Equity & Diversity

President Envisions Anti-Poverty Efforts Like Harlem’s ‘Zone’

By Dakarai I. Aarons — March 10, 2009 4 min read
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President Barack Obama is looking to lessons learned from a high-profile program in New York City in his bid to create “Promise Neighborhoods” to improve the lives of children living in poverty.

Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal calls for such neighborhoods that would be modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit community agency that runs a broad-based program to meet the educational, health, and social-service needs of residents in a 97-block area of New York.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama said he would create Promise Neighborhoods across the nation at a cost of “a few billion dollars” annually, targeting areas with high crime and poverty rates and low student achievement.

"[I]f we know it works, there’s no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem,” Mr. Obama said in a July 2007 speech announcing his anti-poverty platform. “It’s time to change the odds for neighborhoods all across America. And that’s why when I’m president, the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities across the country.”

Officials of the U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t provide specifics last week on President Obama’s plan, which is contained in an outline of the proposed education budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. They said the plan was still being formulated. They said they hope to have more concrete details, including the number of cities that would participate and amount of money to be spent, when the formal budget proposal is submitted to Congress next month.

Charter Schools

The services offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone include prenatal care, asthma screenings, and after-school programs. The group also runs two charter schools: Promise Academy 1, opened in 2004, serves grades K-9; and Promise Academy 2, opened in 2005, serves grades K-4.

The goal is to provide support for children from birth until college graduation. The Harlem Children’s Zone served more than 17,000 people last year, more than 13,000 of whom resided in its designated area.

Myeisha Stewart, 3, gives her teacher Chloe Hayward a high-five during a Head Start art class at the Harlem Gems school in New York City.

“We are trying to end that sort of cyclical failure that has been going on in places like Harlem,” Geoffrey Canada, the president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said last week in an interview.

When Mr. Canada was growing up in the South Bronx in the 1960s, he said, the thought was that being successful meant going to college and never coming back. A different philosophy is rooted in his work.

“What we’ve said to them when they are freshmen and sophomores in high school is, ‘We want you to be a part of the rebuilding of Harlem,” he said. "[W]hen they go away to school, part of their belief system is ‘Harlem is on its way back, and I want to be a part of that.’ ”

Other cities interested in creating the proposed Promise Neighborhoods don’t have to use all the same programs to be successful, but they must adhere to a group of core principles, Mr. Canada said. Those include a commitment to bringing the program to scale over time and a keen focus on improving the lives of individual children. Both must be done at the same time while keeping an eye on evaluation and accountability, he said.

Mr. Obama’s campaign proposal said local communities would be required to come up with 50 percent of the funding for Promise Neighborhoods—a dicey proposition during a recession. The Harlem Children’s Zone obtains one-third of its more than $60 million a year in funding from government sources, and the rest comes from wealthy individuals and foundations.

No ‘Magic Crystals’

Mamadou Kante, 3, listens as he is read a book during class.

PolicyLink, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit group focused on finding policy solutions to advance economic and social equity, has spent the past several months studying what it would take to create Promise Neighborhoods across the nation. The group is sharing its research with the Obama administration.

“I think the most exciting thing is to understand [is that] while the Harlem Children’s Zone is very impressive, nothing one sees comes from magic crystals,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, the group’s founder and chief executive officer. “It comes from good, solid data about ‘Who are the children and what are their needs?’”

A focus on data, as well as spending a year each for organization and startup, will help create a successful program, she said.

Lisbeth B. Schorr, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for the Study of Public Policy and a lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School, said policymakers will have to be clear about what the outcomes of such a large undertaking will be and create concrete benchmarks along the way to measure progress.

“Since you can’t simply prescribe what the input should be, you have to be careful about figuring out the outcomes you want so local people can make it fit their particular conditions,” said Ms. Schorr, who has written a paper examining the challenges of scaling up the program. “Everyone has agreed you need rigorous evaluation and documentation, but that is hard to get. I am impressed the administration seems to be doing some careful planning.”

While the idea of creating Promise Neighborhoods has merit, it will require a plan for dealing with neighborhood schools, said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor of teaching and learning and the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University.

“The first concern I have is the timing. If they try to do it too quickly, it will be hard to do it well. With something like this, you need to have the right people leading it. You need a high level of cooperation at a local level.”

“As important as after-school services and all the rest is, if you don’t have a plan for addressing the quality of what’s going on during the day, it is too limited,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as President Envisions Anti-Poverty Efforts Like Harlem’s ‘Zone’

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