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Promises, Promises

Two Austin neighborhoods vie to bring down federal dollars to help transform communities

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 6, 2010

Promises, Promises
Illustration by Jason Stout

Half a million dollars in federal grants may sound like a lot – but in terms of tackling entrenched poverty, it's barely a drop in the ocean. Yet two Austin communities hope that it will become the down payment on a new future for Austin's urban poor.

What's on offer is called a Promise Neighborhoods grant. The Department of Education will select up to 20 projects nationwide to split an opening grant of $10 million. The recipients will use that money to start planning a "promise neighborhood." Based on the model of the Harlem Children's Zone, the idea is to bring nonprofits, educators, and local government together to start applying for a total of $210 million in future federal five-year grants. The grand plan, as backed by President Barack Obama, is to do what seems impossible: to break the intergenerational cycles of poverty, ill health, malnutrition, unemployment, and academic failure that have blighted too many American communities.

There has been controversy that two applications have been filed in Austin. One, the Austin Achievement Zone, would be based in the St. John/Coronado Hills neighborhood in Northeast Austin; the other, the East Austin Children's Promise, is based in Govalle/John­ston Terrace. In fact, for a large city, two applications is not unusual; in Houston alone, six different groups have filed applications with the U.S. Department of Education, and that figure is dwarfed by Los Angeles (10) and Chicago (13).

Those numbers reflect the reality of this particular exercise: that the two Austin bids are competing not against each other but against a nation of applications and tough criteria for eligibility. In total, 941 projects lodged letters of intent with the Department of Education, and even though only 339 actually submitted full proposals, that still gives each of Austin's proposals only a one in 17 chance of being selected. Moreover, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given priority to eligible projects from either rural or tribal communities.

Paul Tough spent five years reporting on the Harlem Children's Zone (see "The Canada Model") and says there's "an R&D feel" to the federal offer. "The Harlem Child­ren's Zone is one particular model," he said, "but this isn't about cloning it in other cities. It's about adapting it for different places." There will be certain shared components of any successful application, not least that schools will be used as the logistical hub for any proposal. "That's why it's being run by the Department of Education and not Health or anyone else," Tough said. But this endeavor is about taking all the agencies and entities that are already in place – educational, medical, nutritional, charitable, governmental, commercial, and legal – and getting them to work together – better, smarter, and more effectively. Tough said: "We have to start from the principle that we're already spending lots of money in these communities in really bad ways that are making life harder for people to live there. For me, it's a chance that's worth taking."

The Austin Achievement Zone

If there's an Austin neighborhood that has become an unhappy poster child for modern educational problems, it may well be St. John. Both Reagan High and Webb Middle have lived under the state axe of mandatory repurposing, and along with Pickle Elementary, these schools form the educational hub of the Aus­tin Achievement Zone proposal. Allen Weeks, chairman of the zone's steering committee, said, "The place-based approach is pretty unique, where you say, 'We're going to take responsibility for an area of the city, not just for the kids but the parents and the families.'"

Former Austin Independent School District trustee Karen Dulaney Smith is the Achieve­ment Zone's project support specialist and its first employee, and she sees it as a continuation of what she's always tried to do. She said, "When I came on the [AISD] board four years ago, one of my big goals was to have the city and the county and the school district collaborate more closely." She is, she noted, far from the first member of the board trying to break down the institutional walls; as for the idea that this is something new, she pointed to a long history, from 19th century social reformers to the New Deal, of taking holistic approaches to fixing childhood poverty. The trick, she said, is to ensure bureaucratic longevity. "Com­mit­tees work really effectively, but then another idea comes along and gets everyone's attention, and they go for that idea and they forget about what had been working and let it wither."

Karen Dulaney Smith
Karen Dulaney Smith
Photo by John Anderson

Dulaney Smith is not the only current or former elected official involved in this project. Repre­sentatives of AISD, as well as county and city government, sit on the steering committee, and members of the local legislative caucus have publicly backed the proposal. A plethora of local charitable foundations, including Dell, Sooch, and the Webber Family, have loaned their expertise and will help secure the matching cash required for any federal contribution. Dulaney Smith said, "One wonderful thing that's happened is that DLA Piper, which is a very large law firm that has offered consultation to four potential promise neighborhoods, has offered to help us." For Dulaney Smith, the firm's expertise in structure and governance "will be very valuable, because when you have a lot of people working together, you want to make sure that everyone can do what they need to do within the confines of the organization they represent and that you don't set up something that precludes participation."

The most important partner is also part of the largest. The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, based at the University of Texas at Austin, has become a leader in issues such as dropout prevention and autism spectrum disorder research. While its staff and researchers are examining more hands-on involvement, initially its role is administrative. Project liaison and senior research associate Sarojani Mohammed said, "The requirements of the grant require a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or an institute of higher ed to submit the proposal, so we are the applicant."

However, their big job will be to chart the impact of the project on students and their families. Dulaney Smith said, "We have to have data, and we have to have a way to manage and collect that data for a broad group of providers, interest groups, and governmental entities, and how can you do that without someone who has the knowledge of how to put it together?"

