Whatever Happened to Obama’s ‘Promise Neighborhoods’ in NYC?

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16-month-old Livia practices brushing teeth while 21-month-old Gunnar sits in Infant Care Aid Jian Liang's lap reading a book at the Magical Years Early Childhood Center, part of the Lutheran Family Health Centers.

Adi Talwar

16-month-old Livia practices brushing teeth while 21-month-old Gunnar sits in Infant Care Aid Jian Liang's lap reading a book at the Magical Years Early Childhood Center, part of the Lutheran Family Health Centers.

When Mayor de Blasio announced plans last week to turn around 94 troubled schools in the city by linking services such as mental health counseling and food programs to more traditional approaches like extended school days and teacher development, it must have been music to the ears of at least five city organizations that have been ploughing this terrain for several years now.

Between 2010 and 2012, those five nonprofits applied for and received federal planning grants of up to $500,000 for what the Obama administration called the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

The idea behind the federal program was to replicate around the nation the widely-acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone, which in a 97-block area in Upper Manhattan offers a battery of social services to help poor children achieve academic success. These services include a Baby College for expectant mothers, precollege advice to students, asthma and dental care, marital counseling, and after-school programs—all anchored by charter schools.

The New York City planning grant recipients all engaged in exhaustive planning processes that included holding community meetings, surveying thousands of residents, holding focus groups, and culling through reams of data. They also formulated “evidenced-based” solutions to implement with community partners.

But the feds have only awarded 12 implementation grants nationally, and neither of the two local organizations that applied—Lutheran Family Health Centers in Sunset Park and The Elmezzi Foundation/Zone 126 in Astoria—were successful in landing the grant. And since 2012, no new implementation grants, worth $4 million to $6 million over a five-year period, have been awarded.

The funding cut effectively wrecked any chance two of the city groups—CAMBA in Flatbush and the Cypress Hills Development Corporation in Brooklyn—had of landing the big grants. CAMBA finished up its planning process in 2013 and Cypress Hills is completing the process now. Meanwhile, the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, which received a $472,000 planning grant in 2010, never applied for an implementation grant, partly because of an internal leadership change,

But none of the local planning grantees have abandoned the mission. Most are already implementing their Promise Neighborhoods plans. And four of them have coalesced into a lobbying group for the Promise Neighborhoods concept in the city.

They have high hopes the de Blasio administration is now picking up the baton the federal government let slip. But the partnership with the city remains in the courtship phase. And questions remain about the theory underlying the whole Promise Neighborhoods approach.

Controversial start

Around the time President Obama launched the program in 2010, Grover J. Whitehurst and Michelle Croft, researchers at the Brookings Institution, threw a grenade into the mix, blasting the administration for trying to replicate a model that hasn’t been shown to work. The Brookings report followed a City Limits investigation that raised some of the same questions.

The researchers found no significant difference in student achievement between students at a Harlem Children Zone charter school who lived in the zone, and therefore received all the services the zone had to offer, and students who lived outside the zone who didn’t receive the extra services.

“We don’t know whether counseling works, whether obesity-reduction works. We don’t know for sure whether Baby College works,” Whitehurst wrote at the time. Then, sounding a bit Donald Rumsfeldish, he added, “It’s not that we know they don’t work. It’s that we don’t know they work.”

The researchers also concluded that an HCZ middle school was only “middling” compared to other charter schools in Manhattan or the Bronx, which had no comparable network of “cradle to college” services.

Canada issued a rebuttal, claiming the researchers only examined one of HCZ’s charter schools—a school that, he claimed, had under-reported the number of students receiving free- and reduced-priced meals, thereby diminishing the poverty of the students they served. The researchers reworked their numbers but came up with similar results.

An earlier study by Harvard researchers found that while HCZ Promise Academy students who entered the 6th grade in 2005 had made significant progress by 8th grade, particularly in math, there was “at best modest evidence” that the social programs were driving that success.

“The challenge,” the Harvard researchers wrote, “is to find lower-cost ways to achieve similar results in regular public schools.”

A spokesman for the HCZ declined to comment on these points.

In a recent interview with City Limits, Whitehurst, a former director of the Institute of Education Services at the US Department of Education in the George W. Bush administration, accused the Obama administration of asking Promise Neighborhoods grantees to live up to a standard it’s not willing to hold itself to.

While the Obama administration is asking grantees to come up with evidenced-based solutions for improving student achievement, the administration has no plans to evaluate the performance of Promise Neighborhoods model, he says.

