Copying the Harlem Children's Zone in DC

As Obama's Promise Neighborhood idea gains ground, a local leader shares the trials and triumphs.

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Irasema Salcido, Cesar Chavez Public Schools founder (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

Since the 2008 campaign trail, President Obama has talked about his vision to replicate Harlem Children's Zones around the country. The successful program, run by educator and activist Geoffrey Canada, takes a holistic approach to educating students in a 97-block area of Harlem, N.Y., by providing charter schools, prekindergarten programs, parenting workshops and weekend community centers. Widely hailed as a slam dunk, the program has not only helped student math and English scores rise but actually eliminated the racial achievement gap between its black students and New York City's average for white students.

In 2010 the president's ambitious vision began to take shape when the Department of Education launched the $10 million Promise Neighborhoods grant program, allowing cities to jump-start their own neighborhood interventions and hopefully change the odds for their kids.

Out of more than 300 applicants for the first round of grants (a $30 million Round 2 was announced this year), 21 winners emerged last December. Among the recipients was Washington, D.C.'s Parkside-Kenilworth -- a mostly African-American neighborhood struggling with poverty, unemployment, crime and failing schools -- which won $500,000 for its proposal of a continuous academic, medical and social support program for its families. Their project is called the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI).

Spearheaded by Irasema Salcido (pictured), founder of the city's four Cesar Chavez Public Schools for Public Policy (which include both a middle school and high school in Parkside-Kenilworth), the effort is also rooted in the neighborhood's two traditional public elementary schools, as well as partnerships with 70 nonprofits, businesses, churches and foundations. Groups that have signed on to help include the Urban Institute, a research group that collects data on Washington neighborhoods; Microsoft; and Georgetown University.

So far DCPNI has launched mobile medical units at its schools, ground breaking on a new early-childhood center, year-round tutoring programs, a legal-advice clinic and monthly community dinners. Residents are collectively developing a parenting-workshop curriculum, data-collection tools and ways to further strengthen the pipeline connecting every aspect of the community, from recreational centers to social workers to its four schools.

Community activist J. Gregory Rhett, 53, is responsible for getting residents involved in D.C.'s Promise Neighborhood. He spoke with The Root about measuring success, how the program is bridging the divide between charter and traditional public schools and why, although Education Department funding is nice, the program has no interest in "continual feeding from the federal trough."

The Root: Why do you think it's important to address social and economic issues in your approach to education? Shouldn't the schools just focus on being good schools?

J. Gregory Rhett: That's the long-term goal, for our children to have everything they need. That is the dream of every teacher and principal -- then all they'd have to do is teach them! In the meantime, we have to pull in as partners the recreation department, police department, social services providers and everybody that touches any aspect of a child's life. We have to look at helping to improve the environment so that instead of dealing with so many of these outside factors, the child can focus on their academics.

We can't just narrowly focus on what resources a student has in class. We've been there, done that, and it doesn't work. So let's try something different. President Obama has invested federal funding to spur creativity and innovation at the neighborhood level and is letting that work its way up. That's a change from the old days, when an agency would come in with its own concept to implement from the top down.

TR: The Cesar Chavez charter school took the lead in the grant application -- how did you ensure that officials and parents from the traditional neighborhood schools didn't feel edged out?

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM