Harvard Kennedy School Students Present Policy Ideas to Boston Mayor

Young Theorists Hope Their Projects will Make a Difference

May 2, 2008
by Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette

Everybody’s got an opinion. But some are more thoughtful than others, as Boston city officials learned in a recent meeting with Harvard graduate students. On Tuesday (April 29), students from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (HKS) met with the mayor of Boston to discuss several projects they hope might help make the city a better place.

The projects ranged from the effectiveness of surveillance cameras on crime in the city to how to develop solar power options on municipal buildings to the best way to create a public residential high school for homeless students.

The men and women submitted their reports to Mayor Thomas M. Menino in City Hall’s Eagle Room. The work was the culmination of their “policy analysis exercise” (PAE), similar to a master’s thesis, required of HKS students in their final year of the School’s masters in public policy program. Students select their PAE project based on their chosen policy area of concentration and work with local, national, and even international institutions on real-world issues. The policy areas cover a wide range of topics, from the nonprofit sector to health care to education to human rights to international security.

Much of the local work was facilitated by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at HKS, whose mission is to help improve local government by developing connections among scholars, students, area officials and civic leaders. Over the years the institute has helped foster projects between the students and officials around Greater Boston and Massachusetts to address a variety of real-world problems.

This year, six different projects involved the city of Boston, while several others engaged with other local communities in the Greater Boston area. Some of the students came up with their own project, while others consulted a database posted on the HKS Web site where local officials list challenges that they are looking to address.

Emily Schmitt ’04, and Melodie Potts evaluated the feasibility of a community-based model that could offer a variety of social support programs for children and their families. They based their project on the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive youth and social services for children and families in New York City.

During their research, the pair interviewed nonprofit service providers, members of foundations in Boston, academics, and people running similar initiatives. In the end they determined the single-entity nature of the model in New York City was a sound one that ensured strong accountability mechanisms and high-quality programming. They recommended that Boston test out the model on a small scale in an area that isn’t currently supported by existing service providers. They presented their 40-page findings to the mayor on Tuesday.

“It was a great opportunity to get to know the city of Boston better — and local government … [and] see how social programs work at the city and local level,” said Schmitt, who took numerous classes in poverty and social policy while at Harvard and hopes to work in Washington, D.C., in community development after she graduates.

David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, helps connect students with local leaders and officials and frequently serves as an informal adviser for the local PAE projects. He said the real-world experience offered by the program is invaluable.

“Almost any time that you can apply your academics to a real work setting and see how an issue actually plays out, that’s when you really learn,” he said.

Matt Mayrl, who hopes to work on urban policy issues after graduation, explored the development of a public residential high school, one that could address the needs of homeless teens. Mayrl, who worked for the city as a Rappaport fellow last year, was encouraged by Boston officials to explore the idea further after attending a presentation made to the city about a school in Washington, D.C., that has a successful residential program.

Mayrl, who partnered with fellow HKS student Jeff Ginsburg for the project, said the exercise offered him the opportunity to get involved with the community and receive critical input.

“Because you are working for someone who has identified a problem that is important for them, you get real-world feedback.”

Ginsburg agreed.

“The project got us connected to the community,” he said, adding, “We are not just these students at a campus in Cambridge; we are involved with the problems the city is facing.”

Menino listened intently to brief discussions for each project and asked the students pointed questions about his or her work. After the presentations he thanked the group for their efforts and said their work “helps us think these things through.”

He also urged the group to consider working in the government sector after graduation.

“You’ve got to get involved in government,” said Menino. “It’s about how we make a difference in people’s lives, and you guys can do it. We need you.”

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Image of HKS students meeting with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino

Harvard Kennedy School students Matt Mayrl (L) and Jeff Ginsburg (Center) meet with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino (R) to discuss the development of a public residential high school, one that could address the needs of homeless teenagers.

Photo by Rose Lincoln, Harvard News Office

“The project got us connected to the community,” Jeff Ginsburg said. “We are not just these students at a campus in Cambridge; we are involved with the problems the city is facing.”