News and analysis
January 09, 2011

Against Tough Odds, a 'Promise Neighborhood’ in D.C. Gears Up

Photographs by Derek Lieu, for The Chronicle

Irasema Salcido, who is leading a Promise Neighborhood program in Washington’s Parkside-Kenilworth area, says it will continue no matter what the new Congress does: “We have community support. We’re not going anywhere.”

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series.

The Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood is just a few miles from Capitol Hill, though it’s unlikely that many members of Congress have ever visited there.

The neighborhood, tucked away in a far eastern corner of Washington, bears all of the hallmarks of poverty: high rates of crime, teenage pregnancy, single mothers, and unemployment—and low-performing schools.

But community leaders have embarked on an ambitious project to turn the area around—with help from money that members of Congress approved last year.

Led by Irasema Salcido, an educator who was dismayed at the obstacles that hindered her students from learning, the project snatched one of 21 grants offered by a new federal program called Promise Neighborhoods.

The grants, totaling $10-million, went to communities that outlined plans for providing an array of academic, medical, and social services for children in troubled neighborhoods from “cradle to college”­—a model that was pioneered by Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, in New York.

Mr. Canada’s approach has won widespread acclaim, most recently in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman,” and strong support from President Obama, who proposed the Promise Neighborhoods program while still on the campaign trail.

Charities, foundations, policy makers, antipoverty activists, and others have been flocking to Harlem for years to observe the Children’s Zone method­, hoping they will uncover at last a formula for ending the cycle of poverty.

“People see something that seems to be working,” says Patrick Lester, senior vice president for public policy at United Neighborhood Centers of America, an umbrella group for neighborhood social-service centers. The country spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to fight poverty, he says, yet many people have become discouraged, concluding: “We had a war on poverty and poverty won.”

Coalitions of groups across the country have started their own versions of the Harlem project, and the prospect of federal money has accelerated and helped shape many of those efforts. More than 300 applicants vied for this year’s round of Promise Neighborhoods grants.

High Expectations

Now the 21 winners face the challenge of showing they can transplant Mr. Canada’s vision outside of Harlem, while documenting what works and what doesn’t in great detail, as required by the federal program. The winners are also facing careful scrutiny, both from other nonprofits and from the political world, where social programs that get government money are facing a climate that is hostile to new federal spending.

Ms. Salcido, head of the César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, found out the hard way that a comprehensive strategy like the one Mr. Canada championed could be the only hope for schoolchildren in the Parkside-Kenilworth community.

Ms. Salcido—the daughter of Mexican farmworkers who came to the United States when she was 14 and spoke no English­—was the only member of her family to finish high school.

After she earned degrees from a community college and a four-year college, she dedicated her career to helping minority and low-income students have the same opportunities she did. Armed with a master’s degree in education from Harvard, Ms. Salcido, 49, operated several successful charter schools in Washington before she went to Parkside-Kenilworth to open the Chávez Parkside Middle School and High School in 2004.

“We made a commitment to the families in that community to have high expectations for their children,” she says, “expectations that they would go to college.”

But achieving that goal proved tougher than she expected. Many of the students had poor academic skills and were not used to working in a structured environment. Their test scores were so low that Ms. Salcido had to step in as principal for eight months of the 2007-8 academic year to help salvage the school. City authorities even placed the school on probation in 2009 (although the scores have since improved and the school is now in good standing).

To succeed, Ms. Salcido decided that she needed to find new ways to help children, and their families, long before they entered middle school. She decided to collaborate with the principals at two traditional public elementary schools, Kenilworth and Neval Thomas, that taught students before they headed to Chávez Parkside. They told her: “We have the same challenges you do. When we get the little ones in pre-kindergarten, they come to us not even knowing how to hold a pencil or pen.”

And even when the children are getting the proper instruction in school, the neighborhood’s poverty affects their ability to learn, says Mae H. Best, executive director of the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative, a social-services group in the neighborhood that is participating in the Promise Neighborhood project. Poverty steals children’s attention from the classroom, she says. They may not be eating at home, they may be worried that they are going to be evicted, they may hear their parents complaining about lack of work.

