On September 30, 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, running hard for re-election, committed his administration to developing two new Children's Zones in New York City's outer boroughs—specifically, in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. The mayor's Children's Zones were intended to be patterned on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, a project Bloomberg has supported with upwards of $600,000 in personal donations and multiple millions of dollars in city contracts.
Bloomberg's 2009 proposal came as the Obama administration was ramping up its Promise Neighborhoods program, also built on the Harlem Children's Zone template.
That federal program awarded development grants earlier this month. Two New York City organizations were among the nation's 21 Promise Neighborhood winners—central Harlem's Abyssinian Development Corporation, which geographically overlaps with Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, and the Lutheran Family Health Centers, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
But to date there is no sign of the two independent, local programs the mayor promised. Representatives for the mayor were unaware of the national Promise Neighborhood initiative on repeated inquiry, and could not provide details on whether or how the mayor's 2009 promise will be realized.
Meanwhile, the federal program has shifted from the model that the Obama administration first proposed—and that the Harlem Children's Zone has made famous.
Traditional Schools Dominate
From the outset, potential Promise Neighborhood grantees were encouraged to anchor their proposals with high-quality schools. Charter schools are central to the administration's main education policy initiative, Race to the Top. But in the awards were made this September, traditional, non-charter public schools took prominence.
Among the winners, 90 percent of the schools at the center of Promise Neighborhood proposals are traditional publics. The remainder was mostly charters. (Some unsuccessful applicants, like the local Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, proposed a hybrid of charters and traditional schools.)
Sheena Wright, CEO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, tells City Limits, “We are firmly invested in and committed to working in public schools. The charter movement spurs innovation, it pushes the envelope, but charters alone will not save us. Quality schools have to be the focus.”
“Education—really great educational opportunities for our children—has always been a part of a sustainable, successful community,” says Wright, who said that Abyssinian's community development efforts predate the creation of Rheedlen Family Centers, the nonprofit that gave rise to the Harlem Children's Zone. “We've been at the school business for 17 years,” she adds. (Canada's charter schools, the HCZ Promise Academies, first opened in 2004.) The Abyssinian Baptist Church, now led by the Rev. Calvin Butts, has been active for over 200 years.
In Harlem's school district 5, “there are 39 schools, including eight charters,” Wright says. “Some [do] well, some [do] terrible. The vast majority of kids go to the 31 public schools. If we're really serious about community development, we have to be focused on these 31 schools and figuring out how to turn them around. School closure is not going to save us, either. You can't shut down an entire system.”
The Abyssinian Development Corporation's Lutheran's plan is anchored by a handful of neighborhood public schools, including PS 24, MS 281 and Sunset Park Prep middle school and Sunset Park High School, which opened in 2009. Targeted to provide education and health services to local schoolchildren, families and up to 8,000 young adults disconnected from either school or work, Lutheran will partner with the Brooklyn College School of Education and local institutions like the Sunset Park Alliance for Youth and the Center for Family Life. “Conversations in our planning year will include as many residents in our catchment area as possible,” Evans explained, predicting both formal events like town hall meetings and less-structured conversations in the community. “We want to include as many voices as possible.”
Long Odds in New York?
Of the 339 organizations that applied for Promise Neighborhood grants nationwide, 13 were from New York City, with two from central Brooklyn and one from the South Bronx. The Harlem Children's Zone was not among the applicants, surprising many in New York and beyond. (HCZ is in the middle of trying to establish a new charter school on the grounds of the St. Nicholas Houses development, with the strong support of the New York City Housing Authority, a recent $20-million gift from Goldman Sachs—and some local opposition.)
Lutheran's Evans says that the presence of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York may have discouraged local applicants: “I think that's why everyone thought there would be no chance for New York City to get even one [grant], because the HCZ was there. That sense was strong in a lot of parts of the city— 'Why are we going to do all that work when the prototype is already here? They're not going to fund anything else.' I'm glad that the U.S. Education Department didn't agree.”
One Washington, D.C.-based community advocate says that New York City nonprofits were wary of applying for Promise Neighborhood development funding. “At the CEO level in New York, people though it was wired – that projects would be chosen and blessed by the Mayor,” the consultant said.
In fact, neither winning proposal had the mayor's direct or indirect participation, according to both Wright and Evans. While steady city and major foundation funding goes to Abyssinian Development Corporation, the “funding has been in place from the city for 20 years, for the homeless shelter and the HeadStart program,” Wright said. “It's not just this mayor, but the city of New York.”
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the mayor's office has been working to advance his planned New York City Children's Zones in Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx.
Three groups sited in those neighborhoods applied for the federal grant, including the Children's Aid Society in the Bronx, and the Bedford-Stuyvestant Restoration Corporation and Groundwork, both of Central Brooklyn. But the mayor's office does not appear to have had any involvement in those unsuccessful bids. The programs Bloomberg proposed last year were cast as separate from the federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
First Round Isn't Last Chance
Both Wright and Evans say that their organization's programs, if realized, could easily be replicated by agencies and coalitions in other cities and states. This year's round of awards for planning grants (most were for around a half-million dollars) are supposed to be followed next year by another competition for Promise Neighborhood much larger implementation grants.
No preference for the implementation grants is granted to organizations like Abyssinian and Lutheran Family that won planning grants this year, although this first round of funding is expected to strengthen their second-round efforts.
However, other programs in New York—including any that the mayor might ultimately sponsor—could apply for the full implementation grants next year. However, funding for that second round is still under debate in Washington.
This paragraph was altered in light of information provided by the U.S. Department of Education.