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ST. LOUIS • Two years ago, at the Missouri History Museum, a crowd gathered to hear about a cutting edge new effort to break the revolving door that leads many ex-offenders back to prison.

Promoters of the Concordance Academy of Leadership vowed to build an “evidence-based” approach to help people re-enter society — first in the St. Louis region, then across the country.

Every publication in town eventually wrote a story because Danny Ludeman was in charge. The former head of Wells Fargo Advisors not only took a dramatic dive into a scrappy nonprofit arena, but he has helped raise $15 million in pledges for the cause. Business executives and government leaders in St. Louis, and St. Charles and St. Louis counties have promised support.

“I need to raise $5 million more,” Ludeman said last week, adding that he’s never been more fulfilled, yet challenged, by his work.

Now that the fanfare has subsided, Concordance appears to be getting off to a rocky start.

As a selling point early on, Ludeman teamed with academics from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, who formed the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice. The dual effort between community practice and research was supposed to be like the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, where effective approaches have been developed and shared on a large scale.

“People give money because their hearts have been touched,” Ludeman told the St. Louis American in 2015. “But there is a lot more resistance because a lot of institutions cannot show that they are making a difference.”

The Concordance Institute developed a 374-page manual for the 18-month program that starts serving participants six months before release from Missouri prisons in Pacific, Bonne Terre and Vandalia.

The institute was expected to stay on long term to evaluate and tweak the program based on research outcomes. Eventually, with an archive of supporting performance data, the institute could then show the program actually turned ex-cons into productive citizens.

But Concordance Academy and the Concordance Institute have quietly gone separate ways. The institute now exists under a different name.

‘Just the evaluation’

With Washington University out of the picture, the Concordance program, at least in the near term, loses the means for an independent evaluation of its effectiveness. The university had intended to provide that since inception.

“I think there might have been a little bit of optimism on my part and maybe others that we wanted to start evaluating from Day 1,” Ludeman said in an interview.

“You would be hard pressed to find any start-up organization that would be evaluating from their first class, and that’s what we really learned along the way. It doesn’t change anything about our model. It doesn’t change anything about services. It doesn’t change anything. It’s just the evaluation.”

Ludeman said Concordance Academy will be monitoring its own outcomes for the first three classes of participants, then hire an independent evaluator once the program has better footing to handle testing later in the year.

Carrie Pettus-Davis, Ludeman’s former “partner in crime” at Washington University, would not comment about the unexpected change.

“I can’t comment on the details of our contractual partnership, but I can confirm that Washington University no longer has a research relationship with Concordance Academy,” she said in an email. “We wish them the best in their work.”

A university spokesman didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

Candace O’Connor, secretary of the Concordance Academy executive board, said Ludeman informed the board in January.

“I am not sure what happened with Wash U,” she said. “We are all pulling for Danny and hope that whatever growing pains there are will straighten out, as they often do in these start-up organizations.”

She said the loss of the evaluation component was a “significant program,” but it generated little discussion at the board meeting.

“I think the board trusts Danny and that was why there was little discussion,” O’Connor said.

‘It is hard work’

There have been other setbacks.

So far, Concordance is only serving 19 ex-offenders in the community.

A goal to have staffing up to 45 by now was missed. About 25 people work at Concordance. There has been some turnover, including the departure of Gary Dollar as the chief administrative officer. Dollar formerly ran the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

In a telephone interview, Dollar said he still supported Concordance. He said he agreed to work one year at Concordance, enough time to help get a leadership team in place. A Concordance press release that announced Dollar taking the job in 2015 didn’t mention the one-year agreement.

“I’m excited to be a part of the opportunity to build this organization as our region and, more importantly, our nation needs to address the issues of recidivism and properly acclimating these individuals back into society in order to reduce growing costs, lower crime rates and increase the quality of life,” Dollar said then.

Ludeman says he is a bigger believer than ever in Concordance now that the first class of 19 participants is moving through the program. He’s met them and some of their families. He’s shared meals. Taught a class on job interviews, jumped in during groups.

“Anybody asks me where we are right now and my optimism and conviction that what we are doing will dramatically reduce reincarceration rates is off the charts,” Ludeman said.

But Ludeman admits that he has the most difficult, yet rewarding, job he’s ever had.

“Running a 60,000-person team at Wells Fargo Advisors, I was there my whole career, so you learn things,” he said. “I have great empathy for people that are running nonprofit organizations, much more than I did before I started this. It is hard work, but it is rewarding work. I have never in my entire life felt more fulfilled from doing something as I do here.”

He’s had to take a break from studies at Covenant Theological Seminary to devote all his attention to run Concordance, both as executive director and board chairman. He said he plans to turn over the chairmanship position in the next few months, once the program is running better.

Other than medical benefits, he’s an unpaid employee. He said he’s donated $750,000 of his own money and pledged $1.25 million more, partly through the United Way campaign.

“My zeal has never been higher,” he said. “I am absolutely convinced, absolutely convinced that we can dramatically improve the situation.”

Hoping for results

Despite delays in hiring, evaluation and class size, Concordance found a 30,000-square-foot building near West Port Plaza in Maryland Heights in which to base its operations. Rather than send program participants all over the region for services, Concordance wants to offer most of it — case management, groups sessions, life skills classes and other training — under one roof.

Participants are paid $10 an hour to show up during the first few months of freedom so that Concordance can get them in line to find and hold a job. Concordance also helps them clean up nagging legal issues, find housing and career counseling. If needed, there’s a “sober home” on five acres in Lincoln County where participants can stay. A chaplain is available.

“These are our new digs,” Ludeman said during a tour of the rented building at 1845 Borman Court. “It satisfies our plans for growth over the next year to two years.”

The organization finalized the lease in October. There’s no sign up.

“We purposely have been a little quieter primarily because we want to get the program developed,” Ludeman said.

He assured everything is being done to scale. He hopes to ramp the program up to 250 participants per year soon, then 1,000. From there, he plans to open another building in Kansas City. Four states have been identified for possible expansion.

But he needs more than his gut instinct to grow that much. He’ll need evidence-based results that show the program is effective.

“The whole board, everybody is hoping that it will work,” said O’Connor, board secretary. “We won’t know until the program is measured and analyzed, until we see some results. But we are all hoping it will work because there is a great need in the area and nationally.”