Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series.
The D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative was able to win a $500,000 federal grant, in part because it pulled together more than just a coalition of nonprofits to push the project forward.
The plan won the attention of reviewers because it was a true community effort, drawing on a diverse group of charities, businesses, individuals, and city agencies.
The project, which is now in the early stages of trying to build an antipoverty program modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, in New York, won aid from groups including the Children’s National Medical Center (which agreed to send a mobile van to offer dental and medical services); City Interests, a local developer; D.C. Appleseed, a public-policy group; and the Skadden, Arps law firm. The Urban Institute, a think tank, is helping the project collect and evaluate data, a critical task under terms of the grant that the project received from the Promise Neighborhood program, run by the U.S. Education Department.
Early on, the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided $6,000 to hire a planning director, Mary Bogle, a veteran project-management consultant, and followed up by providing $25,000 to help the project meet the requirement to match 50 percent of the federal grant.
A former development director at the Harlem Children’s Zone, Ray Laszczych, volunteered to help raise money and offer tips on getting neighborhood residents involved. (He stayed with the project and now gets a salary.)
Along the way, the project also attracted an influential advocate: Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance, an advocacy group for children founded by her husband, Gen. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state.
Melinda B. Hudson, executive vice president at America’s Promise, says Ms. Powell is a fan of Harlem Children’s Zone and would often say, “We must have that in D.C.”
But she never found a proposal she could endorse until she encountered Irasema Salcido, founder of the César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, at an event and heard about her plans to create a “Children’s Zone” in the Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood.
A Turning Point
J. Gregory Rhett, a community activist who has helped put the Promise Neighborhood project together, says Ms. Powell’s “total buy-in” (she now serves as honorary chairwoman of the project’s advisory board) was a turning point for the effort. America’s Promise made Ms. Hudson available for legwork and advice, enlisted its marketing staff to design a logo for the project, and opened doors to other groups that could offer help or money.
The Washington group took the community effort even further by creating 10 planning committees in charge of setting and monitoring goals, such as ensuring that students are proficient in key academic subjects, that they feel safe, and that they are healthy.
The Urban Institute is helping each of the groups set up ways to measure their progress.
Patrick Lester, senior vice president for public policy at United Neighborhood Centers of America, who follows the federal Promise Neighborhoods program closely on his organization’s blog, wrote a report analyzing the characteristics of all 21 Promise Neighborhood grant winners.
He said the link between the Chávez schools, which belong to his organization, and the Urban Institute is among the project’s strengths because the Education Department is placing a big emphasis on data and evaluation.
His report notes, however, that unlike the Harlem Children’s Zone—which runs the show on its own, operates only charter schools, and fires poor-performing teachers—the D.C. project and other grant winners involve multiple partners and traditional public schools. “How will local Promise Neighborhoods address local performance and accountability?” he asks.
Under a Microscope
Documenting progress could be critical to the program’s long-term success because some opponents question whether the government should spend money to expand the relatively costly Harlem Children’s Zone model.
A report issued by the Brookings Institution last summer, for example, contended that while research shows that the New York program does improve student achievement, there is no evidence that its success is because of the comprehensive “cradle-to-college” services. After analyzing test scores, the authors concluded that charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx that were comparable to those operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone produced similar or even better gains without offering such services.
“Instead of the Promise Neighborhood initiative, they could have had an effective 'charter schools initiative,’” says Grover J. Whitehurst, who co-wrote the report.
Geoffrey Canada, who leads the Harlem Children’s Zone, contested the analysis, and some defenders of his approach say it is unfair to judge whether the Harlem program is succeeding simply by measuring math and reading scores. But it is clear that the new projects will be under the microscope.