Organizers in distressed communities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., will soon begin plans to create what the Department of Education envisions as “Promise Neighborhoods,” where children and families receive support services that boost a student’s chance of being successful in school. Twenty-one applicants for the program to transform communities and student outcomes were named on Tuesday. They will receive planning grants of up to $500,000. “Communities across the country recognize that education is the one true path out of poverty,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “These Promise Neighborhoods applicants are committed to putting schools at the center of their work to provide comprehensive services for young children and students.”
The program is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides comprehensive support for families from pregnancy through birth, education through college and career. Children in the program’s charter schools have made impressive gains on standardized tests and in closing the achievement gap.
More than 300 communities applied to become Promise Neighborhoods. Applicants hope they can reproduce the results of the Harlem Children’s Zone, even if they can’t create charter schools and will have a fraction of the organization’s $84 million budget. “If we want to address the challenges of student achievement and success, you have to work in the traditional public school system,” said Sheena Wright, president and CEO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, one of the organizations that was awarded a Promise Neighborhoods grant. The local public high school Wright’s group works with has attained strong results, including a graduation rate of more than 90 percent for African American men, she said.
Dreama Gentry, director for external affairs at Berea College, which will work with three communities in rural Kentucky, said a smaller budget wasn’t a barrier to improving student outcomes. The key will be engaging the community, particularly those who have lost faith in the value of education, she said. “That’s what it takes to create the change, not necessarily the big budget,” Gentry said. The Promise Neighborhoods were part of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign platform, and he has requested $210 million in the 2011 budget to implement the program and plan for more Promise Neighborhoods. Duncan said Tuesday that if less is granted, “a lot of children will lose out.” The idea is this: Students don’t learn in isolation, and if they come to school with an empty stomach, or don’t feel safe at home, they’ll have a harder time learning in the classroom.
“We’re hoping we can bring families back together,” said Geri Small, chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, one of the organizations that won the grant. Duncan visited the Montana reservation last year, which has been plagued by high dropout rates and unemployment. The community has been challenged by drug and alcohol abuse, and the breakdown of the family structure, with many children in single family households, or with a parent in jail, Small said. “The whole community, all the different organizations came together,” she said.
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