News and analysis
December 02, 2011

D.C. Promise Neighborhood Misses Grant but Perseveres

Derek Lieu, for The Chronicle

Marcus Clark (left), a board member of the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative and director of resident services at a local apartment complex, has been working to address community questions and concerns about the education program.

Editor's note: This story is part of a continuing series.

The D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which won a much-coveted $500,000 grant last year for a project to turn around a poor Washington neighborhood, always said it would continue its work with or without more federal money.

Now it has to prove it meant what it said­—but under disappointing circumstances.

The Washington group was hoping to win $6-million in fresh money from the federal Promise Neighborhoods program so it could significantly step up its work in the city’s Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood. But it learned this fall that it was not eligible for a grant because it had not met the application deadline­—thanks to some technical problems the group had in e-mailing its grant proposal.

It has now joined a raft of similar projects across the country that have failed to get Promise Neighborhoods grants but are proceeding anyway­—and are counting on philanthropy to keep the momentum going.

“To say the least, this is a tremendous disappointment to us,” Irasema Salcido, the project’s president, wrote in a letter to supporters. However, she added, “With the uncertain prospect of federal funding, our strategy has always been to raise as much independent funding as possible.”

Uncertain Future

Washington is one of 21 communities that won a total of $10-million in grants last year to help plan Promise Neighborhood projects. Such projects offer a comprehensive array of academic, medical, and social services to children in troubled neighborhoods from “cradle to college”—a model pioneered by Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, in New York.

But private fund raising could make or break the quest to pepper the nation with Harlem-inspired efforts, given the pressure on Congress to slash federal spending. While President Obama proposed $210-million for Promise Neighborhoods this year, Congress allotted only $30-million. Mr. Obama proposed $150-million for 2012, but Congress is likely to approve far less.

Its long-term future is even more uncertain.

“I would say it’s certainly at risk until the administration can get dozens and dozens of these things funded and then create a strong advocacy group for continuation of funding,” says Grover J. White­hurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s certainly a program the Republican House [would like to see] on the chopping block.”

Hoping for a Milestone

Despite the uncertainty, the D.C. effort had hoped to get one of the grants earmarked for groups that had developed a plan for a Promise Neighborhood and were now ready to set it in motion.

“That would have been a milestone for us,” says Willie Woods, an activist who serves on the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative’s board. “I know we had the best application proposal out there.”

However, he adds, “we’re going to keep it alive, no matter what.”

Even without the federal money, the project is gearing up to expand. To qualify for a Promise Neighborhood grant, it had to raise at least $6-million from other sources—and it exceeded that goal­, garnering more than 60 pledges of $750,000 in cash and $8.2-million in services and materials from foundations, nonprofits, city agencies, and others.

The biggest donor is Edu­care, an early-childhood program, which said it would spend more than $4-million in start-up costs and educational services for 175 of the neighborhood’s children at a new center it is building in Parkside-Kenilworth. Other major supporters include Georgetown University, which offered more than $342,000 in services to help elementary schoolchildren read and middle-school students prepare for college; the Children’s National Medical Center, which promised to provide almost $250,000 in health services from its mobile medical van; and the Washington office of DLA Piper, a law firm, which offered $250,000 in pro bono legal services.

Promise Neighborhood leaders have been contacting donors to explain what happened and try to keep them on board.

“Although no one has been happy with the situation and they’ve asked some frank questions, every funder has said they will keep their match funding commitment,” says Mary Bogle, director of planning for the D.C. project.

Little Time to Waste

Michael McAfee, director of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute, which provides technical help to Promise Neighborhoods, says some other communities that lost out on awards last year are still building strong “cradle to college” programs, including Chicago and South Tucson.

In fact, his institute, created by Harlem Children’s Zone and two other groups, is advising 17 projects that failed to win awards but earned high scores on their grant applications.

Mr. McAfee says he’s optimistic about Washington’s prospects: “The D.C. site has some of the highest energy around its work in our network.”

But the project has little time to waste. Parkside-Kenilworth has high rates of crime, poverty, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment. Test scores at the two Promise Neighborhood elementary schools, Kenilworth and Neval Thomas, declined last year. Only 25 percent of students at Neval Thomas and 29 percent at Kenilworth were proficient at reading, while 28 percent and 34 percent, respectively, were proficient at math. Enrollment at both schools has been falling sharply.

Students at the two charter schools that are part of the network, César Chávez Parkside middle and high schools—which were started by Ms. Salcido—are doing better, with 44 percent proficient in reading and 61 percent in math (the latter up significantly from the year before). But they are still considered by the city to be “low performing.”

The project has started a number of programs that it hopes will help. For example, it is working with the city to provide mental-health services to preschool children; with Experience Corps, a volunteer program for older people, to create a tutoring program for elementary students; and with Save the Children, a child-welfare charity, to offer early-learning programs in children’s homes.

Strained Relations

Project managers are also working to coordinate better with neighborhood residents and groups as they strive to meet some of the neighborhood’s urgent needs. In their grant application to the Education Department, they said some nonprofits that were already on the ground in Parkside-Kenilworth viewed as a threat the project’s “remarkable success” in attracting money and help from a wide range of outside groups.

“Our local partners expressed concern that they might be helping a competitor establish itself rather than securing resources to improve and expand their own good work,” the application says.

Marcus Clark, a neighborhood representative who was a member of the Promise Neighborhood’s former advisory board and now sits on its board of directors, says relations between the project and some community leaders were strained at first.

“It was a fight to say, 'We were here first. If you’re going to come into the community and do something for the community, you need to ask the community members,’” says Mr. Clark, director of resident services at the Paradise at Parkside Apartments and executive director of a community center there.

“We had some real knock-down, drag-out advisory board meetings,” he says. Communications now are much better, he added.

Ms. Salcido says the project stepped up conversations with the neighborhood’s community centers, which offer tutoring, youth programs, and other services to residents of apartment complexes, and is working on ways to ensure that local nonprofits play a role in the Promise Neighborhood, offering them management help if needed.

As an example of the approach she now takes, she says that when a summer-camp program that was planned at one of the community centers fell through a few months back, she offered to ask an outside group, Save the Children, if it could step in to run the program. The center agreed and Save the Children was able to do the work. However, Ms. Salcido says, she was careful to act only as a broker in the conversations, telling the local residents: “Unless you tell me to call them and unless everyone is okay with that, I’m not going to do that.”

Frederick M. Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says he is worried that the nation’s Promise Neighborhoods will follow in the footprints of other “urban-renewal” projects that have petered out after an initial burst of enthusiasm—and after enticing lots of participating groups to “recalibrate” their work.

Melvin Moore, president of the Lotus Square Tenants Association, in Parkside-Kenilworth, praises Ms. Salcido’s efforts to get neighborhood residents more involved in the Promise Neighborhood project. But, he says, it will take time to ease suspicions about outside groups that stem from previous bad experiences.

“The concern is that if outsiders are coming in and starting all this stuff but they don’t follow through,” he says, “we are left with the damages but also the responsibilities of cleaning it up.”

Derek Lieu contributed to this article.