It’s not only Whitehurst making this claim. The nonpartisan U.S. General Accounting Office reached the same conclusion in a report issued in May. Citing costs, the logistics of coming up with a control group, and other factors, U.S. Department of Education officials acknowledged to the GAO they had no immediate plans to study the effectiveness of the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

“While Education recognizes the importance of evaluating the Promise program, they lack a plan to do so,” the GAO report states. “Grantees are investing significant time and resources to collect data to assess the program, but Education lacks a clear plan for using it.”

An official with the California-based nonprofit PolicyLink, the lead advocate for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative nationally, says the naysayers are being willfully narrow-minded.

“You never know how or which of these investments will pay off,” argues Michael McAfee, senior director at PolicyLink.

Upper- and middle-class parents are taking full advantage of Kaplan and other tutoring services for their children, while for “poor children, it’s like a zero-sum game,” he adds. “Middle-class Americans are buying opportunity, the same opportunity they say poor kids don’t need.”

In a statement to City Limits, Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Anne Williams-Isom states there is no need for “other low-income communities to replicate our exact model.”

“But we believe that children succeed to the extent that they are given comprehensive supports over the long term by the adults around them,” she says. “We see that happen regularly in middle-class communities and we are working to make that the new norm in Central Harlem.”

The work so far

The Promise Neighborhoods grantees in New York City argue that the Promise Neighborhoods model is different and has advantages over the HCZ way of doing things.

Kathleen Hopkins is the senior vice president of community services at Lutheran Family Health Centers, which received a $500,000 planning grant in 2010. HCZ “very much about an individual organization providing a continuum of services, not a collaboration, [not a] collective group of providers,” she says.

“I feel like that’s a huge difference because the whole purpose behind Promise is really making sure that interventions are effective, and maximizing the expertise of various stakeholders,” she says. “There is no way one organization can absolutely develop expertise in every area.”

The fundamental task of the city’s Promise Neighborhoods planning grantees was to conduct a needs assessment survey in their respective communities—a process that required extensive outreach, cultivation of community partners and an extensive review of publicly available data.

Once that was done, the task was to come up with proven solutions to move the needle on 11 indicators of progress, such as more children enrolling in early childhood centers, more students graduating from high school and more kids enrolled in college.

In most cases, the planning grant paid for three staff persons and technical assistance.

The furthest along in implementing their Promise Neighborhoods are CAMBA in Flatbush, Elmezzi/Zone 126 in Astoria and Long Island City, and Lutheran Family Health Centers in Sunset Park. The Cypress Hills Development Corporation in Brooklyn hasn’t yet implemented any Promise Neighborhoods programs, while Abyssinian Development Corporation officials report they are in “an infancy stage” of establishing partnerships with other social service providers.

With the help of the San Francisco-based Tides Center, the Elmezzzi Foundation established a separate entity, Zone 126, to build and oversee its Promise Neighborhood.

Zone 126 in Queens is the only lead agency of a Promise Neighborhood in the city that is not a social service provider. Officials with Zone 126 believe this gives them a leg up on their fellow grantees since they can add or subtract services without worrying if the change affects a funding stream necessary to keep the organization afloat.

Zone 126 has so far signed memoranda of understanding with 12 community partners, seven of which have launched programs in 10 participating schools.

The programs include a sleep-away camp, an after-school program, a class that teaches parents how to discipline kids 3- to 5-years-old and continuing education classes for adults. The officials estimate that by the end of the year they will be providing services for more than 1,000 children and their families.

Lutheran Family Health Centers has started a Promise Center that serves more than 2,000 students and their families at PS 503 and PS 506 in Sunset Park. The center, which is staffed by one LFHC employee and three AmeriCorps members, guides students and their families to various services, including immigration help, housing assistance, and food stamps.

LFHC has also launched an early-childhood learning network that serves 62 families. And with a $25,000 grant from Aetna, LFHC has revamped the menu at its early childhood centers and is now teaching kids and their families about healthy eating.

With the help of several partners, the Sunset Park-based agency has also started a worker-owned daycare cooperative.

This project addresses several community needs at once: the need for quality daycare for children, the need to free parents up so they can work and the need to create living-wage jobs for residents.

There are nine current worker/owners, says Sheldon Serkin, director of the community engagement program for LFHC.

The worker/owners just received their certification to offer early childhood services and now their homes are going through the licensing process, Serkin says.

Although it is not implementing a Promise Neighborhood, the Abyssinian Development Corporation has added to its existing operations cradle to college services that include a career academy, a college prep program and after-school programs.

