Funding for early childhood education can help students compete on a local and global scale.

Funding for early childhood education can help students compete on a local and global scale.

Organizers in distressed communities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., soon will begin plans to create what the federal Education Department (ED) envisions as “Promise Neighborhoods,” where children and their families receive comprehensive support services to boost their chance of being successful in school.

Twenty-one applicants for the program—which aims to transform student outcomes by focusing, in part, on improving early childhood education and lifting up communities—were named as grant winners on Sept. 21. 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 successful Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides comprehensive support for families from pregnancy through birth, education, 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.

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.

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 a grant.

Duncan visited the 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.

The Harlem Children’s Zone started its idea with a single block in New York City in the early 1990s, providing adults with financial advice and domestic crisis counseling, teaching expectant parents about prenatal nutrition and child rearing, and offering a safe place and high-quality early childhood education for preschool children.