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Three communities begin to shape a vision for Promise Neighborhoods from Catalyst Notebook

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  Three communities begin to shape a vision for Promise NeighborhoodsPosted By Rebecca Harris On Thursday, February 4, 2010
In Government and Policy

Three Chicago neighborhoods – Woodlawn, Logan Square, and Chicago Lawn – are competing for a slice of one President Barack Obama’s more ambitious education-related initiatives: Replication of the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 spots around the country.

The Obama Administration is proposing $210 million in new Promise Neighborhoods funding for fiscal year 2011. This year, $10 million for one-year planning grants has already been appropriated, and a draft request-for-proposals is expected soon.

Backed with hefty Wall Street funding, the Harlem Children’s Zone aims to raise achievement by creating a safety net for children to ensure that they don’t fall through the cracks. The support starts before birth, with prenatal education for parents, followed by early childhood parenting workshops, all-day pre-kindergarten, education (in charter schools created as part of the Zone), after-school programs, health and fitness education, and support for students once they enter college.

Local organizers know that their budgets won’t be as large as the Harlem Zone’s, which has a $68 million-per-year price tag. Still, their plans are ambitious. The groups are beginning to focus in on specific areas, such as early education, parent involvement and creating a climate for success in the neighborhood’s schools.

Woodlawn: The early years

An independent nonprofit organization formed about a year ago to begin the task of putting together a plan for this South Side community. The board of the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Zone is chaired by Bishop Arthur Brazier, the retired pastor of Apostolic Church of God, which sits at the eastern gateway of Woodlawn on 63rd Street.

The group formed out of Woodlawn’s New Communities Program, a coalition funded by LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) that includes the South Side YMCA, the grassroots group MAGIC (Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization), The Woodlawn Organization, and others. New Communities Program agencies are also playing a key role in Logan Square and Chicago Lawn’s applications.

So far, two paid organizers for the Woodlawn group have spoken with about 200 parents about the idea, and has held meetings with CPS CEO Ron Huberman, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, and all nine of the principals at Woodlawn’s schools.

“We’re trying to put a different level of emphasis on the early grades… to create a situation in which students in the early grades never encounter failure,” says Charles Payne, a well-regarded expert on education policy and a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Payne is serving as a technical advisor to the Woodlawn project. “It’s much better to prevent failure than to remediate failure.”

To focus on early education, Woodlawn might include a program similar to the Harlem Zone’s “BabyCollege,” a class for expectant parents and those with young children; plus, high-quality education options for children from birth to age 5.

For assistance planning its early childhood education component, Woodlawn’s group has turned to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Payne says.

Other plans include extended-day and summer programs for students; a path for parent volunteers to become teacher’s aides; literacy tutoring that would bring older CPS students, college students, and community members into schools; additional reading specialists to work with students who are furthest behind; and strategies to reduce teacher turnover and create a “college-going culture” among students.

The Woodlawn group may also decide to target the problem of student mobility by helping parents to access resources that can help them stay in their home; for instance, pro-bono legal services for parents who are trying to avoid losing their homes because of foreclosure, job loss or other circumstances. Woodlawn has one of the higher foreclosure rates in Chicago, a situation that also affects renters.

“Sometimes it helps if parents considering a move can talk to a social worker (or) talk to somebody who might be able to help them generate funds to make this month’s rent,” Payne says. “Not all parents understand the damaging effects that moving can have on the children’s development.”

Brazier notes that the group wants “to model programs as much as we can from the Harlem Children’s Zone, but it is not something we are trying to duplicate. We do not have the funds Harlem has.”

Payne says a $5 million to $15 million annual budget would be “more plausible” in the current economic crisis. The group has a $1.6 million neighborhood-wide community schools grant now pending with the School Board; that money would be used for some of the work being planned.

Logan Square: Working with parents

“We are already in line to be very successful with Promise Neighborhoods because we have done so much thinking, working, doing already,” says Nancy Aardema, executive director of Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which is taking the lead on developing the project. “We have a much stronger focus on parents than the Harlem Children’s Zone does.”

Since the election of the first local school councils in the 1990s, LSNA has earned a reputation for using strong parent and community ties to bring effective programs to schools. In 2000, LSNA won the Chicago Community Trust James Brown IV Award for Community Service; in 2005, the group won a national Leadership for a Changing World award from the Ford Foundation.

With its Promise Neighborhood, Aardema says, LSNA would look to expand its after-school programs and create more Literacy Ambassadors, who hold house parties to promote reading to children and share read-aloud strategies. LSNA may also makes its first foray into early childhood education, by partnering with an existing preschool or starting a new one. Money is key, though.

“At this time in our state, and with money the way it is, it’s hard to think about expanding” without enough funding, Aardema says.

Lead education organizer Joanna Brown says early childhood efforts would be coupled with “a serious education program in the community” about child development, kindergarten readiness, and the importance of preschool.

Besides building bridges between schools and families, Aardema notes that LSNA could create connections among childbirth education classes, preschools, and kindergarten programs, as well as between elementary schools and high schools.

Also under consideration is a more extensive data system, like the one used by Harlem Children’s Zone, to track outcomes from birth through college.

Other groups “are looking to start something new,” Aardema says. “We are looking to build on what we have.”

Chicago Lawn: Climate for success

“Questions around educational excellence” are central to Chicago Lawn’s plans for a Promise Neighborhood, says Southwest Organizing Project’s executive director, Jeff Bartow.

The group is working with the Consortium on Chicago School Research to learn about what makes for successful schools – and create the right conditions in Chicago Lawn.

One idea is to expand Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a program at GageParkHigh School that enlists young people in the fight to improve school achievement.

Another cornerstone program that could be integral to any plans is Elev8, a program for middle school students that provides holistic services similar to those of the Harlem Children’s Zone. In Chicago Lawn, Elev8 includes an extended school day program and health clinic at Marquette Elementary, as well as academic mentoring provided by parent leaders. (Elev8 also operates in Logan Square; both programs are funded by LISC

Rabbi Joshua Salter, a community organizer with SWOP, attended a three-day practitioners’ institute offered through the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. While he was there, he became convinced that charter schools might be a solution for Chicago Lawn children. Union restrictions on working hours might make it difficult for existing schools “to do something more comprehensive,” Salter says.

“If schools would make the changes necessary… we would be in support of that,” Salter says. “(But) the systems in place right now don’t support a 21st-century education.”

His vision: students would study a rigorous, “Winnetka or Northbrook type of curriculum.”

Salter also was inspired by the BabyCollege.

“We’d have to create a preschool geared toward targeted children age zero to 3,”  Salter says. “It can be done, but it costs a lot of money.”

Southwest Organizing Project has not decided whether it would open charter schools or focus on Chicago Lawn’s existing public schools, Bartow says. For prenatal programs, “we would have to find people who do it well, and work with them to develop a program that fit our area.”

Even given the new ideas he encountered in Harlem, Salter says much of the emphasis will be on expanding existing programs. The grant “would only help us do on a grander scale, what we do now.”

Keywords: Arthur Brazier, Charles Payne, Elev8, Harlem Children’s Zone, Nancy Aardema, Promise Neighborhoods, SWOP, VOYCE

Posted in LSNA en la Prensa