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?
JGR: One of our unique accomplishments is that, for the first time in the District of Columbia, you have a public charter school working cooperatively with traditional public schools. There's been a divide between charters and traditional schools since the charter school movement started here 10 years ago. This initiative has been able to establish a relationship between the schools, where all of the principals are meeting regularly to exchange information, strategies and advice about their students.
We haven't completely overcome the rift between all the adults, but we're so far ahead from where we were. We kept repeating the common value of wanting the best for all of our children. Once you get the adults to buy into that common value, then they say, "Why would we not work together?"
TR: How are the charter and traditional schools aligning their efforts when they're supposed to operate under different rules and procedures?
JGR: The chancellor of D.C. Public Schools has given some measure of autonomy to the principals of the two elementary schools because they are Promise Neighborhood schools. Early on, we were able to get the mayor's unconditional support of this initiative. The bureaucracy is allowing us to be innovative in these schools to turn them around.
TR: Over the years, Parkside-Kenilworth has seen many anti-poverty, community-based programs come and go. Were residents wary when you first approached them about Promise Neighborhoods?
JGR: Oh, hell, yeah, they were wary! [Laughs.] "Been there, done that, blah, blah, blah." It's been a process of building trust, by transparently sharing information and soliciting their ideas. We made sure that when we got community input, they could see that their ideas, thoughts and priorities were actually incorporated into the plan.
We held two all-day neighborhood retreats, which had never been done before. From 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, we held workshops and said, "Here's what the Promise Neighborhood is, and here are the goals that the Department of Education gave us. You tell us which problems are important, and how we can fix them. Tell us what's worked for you, and what hasn't worked, based on your experience living in this neighborhood."
TR: The grant money came with the requirement that your program develop a system to measure results. But how do you chart goals like having caring adults in students' lives and emotional adjustment?
JGR: That's where the Urban Institute comes in. They're the data people, and we were blessed to have them as partners early on. They established the data sets and how to track them, so that whatever we do will be data-driven. It's not about how we feel, or anecdotal evidence, but what is the data saying?
We start with a "before and after" shot. What percentage of the students are scoring at proficiency, and what are the contributing factors for that? Is it teaching? Is it curriculum? Is it inadequate health care? Are they not getting academic support at home? Are they eating healthfully? Impacting a child's life is very complex when you break it down. The particulars of the data sets are still coming about, but it's evolving.
TR: What changes have you seen in the community? Is it actually starting to resemble the proverbial village that raises a child?
JGR: I can see the process beginning, but to say in this short period of time we've made it there is not realistic. Adults are going to have to change their way of thinking in order for this paradigm shift to actually happen. There are some who just say, "I've done it this way for 20 years, and I ain't changing." That is a long-term process.
But we have a sense that people get it. We see people talking to one another more, which goes back to that conversation about having common values.
TR: How does the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative program plan to sustain itself after the grant money runs out?
JGR: Each grant applicant was required to have a dollar-for-dollar match in cash and in-kind contributions. The feds said, "We'll give you $500,000, but you've got to raise $500,000." It forced all of us to start, right away, sustaining ourselves — make those connections, create networks and get that support. We substantially exceeded our match level and raised a little over a million dollars in the first year.
We know that we're dealing with the federal government. This president has made this a priority, but presidents and priorities change. It would be foolish to build something this important based upon continual feeding from the federal trough. That federal funding is nice to have; it's great for seed money. But the onus is on us to support ourselves. We've told our residents from Day 1: Whether we get federal money or not, we're going to do this.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.