This article is part of our special reporting on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the antipoverty initiative examined in depth in the current issue of City Limits magazine, Hope or Hype in Harlem?

Late last year, President Barack Obama signed into law an appropriations bill that includes $10 million toward launching a new national antipoverty initiative called Promise Neighborhoods. The initiative will fund 20 programs around the country modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone – but much remains unknown about exactly how the program, which Obama’s campaign began developing more than two years ago, will work.

The Promise Neighborhoods program will be financed through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. According to the department’s budget overview, the initiative will provide one-year planning grants to qualifying nonprofit, community-based organizations to support the development of plans over the following year.

Those plans would be for comprehensive neighborhood programs that resemble the Harlem Children’s Zone’s “pipeline”-style approach of reaching children from a high-poverty area at birth and taking them through a series of intensive services and programs intended to keep them on the track to college graduation.

‘Something we were serious about’

According to Heather Higginbottom, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council to the White House, the Harlem Children’s Zone had been on Obama’s radar for some time, in part because of his work as a community organizer in Chicago before holding local public office.

As his campaign was putting together its urban poverty agenda, Obama asked Higginbottom, who was then the campaign’s policy director, and her team to take a closer look at how different antipoverty programs around the country were faring, and how federal government might play a role.

“He was familiar with the work of the Zone and what Geoff was doing, and asked us to really go and look at it and understand what was going on,” said Higginbottom, referring to HCZ founder and CEO Geoffrey Canada. “We went directly to the Zone. Geoff will tell you, at first he didn’t really get what we were up to. He was like, ‘What, you want to do this in other places?'”

“Once [HCZ] realized that this was something we were serious about and that we had a shot at winning, I mean they got really serious about providing the support and leadership we would need to implement this,” Higginbottom added. After Obama’s presidential win, Canada met with members of his transition team to keep developing the proposal.

According to the DOE budget overview, if the programs that get planning grants lead to promising projects and partnerships, they will be eligible to receive implementation grants the following year. Beyond that documentation, DOE is mum so far on the initiative – a spokeswoman would only say that further information and a call for grant applications will appear on the department website “soon.”

Educated guesses

In the absence of official guidelines for one of the most significant federal antipoverty initiatives in decades, observers and advocates are mapping out what they see as the likely shape of the imminent program.

In one recent report, the United Neighborhood Centers of America/Alliance for Children and Families (UNCA-AFC), provides its take on measures communities may have to take in order to remain successful Promise Neighborhoods. They’ll have to meet the historical challenge of compartmentalization of federal programs that often deal with inter-related problems – joblessness, homelessness, mental illness and drug abuse, for example – in isolation from one another. These program “silos” tend to inhibit a comprehensive approach – which is one hallmark of HCZ – because each government agency involved has its own rules and jurisdiction, making it hard for each agency to communicate and collaborate with the others, the report says.

Another report by the same group outlines how organizations can start planning to apply for grants and how to identify neighborhoods that would most likely qualify. Drawing from a paper presented to the Obama-Biden transition team by the Harlem Children’s Zone and the national research and advocacy group PolicyLink, the report says a qualifying neighborhood should have a minimum childhood poverty rate of 40 percent, or at least 30 percent in areas where there are other issues going on, such as high crime or low test scores.

The organizations also predict that prospective recipient sites will be expected to have a lead or anchor agency in place that is well established as a reliable partner to other entities like businesses, schools and health care organizations to raise funds and build more connections.

According to another recent report by Child Trends, communities hoping to benefit from the Promise Neighborhoods program will need clearly stated goals and ways to measure progress. This preview, funded by the Harlem Children’s Zone itself along with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, identifies four overarching goals of the Zone: making sure kids are prepared and healthy enough to enter school, keeping children healthy and successful when enrolled in school, getting kids to graduate from high school and college and helping families and neighborhoods to support their children’s health, development and schooling.

Progress toward those goals, the report continues, can be measured by a variety of indicators. But some experts believe that the big prize when it comes to indicators is school performance, namely test scores for reading and math.

“Particularly if you’re trying to do long-term change, poverty is hard. I think test scores are a good interim measure, [but they are] very hard to change,” said Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, director of welfare reform and income support at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “I think what you want to make sure of is that you’re not waiting for long-term outcomes and you have nothing along the way to be able to determine whether or not you’re actually heading in the direction you want to go.”

High need, shallow pockets

Public policy observers expect a large response for the first round of planning grant funding – definitely more applicants than there are grants. Patrick Lester, senior vice president for public policy at UNCA, predicts around 200 applications.

But along with the programmatic details, what’s also unclear at this point is whether the $10 million earmarked for Promise Neighborhood planning grants will be distributed equally to the 20 grantees in $500,000 increments, or adjusted according to each grantee’s individual circumstances. During the 2008 campaign, Obama indicated that the lead agency would be required to pay for 50 percent of the program – but it’s not known whether that requirement still holds.

“It’s pretty clear that they want applicants to come to the table with their own money to match federal money. What’s unclear is … where that matching money can come from,” said Lester. “It’s obvious that if it’s private money, then it qualifies. But a lot of low-income neighborhoods don’t have deep pockets, and don’t have the ability to tap Wall Street money like the Harlem Children’s Zone did.”

While the White House’s Higginbottom says she is encouraged by the interest shown so far by neighborhoods, she says she also sees two potential pitfalls for some aspiring projects: First, whether interested groups from a given area can collaborate as a team; and second, whether they can come up with the data and evaluation methods needed to measure results.

Despite these challenges, the deputy director spoke optimistically about her experience at a Nov. 2009 conference held by HCZ and PolicyLink, with attendees from communities across the country who came to learn more about Geoff Canada’s model.

“There was a huge demand to come, which was really encouraging and kind of amazing,” she says. “There has to be this new kind of collaborative approach,” she says. “And that’s hard work.”

– Rachel Dodakian