necessary to implement and manage the project, because the kinds of projects we
developed required collaborations and comprehensive work,” said Groark. “Because
we were seen as a neutral management organization, we were able to avoid turf
Those two demonstration programs changed the course of the
Office to facilitator and manager of collaborative service demonstration
projects and set it on a new growth trajectory. Within a year, for example, A
Better Start, directed by Christine Mitchell-Weaver, would join this
group. Eventually, the Statewide Needs Assessment in 1993 led to the creation
of the Office’s Policy and Evaluation Project, which primarily evaluated
community-operated service projects. At that point, office staff were clearly
conducting, not just facilitating, a wide range of projects.
One other event defined the new thrust for the Office. In 1991,
President Bush initiated the Healthy Start Program to reduce infant mortality. Co-Director
Groark was asked to help organize the grant application. The planning grant was
funded, the Office managed the planning and implementation phase, and the plan
was approved without alteration. The $30 million initiative was then operated
by the Allegheny County Health Department.
Several existing and new projects focused on the theme of family
Family Foundations became Early Head Start. The Office led the
management for the county in organizing family support programs and hired Sheila
Beasley-Sims to be Director of the new Allegheny Family Support Policy
Board. The Office provided management services for the Partnerships for Family
Support (Eartha Sewell), and the Policy and Evaluation Project became a leader
in evaluating family support programs (Beth Green, Anne Farber).
In addition, the Office began to conduct more strategic planning
activities and policy studies. Most notably, it was awarded one of the five
national sites of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Starting Points
initiative to improve the outcomes of young children. Robert Nelkin,
former director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, was hired
to direct the local project, which received a matching grant from the Heinz
Office’s mature years began with a comprehensive strategic planning process in
1996-7. Part of this process involved asking Arthur Anderson, Inc., the
national accounting and business consulting firm, to review the Office’s
financial and managerial operations. Anderson’s report lauded the Office for
its financial success under conditions that are far more restrictive than in
private industry with regard to how funds can be accumulated and spent.
However, the report also suggested that the Co-Directors could not continue to
directly oversee all of the projects operated within the Office, because this had
become too time consuming and deprived them of time to prospect for new
projects and to guide the Office’s future. As a result, over the next few years,
divisions of similar projects were created with directors who would supervise the
operation of those projects.
Division of Service Demonstrations. The first division was Service
Demonstrations, directed by Laurie
Mulvey, which embraced the Comprehensive Child Development Program that later
became Early Head Start (originally directed by Vivian Herman and now by Christopher
Dunkerley). In addition, Partnerships for Family Support coordinated a
network of eventually more than 30 family support programs in the Pittsburgh
region. (Policy Board Director, Laura
Subsequently, a few years after the
Heinz Endowments and the R. K. Mellon Foundation among others began
Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Initiative to bring to scale quality early care
and education for low-resource families, they asked the University, which asked
the Office, to create a model Early Care and Education Program for low-resource
children in two Pittsburgh communities. Ultimately, these centers achieved the highest environmental care
ratings in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, the Office became
the Keystone STARS Technical Assistance Center (Bernadette Bennermon) to help early care and education centers and
family-based providers improve their quality. This in turn led to Strengthening
Early Learning Supports, a federal program to improve quality in early care and
education programs, and this project led to the Early Childhood Mental Health
project, which provides support to early care and education centers having
children with behavioral challenges. Finally, Pathways to School Success, originally
directed by Ken Smythe-Leistico and
now by Aisha White, prepares parents,
children, and kindergarten teachers for the transition of young children to
kindergarten, a program being expanded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and across
Division of Applied Research and Evaluation
(DARE). The Policy and Evaluation Project eventually became the Division of
Program Evaluation and Planning, directed by Ann Farber, which some years later was renamed the Division of
Applied Research and Evaluation (DARE), directed by Junlei Li and now Milena
Nigam. Among its more prominent projects was a statewide evaluation of
post-traumatic stress disorder services and a Juvenile Justice Quality
Improvement program, both directed by Jennifer
Zajac, and the evaluation of a large teenage sexual activity and pregnancy
prevention intervention conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. Its interdisciplinary
program evaluation function soon became one of the largest of its kind in a USA
University, and one of the few devoted almost exclusively to evaluating
community-created and operated services. Over the years, DARE has worked with
community agencies to evaluate dozens of projects of different kinds, and now
offers community agencies an expanded set of skills and services.