Finding resources

Several of the new initiatives launched by the local planning grantees emerged organically out of the planning process.

In Flatbush for example, parents who were surveyed expressed anxiety about sending their children to college. Their perception was that the schools had programs for failing students, and plenty of opportunities for kids at the top, but not much available for kids in the middle, according to Caitlyn Brazill, CAMBA’s vice president for strategic partnerships.

Based on that feedback, CAMBA launched Collegiate Express, a program that links an adult who has put their kid in college with a family that hasn’t been through the process. Five coaches, who each receive a monthly stipend of $450, are working with 35 families.

Yoland Moore, one of the coaches, says she spends a lot of time with parents, many of them foreign born, going over the basics: how to interpret a report card, what to ask the teacher, encouraging them to join the PTA.

“At the end of the day, we want to create a whole and wholesome student who can embrace all their opportunities,” says Moore, a former adolescent development counselor who worked with at-risk kids in her native Trinidad. “When I am speaking to my parents I encourage them to encourage their children to do the tours and do the internships. Why? Because it matters on the college applications. It also opens their eyes.”

CAMBA pegs the value of the 11 programs it’s launched in its 75-block Promise Neighborhood at $2 million. Overall, the grantees have launched work valued at $5 million through their Promise Neighborhood efforts.

At least one program didn’t cost a dime to start. During a working group session, CAMBA officials realized that a number of local childhood centers needed help with curriculum, while just a few blocks away, Brooklyn College was running a program for AmericaCorps members who were developing a literacy curriculum for early childhood learners. Now, one day a week, five college kids are working at an early childhood center a few blocks from the college, and there are plans to expand to effort.

Brazill argues that a large part of the Promise Neighborhoods agenda is to have existing services function more efficiently and reinforce each other. The kids at the early childhood center who are being tutored by the AmeriCorps members are now more likely to be successful when they enter kindergarten, she says.

“So a lot of what we are doing here is actually making small investments to make existing large investments work better together,” she says.

The local planning grant recipients were all aware there might not be any federal implementation dollars at the end of their planning journey. And even if there was, that money was only assured for five years.

Perhaps no other group was more strategic when it came to money than Lutheran Family Health Centers.

“We were very realistic. You don’t want to galvanize a community like this and only make it dependent on a federal grant,” says Hopkins. “So we were really careful in the first year of bringing along with us what we called a funders working group. At the time, that was spearheaded for us by the Brooklyn Community Foundation … They were really just helping us think about what the vision is, what the strategy is.”

Denied implementation funding twice, the funders group came to the rescue. They raised $500,000 for the Sunset Park Promise Neighborhood, which is now going into its third year.

More to come

CAMBA believes is has just scratched the surface when it comes to helping daycare providers offer a higher quality of service. The group wants to launch a network that would give the providers information about what they can be doing all day with kids of different ages, access to meal programs, to educational toys, and safe equipment. But this is a heavy lift without a stable source of funding, according to Brazill.

Instead of operating its Promise Center in just two schools, Lutheran Family Health Centers hopes to expand to several more schools under de Blasio’s Community Schools banner, Hopkins says.

Indeed, CAMBA, Elmezzi, Cypress Hills, and Lutheran Family Health Centers are pushing for a city-based approach to Promise Neighborhoods.

“They [city officials] believe in [school-based services] and want to grow it in New York City,” says Hopkins. “Even though we didn’t get federal implementation [funding] we are hoping to be aligned with the city strategy and very soon be able to access city funds for this model in Sunset Park.”

Right now, the initiatives are similar but separate. At the Nov. 3 press conference at an East Harlem high school, Deputy Mayor of Strategic Policy Initiatives Richard Buery said he didn’t expect the services offered at the Community Schools to be a “magic bullet,” but they will, he said, be “a necessary part of that work [to turnaround the schools], as well as a deeper strategy to improve teaching in the building.”

The administration and the five nonprofits have much in common. They all believe that ancillary services such as medical care, family counseling, and housing assistance, can translate to students doing better in school. And they all believe those services should be available locally.

The Promise Neighborhoods model, however, is heavily reliant on shared data among several partners to measure the collective impact of all the services. It requires a lead agency to coordinate these services. Just how far the Promise Neighborhoods groups will bend to fit into de Blasio Community Schools initiative —and visa versa—remains to be seen.

But if that doesn’t happen, Hopkins says, the organizations will figure something else out. “Our role is not to put all our eggs in one basket, but diversity our portfolio and try to see how we can move this initiative forward,” she says.