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Promise Neighborhoods Shows Real Potential but Needs the Right Funding

Program Will Support Students in Poor Areas

SOURCE: AP/Brian Chilson

Yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced 21 recipients of Promise Neighborhoods planning grants. The Promise Neighborhoods program will provide “cradle-to-career” services to support students who attend schools in a designated geographic area.

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Yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced 21 recipients of Promise Neighborhoods planning grants, signifying the Obama administration’s support for a promising approach to lifting children and their communities out of poverty. Now that the program is off the ground the next step is for Congress to give it the funding it needs.

Promise Neighborhoods seek to replicate the widely lauded Harlem Children’s Zone, or HCZ. Geoffrey Canada led the creation of this 100-block “social experiment” in Central Harlem in 2007. He believed that by creating a web of social services to support children from birth to college, the zone could insulate children from poverty’s harm and lead to greater academic and social outcomes.

It’s too early to make definitive conclusions about HCZ’s success. But the model is largely regarded as a game-changer in the fight to eradicate poverty and increase children’s academic engagement.

The Harlem Children’s Zone and now Promise Neighborhoods represent an unprecedented shift in how localities address child poverty and academic opportunity. Each Promise Neighborhood will provide “cradle-to-career” services to support students who attend schools in a designated geographic area. Schools, city governments, colleges and universities, nonprofits, health providers, and other organizations in each Promise Neighborhood will collaborate to finally break down the silos that may have prevented past efforts to help low-income students achieve.

More than 300 communities—including rural areas and Indian reservations—competed for the one-year planning grants of up to $500,000, demonstrating the national appeal of this approach. President Barack Obama requested $210 million in the fiscal year 2011 budget to fund implementation of this year’s grantees and support new planning grants. This funding is crucial to the success of Promise Neighborhoods as they scale up. The Harlem Children’s Zone, for example, runs on a $48 million budget, averaging a cost of about $5,000 for each child.

Unfortunately, Congress showed little support for this important program when it slashed the Promise Neighborhoods budget to a paltry $60 million in the House and $20 million in the Senate earlier this summer. Congress has not yet determined a final budget amount for the program.

Education reform is hard work, and schools get a boost when other partners get involved. The Promise Neighborhoods announced today hold real potential for transforming students and the communities in which they live. Without sufficient funding from Congress that opportunity will be wasted.

Saba Bireda is a an Education Policy Analyst at American Progress. She served as a peer reviewer in the 2010 Promise Neighborhoods competition.

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