Editor's note: This story is part of a continuing series.
Donnita Bennett, who lives with her two school-age sons in one of this city’s poorest neighborhoods, has a simple vision for what she thinks it would take to help children in her community thrive.
It starts with effective prenatal care, continues with strong preschools that prepare children for high-quality elementary and secondary schools, and is grounded by parents who are heavily involved in their children’s education. And it would all be wrapped by a community in which neighbors would watch out for one another’s children.
“If you ever see my boys anywhere, you should know who they are,” she says. “I should know who your children are. We live in the same community.”
Part of a Team
Ms. Bennett is offering more than just a personal wish list.
She is among a nationwide network of parents, teachers, nonprofit groups, foundations, and others who are exploring ways to guarantee that children in troubled neighborhoods lead healthy, productive lives.
Together they are part of the Promise Neighborhoods program, a federal effort to help communities design antipoverty projects modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, in New York.
That much-acclaimed effort, championed by President Obama, offers a comprehensive set of academic, medical, and social services to help children from “cradle to college” in one 97-block area of Harlem.
Mr. Obama’s support is one reason the federal program got an increase in spending this year, even as many other social-service programs were cut.
Washington is one of 21 communities that won a total of $10-million from the Department of Education last fall to plan their Harlem-inspired projects. And while they flesh out their concepts, they are also working to ensure they have the systems in place to win money in the next round of federal grants, which will be awarded later this year.
The D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which The Chronicle is following for a year, got $500,000 in the first awards. And the money comes with a requirement: Promise Neighborhoods must develop systems to measure results.
Instead of simply setting up services, grant winners in Washington and elsewhere are now involved in the nitty-gritty work of collecting information about their neighborhoods and designing ways to evaluate whether they are making progress.
The data-gathering effort could bring about a “culture shift” for people who work in education and social services across the nation, says Kelly Bathgate, a manager at Education Sector, an education think tank.
It will provide valuable clues about how elements beyond classroom instruction influence children’s academic performance, she says. Until now, she adds, most communities have not been able to rely on good data to make decisions about which services to offer students.
It’s also hard work, says Ms. Bathgate, and Ms. Bennett and others working on the Washington project have already figured that out.
While it is easy to articulate the general ideals shared by Ms. Bennett and her neighbors, finding high-quality data to back them up has proved challenging.
What’s more, information about students is protected by federal privacy laws, and some results that the Department of Education wants tracked seem almost impossible to measure.
Nevertheless, dozens of residents of Parkside-Kenilworth, a mostly African-American neighborhood in the city’s far eastern corner that will be served by the Promise Neighborhood, as well as teachers and principals from local schools and educational and child-welfare experts from across the city, have been working intensively for several months to gather information and design ways to evaluate whether their project is achieving its goals. The Urban Institute, a research group that collects data on Washington neighborhoods, is also helping.
Ms. Bennett is co-chair of a committee that is discussing what steps are needed to prepare children for kindergarten. Similar groups are setting the course for measuring whether students are proficient in major academic subjects, feel safe at school, have access to the Internet, graduate from high school, and go to college.
The federal agency asked communities to examine specific things when measuring progress toward each result.
For example, to assess whether children are ready for kindergarten, it says, projects should collect data on the number of young children who are enrolled in child-care or early-learning programs and the number who can perform tasks that are appropriate for their age.
But Ms. Bennett’s “ready for kindergarten” group decided it wanted to do more than count how many children were attending early-learning programs. It also wanted to know how many were enrolled in programs that were of high quality.
Not Meeting Standards
The city can provide information about how many child-care or early-learning programs operate in Parkside-Kenilworth, but not how many of the neighborhood’s children are enrolled there, says John “Skip” McKoy, an official at Fight for Children, a Washington education charity, who is advising Ms. Bennett’s group. It is also hard to get information about the number of children who are getting care in people’s homes or the quality of that care, he says.
But Parkside-Kenilworth does know it falls short of getting the best child-care centers. The city ranks those getting government money as “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” according to how well they meet certain standards, and the neighborhood has none that are “gold.”
But even that system, which assesses things like physical facilities and teacher certification, “says nothing about whether the kids are learning,” Mr. McKoy says. “It says nothing about whether the kids are socially well adjusted, whether they’re emotionally well adjusted, whether they’re ready for kindergarten.”
He says the group hopes to explore ways to get that information.
The Promise Neighborhoods group that faces perhaps the biggest measurement challenge is the one assigned to chart a path to ensure that “families and community members support learning,” says Mary Bogle, planning director for the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative.
The Education Department has asked projects to measure how many family members attend parent-teacher conferences and how many students say they have a “caring adult” in their lives.
The former is pretty straightforward, she says, but defining who qualifies as “caring” is another story. “That one is very difficult to measure,” she says. “It’s even controversial to measure.”
It might be easier to simply point to people like Ms. Bennett.
In addition to co-chairing the “ready for kindergarten” group, she is president of the Parent Teacher Association at Kenilworth Elementary, a Promise Neighborhood school that her 7-year-old son, Marqui Alexander, attends, and a member of the project’s advisory board. She also manages to cater the project’s monthly dinners.
She says she is drawing from her experience as a mother who was once afraid to send Marqui and her other son, Tyrese White, 11, to Washington public schools after she moved to the city from Maryland because the D.C. schools had such a bad reputation. “To get that fear out,” she says, “I needed to be involved.”
Getting Parents Involved
But getting other parents to be so involved has been difficult, not just in Washington but other Promise Neighborhood planning-grant winners, experts say.
Helen Westmoreland, director of program quality at the Flamboyan Foundation, an educational grant maker in Washington who is advising the committee that is considering how to get families and parents more active, says the participants have been looking at elements beyond those currently prescribed by the Education Department.
For example, they have shaped a set of “outcomes” that they would like to see for the neighborhood.
They include things like “families and communities value the importance of education” and “families and communities reinforce what children are learning in school.”
They have since been brainstorming ideas about how to remove the barriers to achieving those results.
Ms. Westmoreland says those conversations have exposed differences in perceptions among various segments of the community.
For example, parents complain that schools are not welcoming or do not want to share power, while teachers and principals feel overburdened and subject to great scrutiny. “Now we’ve got to bring parents in, and they’re going to be looking at us. This is just an extra layer of a challenge,” says Ms. Westmoreland.
The Parkside-Kenilworth project will have to overcome those divisions to build trust among the schools, parents, and others over time, says Ms. Westmoreland.
That will be a challenge, she says, because some residents are tired of groups coming and going without making a long-term commitment to the neighborhood.
“I have heard very clearly that there’s a burnout factor,” she says.
As the project continues its efforts to measure progress, or what the Education Department calls “indicators,” Ray Laszczych, the project’s development director, says community leaders should keep one overriding goal in mind.
Most of the young people at a recent retreat could name only one person in the neighborhood they trusted.
“If that doesn’t change as we go forward, whether you hit the indicators or not,” he says, “it doesn’t mean anything.”