In the late
1990’s, the International Assistance Group, an agency that specializes in
placing Russian children for adoption in the Pittsburgh region, asked Christina Groark and Kathryn Rudy to go to Russia to assess
emerging services for families and how to improve the quality of orphanages in
the post-Yeltsin era. After three trips to St. Petersburg, a model intervention
for an orphanage for children birth to 4-years of age was created collaboratively
with Russian colleagues and ultimately funded by the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development and implemented in 2000-2005. The restructured orphanage produced
substantial improvements in the children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional
development relative to children in comparison orphanages. The Office also
followed the parents and children who lived in these and other orphanages who
transitioned to families in the USA and St. Petersburg. As a consequence of
this work, the Office was asked to assess institutions and evaluate
interventions created and implemented by other groups in San Salvador,
Nicaragua, and China. Indeed, the Office
is now among the most experienced organizations in the world at evaluating
orphanages for infants and toddlers and interventions designed to improve their
quality of life.
Division of Policy Initiatives. The Starting Points project was the early
foundation of the Division of Policy Initiatives with Robert Nelkin as
the inaugural director. The division operated a project encouraging smoking
cessation among pregnant women. Subsequently,
Nelkin was asked by the Governor to chair a commission for children and
families (i.e., “The Children’s Cabinet”). A few years later, Nelkin left to head the United Way of Allegheny County,
and he was succeeded by Ray Firth,
who among other projects conducted a local needs assessment of mental health
services for infants and young children and with Joan Eichner is now focusing on the unmet needs of homeless
families with young children.
In the late
1990’s, the Office was instrumental in putting together faculty from Penn State
and Temple Universities into the Universities Children’s Policy Consortium (UCPC), which was devoted to improving
policies for children and families. In 2001, Governor Schweiker created the
Governor’s Task Force on Early Care and Education, and the UCPC was poised to provide
the Task Force with basic information on the availability and nature of
training early care and education staff and professionals in the state’s
colleges and universities, the needs of parents in Pennsylvania, and the
quality of early care in Pennsylvania.
Division of Early Childhood Partnerships. In 2011, the Early Childhood Partnerships (ECP), formerly housed in
Pediatrics, joined the Office as a new division directed by Steve Bagnato and Joyce D’Antonio. ECP brought the Office complementary projects and
skills, especially in providing technical assistance to teachers, broad
experience in evaluating early care and education programming in the region,
and a specialization in young children with disabilities.
Division of Communications. Most
recently, the Local Advisory Board urged the Office to expand its communication
activities locally and nationally to share the fruits of its knowledge and
projects as well as lessons learned in implementing new projects in the
community. With the help of the Frank and Theresa Caplan Fund for Early
Childhood Development and Parenting Education, which had been established at the
Office in 1989, the Office published over the years a set of guides for parents
and specifically for foster parents, newspaper columns on parenting, background
statements for journalists on issues of child development, and a quarterly
newsletter that contained a Special Report on a major topic of interest. These
information materials have been extensively accessed on the Office’s website.
With the advent of the Communications Division, directed by Kerry Ishizaki, and assisted by Reem Hobeldin the website is being reorganized,
more information is being placed on the website, the Annual Report has been
reformulated, an internal website has been created to promote better
communication within the Office, and a variety of communication techniques and
services have been offered to staff to improve their presentations and
started with essentially three people and a budget of $150,000 per year and was
originally envisioned to promote collaborations within the University and
between University and community professionals rather than operate projects, but
it quickly learned that if an independent convener was needed to create and
fund a project, an independent manager was often needed once the project
started. Consequently, the Office grew
rapidly in the first decade and subsequently has maintained over the years a
staff of 60-85 and an annual operating budget of $6-8 million of which 90+% is
external grant funding. Further, this operating budget does not include
millions of dollars the Office has brought to the community and helped other
agencies to obtain. Also, the Office’s level of funding has been maintained
despite the fact that several major projects, some with funding of more than
one million dollars per year, have been spun off to the community when they
become routine established services. As an investment, the Office has
continually leveraged every dollar invested in it to $20-30 of specific project
funding. The Office also has one of the
most diverse staff in the University, racially and ethnically but also with
respect to the extent of education and fields of study (e.g., early education,
early intervention, psychology, social work, public health, communications,
nursing, and law, among others), and the Office provides training to as many as
20 students per year.