“Everything is generally related to financial resources­—the lack thereof,” she says.

To solve such problems, Ms. Salcido turned to neighborhood activists for advice, including J. Gregory Rhett, who now directs the Promise Neighborhood effort’s to get area residents involved in the project. When Chávez Parkside was placed on probation, he says, “We circled the wagons and said, 'We’re going to show them. We’re going to get out of this mess, we’re going to document how we got out of this mess, and we’re going to make it through this.’”

He and Ms. Salcido agreed: The entire neighborhood would have to pull together.

“The fabric of the community was torn, that was the problem,” he says. “And the only way you could improve academic outcomes was you had to repair the fabric of the community.”

A Tailored Approach

Ms. Salcido and some of her Chávez colleagues began to study the Harlem Children’s Zone, which in a 97-block area of Harlem offers charter schools and services such as a Baby College to train parents of small children, a pre-kindergarten program, and an office to help students get into and stay in college. They set up a committee of local nonprofit and business leaders to lead an effort to tailor the approach to the Parkside-Kenilworth community.

They started sketching out a project that would bridge the usual rivalry between charter and traditional public schools by helping students at Chávez Parkside and the Kenilworth and Neval Thomas elementary schools stay healthy, do well in school, and graduate from college or find a career­—and started lining up other groups to help (See article on Page 29).

After President Obama last year persuaded Congress to allocate $10-million to help communities plan Promise Neighborhoods, Ms. Salcido and her colleagues, dubbing their project the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, started gearing up to apply for an award.

They raised more than $1-million in cash and donated services from foundations, businesses, individuals, and others­—far more than the 50-percent match that was required to qualify for the $500,000 grant that it won from the Department of Education.

The D.C. project, which for the moment is an arm of the Chávez schools, received a score of 98.33 out of 100 from federal reviewers.

Its only low mark was in a section on “impact and significant,” because the project will not directly reach a majority of children in the Parkside-Ken­ilworth area. That’s because Washington allows students to attend charter schools anywhere, so many students in the neighborhood attend schools in other parts of town. But the project leaders decided to focus first on the three schools so they did not diffuse their efforts.

Seeking 'Early Wins’

While the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative is working to meet the terms of its planning grant, it is already preparing to apply for the next round of federal grants­—­although the fate of that money is unclear.

President Obama proposed to spend $210-million in the 2011 fiscal year, most of that to help groups put Promise Neighborhood projects into effect over five years. But a House subcommittee proposed spending only $60-million and a Senate committee only $20-million.

Congress has still not adopted a 2011 budget, meaning Promise Neighborhoods spending is frozen for now at the 2010 level of $10-million in planning grants. And this program, like others, could run into trouble in the new Congress, where Republicans who control the House have vowed to trim spending to 2008 levels and all members are under pressure to cut the budget deficit.

But Ms. Salcido says the project will move forward, with or without those grants, adding that it is exploring other ways to get government money.

“We have the community support,” she says. “We’re not going anywhere.”

In one sign of faith in the effort, several groups have vowed to build an early-childhood program that specializes in helping children from low-income families prepare for school, next to the Neval Thomas school.

Some participants say it will take time, however, to convince the community, which has seen other antipoverty projects come and go, that the Promise Neighborhood effort is here to stay. The project is striving to involve neighborhood residents, asking them to serve on the planning groups and advisory board and holding monthly dinners to consult and update them about the group’s progress.

Melinda B. Hudson, executive vice president at America’s Promise Alliance, an advocacy group for children, says the participants are wrestling with the “press of time”—that is, trying to get some “early wins” that would build community support but knowing that they are tackling some highly complex problems. The trick, she says, will be to keep trying if success does not come quickly.

“If third-grade test results don’t improve, it doesn’t mean we go away,” says Ms. Hudson, a member of the project’s advisory board. “What it means is that we keep looking at what did we do wrong.”