Federal grants target education ‘from birth through college’

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.

The initiative grew to 100 blocks and now serves thousands of families with an $84 million budget.

One of the services that the Harlem Children’s Zone provides is an early childhood program that gets kids ready to enter kindergarten. Classes have a child-to-adult ratio of 4 to 1; they teach English, Spanish, and French, and they run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are three of these pre-kindergarten sites, serving 200 children in all—and only one of these children has ever failed to enter kindergarten achieving at grade level, said Geoffrey Canada, the compassionate, relentless leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The pipeline goes on to include best-practice programs for children of every age through college.

At the two charter schools the organization runs, results have been impressive: 100 percent of children in its Harlem Gems early childhood program have been school-ready for seven consecutive years, and 100 percent of third graders scored at or above grade level on the New York state math exam in 2009.

Eighty-six percent of those who participated in its program for parents increased the amount of time spent reading to their children, and about 650 Harlem Children’s Zone students are now in college.

There’s also evidence they are chipping away at the achievement gap: A study by two Harvard University economists found that the typical eighth grade student in the Harlem Children’s Zone middle school outscores the typical white eighth grade student in New York City public schools.

“What you’re trying to do is take a community that has not been a healthy community for children and create a healthy environment for kids to grow up in,” said Canada, “so your very environment and your community doesn’t become an obstacle.”

Is it the family and community supports that have made the children successful? Their parents? The schools?

That’s the question countless studies have tried to nail down in determining how best to help students in distressed communities with perpetually failing schools. ED is trying a multi-prong approach that includes billion-dollar programs to turn around failing schools and reform public education … and now, whole communities.

The community element seems logical; students in urban, poor communities consistently have lower test scores and high school and college completion rates than those in wealthier, resource-rich neighborhoods.

But two recent reports on the Harlem Children’s Zone concluded that community supports alone aren’t enough: They must be coupled with strong schools—a finding with which Canada agrees.

“In the end, if you do all of these other things and the schools are just horrid, you are not going to be able to accomplish the goals,” Canada said. “And part of the strategy has to be focused on improving what happens in the schools—[both] schools you run and the other public schools.”

In Canada’s mind, that includes a longer school day and year, weekend sessions, and the innovative practices states are now considering—such as using data to measure teacher quality, with rewards based on performance as part of the government’s Race to the Top competition.

“There’s lots of evidence to suggest if you get schooling right, you can upend the norms that we expect in those communities,” said Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. “But in truly disadvantaged neighborhoods with no such schools, it’s very hard even if the supports around the school are robust.”

There are logistical challenges to making a Harlem Children’s Zone-type organization in other places. Kentucky, for example—which received a Promise Neighborhood grant for its Clay, Jackson, and Owsley Counties—doesn’t allow charter schools. Most applicants won’t have an $84 million budget.

ED officials and Canada think the model will work on a smaller scale, even on a budget half the size of the Harlem Children’s Zone budget—and even working with struggling public schools.

“We do recognize that a high-quality school is important to have at the center, but it doesn’t have to be a charter school,” said Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. “It has to be a school that’s focused on producing those really strong outcomes for students.”

With a smaller budget, most Promise Neighborhoods will have to rely on a variety of organizations to provide the stream of services leaders have in mind, rather than running everything themselves.

“The question remains, is it scalable?” Knowles said. “Geoff Canada is an extraordinary leader. How much of it is dependent on Geoff Canada? How much of it is dependent on having Wall Street in your backyard?”

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