has become probably the largest, most comprehensive, and most applied
university-based unit devoted to forging collaborations among faculty,
community professionals, and policy makers to create, implement, and manage
innovative projects that attempt to directly contribute to the health,
education, and welfare of children, youth, and families in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, the nation, and beyond.
years and across many projects, the Office has emphad the importance of the
early years for children’s development, has created model early care and
education programs, and provided technical assistance to many more programs to
improve their quality and effectiveness. In addition, it established prenatal
and postnatal screening programs and improved access to quality early
intervention programs for children with, or at-risk of, having a disability or
poor developmental outcomes. It has implemented, supported, and coordinated one
of the nation’s largest network of family support programs. Its communications
have kept parents, faculty, practitioners and policymakers on the cutting edge
of research evidence, its evaluations have contributed to program improvements,
and it has provided dozens of students with research and practice experience.
It has contributed research, practice, and policy knowledge to child welfare
services around the world. And these projects have improved directly and
indirectly the lives of countless children and families.
Why the Office of Child
Development Has Worked
The growth and success of the Office are likely associated with
several factors, some unique and some more general.
1. The Office has demonstrated that a facilitative unit requires
senior personnel who command the trust and respect of faculty, agency
directors, policymakers, and others to devote full time to creating
collaborations and leading such a unit. Collaborations do not occur spontaneously.
They require someone to take the lead and see them through, which occurs best
when someone is employed, directed, and paid to do precisely that.
“We were able to attract staff who were interdisciplinary and
senior, so they walked in the door with a lot of experience and respect,”
Groark said. ‘The people who have been hired are on the cutting edge. They keep
a finger on the pulse of the community by participating on task forces, boards
of directors, policy councils, and committees of all kinds. That allows us to
listen to the heartbeat of society and know what the next issue is so that we
can assist policymakers and program managers as soon as the issue arises.”
2. Within the Office itself, an emphasis on collaborative
decision-making has allowed staff to practice among themselves the coalition
building that they try to forge among faculty and agencies outside the Office.
3. An attitude of service has also proven to be effective. The
Office, has been able to hire, nurture, and maintain a staff who are passionate
about improving the lives of children and families.
4. A prominent, active, representative Local Advisory Board
provides support and perspectives on the role of the Office within the
University, community, state, and nation. The Local Board includes representatives
from all of the Office’s constituencies: administration, faculty, service
agencies, funders, and policymakers. A National Advisory Board provides broader
perspectives on the potential role of the Office nationally and its role in the
5. Although the Office has been successful at raising outside
funds, it cannot survive without core funding from the University and the
Pittsburgh community, especially the Howard Heinz Endowment and the R. K.
Mellon Foundation among others.
6. The Office has remained responsive and flexible to the
changing needs of its partners within the University and in the community. The
Office's domain is not more specific than children, youth, and families, so the
Office can move in directions that are defined by its partners, believing that
true collaborations are partnerships from the beginning in which all
participants contribute to the plan as well as its implementation.
7. A unit that
seeks to build collaborations and partnerships between university and community
must genuinely respect and value the diverse skills of faculty, service
professionals, and policy makers as well as parents, community, members, and
staff, some of whom have doctorates and others have community and practice
knowledge and street smarts. The Office has consciously tried to create and
maintain internally a culture of respect for diversity along many dimensions.
In the next few
years, the Office will face at least two of the most challenging circumstances
in its history. First, the financial
climate for governmental and private funding of health, education, and welfare
services for low-resource children and families will be as bleak over the next
few years as it has ever been in OCD's history. Second, most of the Office's
current leadership are likely to retire in the next 3-6 years.
We have taken a variety of steps toward succession planning. Ken Smythe-Leistico has been appointed
Assistant Director and participates in all programmatic and administrative
affairs of the Office. Further, younger staff are being given increased
responsibilities and trained to assume the lead on several major projects, and
the Office is taking the initiative to collaborate with the increasing number
of faculty with applied interests to enrich our knowledge base and expand the
types of funding for our projects.
Financially, the Office has frequently faced funding cutbacks
over the years and has voluntarily spun off large projects, yet its budget has
increased and been maintained over the last decade, for example.
It is the commitment, passion, and flexibility of the Office’s
staff to move in new directions in tune with the times that will continue to
lift the Office over bumps in the road and to contribute to the health,
education, and welfare of children and families of the future.