What's attracted all this high-level interest? It's not just that the area has needs – though with a 43% child poverty rate, 26% of 16- to 19-year-olds out of school or out of a job, and 47% of adults with limited English-language skills, the neighborhood's needs are undeniable. It's that the area has also become an example of what community outreach can do to turn schools around. It was the St. John Neighborhood Association that convinced the AISD trustees to reject former Superintendent Pat Forgione's 2007 scheme to turn their neighborhood middle school into a boys academy, and it was with this community's backing that innovative programs – such as the Family Resource Center and YouthLaunch's Urban Roots farming project – started at Webb and are now expanding and being emulated throughout the district. While the heavy hitters add credibility and institutional liaisons, it's the local charities that have signed on, such as LifeWorks and United Way Capital Area, which will run the projects. Beyond that, it will be local community activists such as Weeks and the St. John Neighborhood Association that can provide the street-level know-how.

It's also the community presence that will be vital in getting neighbors involved. Like people in many working-class neighborhoods, some St. John residents see education as a luxury, not a necessity. For some, especially migrant families from extremely impoverished nations, their current conditions may be the best they've ever experienced. Dulaney Smith said that in conversations some community members had made their priorities very clear. She said, "If you haven't had electricity or running water or a roof over your head, certainly one that doesn't leak, and suddenly you have electricity and running water and a job, what else is there to want?"

The East Austin Children's Promise

The idea of breaking the cycle of poverty and low expectations is what motivated Aus­tin's other proposal well before the Obama administration proposed the Promise Neigh­bor­hoods. Now the East Austin Children's Promise plans to build on what Southwest Key is already doing in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood.

Founded in 1987, Southwest Key made its reputation in Texas by providing alternative education centers under the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. In 2003, the nonprofit took a radical new step by reaching out to Govalle/Johnston community members and asking them directly what they needed. In 2008, it completed its El Centro de Familia, containing the organization's corporate headquarters as well as the area's first middle school since desegregation in 1983: the East Austin College Prep Academy. Entering its second year and drawing students from across East Austin, the free charter school places an emphasis on math, science, and bilingual literacy. It's a rigorous curriculum that requires a lot of commitment from students and their families, with nine-hour days and occasional six-day weeks. There is a payoff to all that work: Southwest Key President Juan Sánchez said, "Part of the promise we make to our kids is that if you stay in our schools, you will graduate from college."

For Southwest Key, one selling point is its experience in drawing down federal funding and bringing it into the community in a focused and holistic way, like the $2.1 million from the U.S. Economic Development Admin­i­stration for the new job-creating social enterprise complex. Southwest Key representatives also argue that their experience with community outreach will show that they can provide the kind of dedicated staff that a program as all-inclusive and vast as a promise neighborhood will require. Academy Superintendent Nellie Cantú said: "If you think about the innovative things that make us different, one of the things that come to mind immediately is that all our teachers, administrators, and support staff are on-call until 9[pm] for students. It could be for tutoring; it could be parent conferences; it can be for students or their families or the community."

Juan Sánchez
Juan Sánchez
Photo by Jana Birchum

Another aspect of the Promise Neigh­bor­hoods equation is the idea of outreach beyond the school fence. Cantú's students are already required to take part in one weekend of community service a month. In addition, all parents are enrolled in the Academia des Padres, in which they are educated on how to help their children benefit from the school's approach. Cantú said, "Our philosophy is not only that parents be involved but [that] they also be engaged in their children's education."

According to Sánchez, "It's about setting a culture that's very different from what these kids and this community has ever experienced, and that culture is about first believing that all these kids have the capacity and the ability and the intelligence to go to college and finish college." What has to be installed is the social infrastructure – jobs, health care, affordable housing, and family security – to allow them to flourish.

As a member of the project's advisory body, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources co-founder Susana Almanza argued that not only is this an area that has historically needed this kind of project, it's one that can mobilize quickly and effectively around worthwhile endeavors. With past victories like relocating the East Austin tank farm and supervising a neighborhood plan under their belt, she said: "This is a well-organized community. It's not a community where you have to look for individuals."

One Tough Vote

While both projects share the goal of improving their communities, there have been clashes over how best to engage the federal grant process. The point of greatest friction was a June 14 vote by the AISD board of trustees to adopt a memorandum of understanding supporting the Austin Achievement Zone application; that decision has been harshly criticized by the East Austin Children's Promise group. In a press release, Southwest Key Deputy Executive Director Joella Brooks wrote, "We feel it is a disadvantage to the youth in East Austin for AISD to 'pick and choose' which community to prioritize when ALL of Austin's students deserve a quality education and attention."

However, AISD board of trustees President Mark Williams said that the decision wasn't about snubbing anyone but about formalizing and acknowledging the district's existing deep involvement with the Austin Achievement Zone. Right from the beginning, he said, "There was an active and aggressive effort on behalf of the St. John neighborhood to form a team and form a partnership." AISD was a core part of that team, with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, AISD trus­tee Cheryl Bradley, and Webb Middle School Principal Reynaldo Garcia joining the project's steering committee, while Chief Schools Officer Paul Cruz and trustee Annette LaVoi joined the effort as advisers.

Southwest Key had been part of the very earliest discussions, Williams said, but "peeled off" to work on its own proposal and only came back to the district much later. Williams said, "It's one thing to say that we support each proposal, but are we an integral partner or is someone just asking us to endorse an effort?" When Southwest Key approached the board, "it was very late in the ball game, and it wasn't really clear how substantive a role we would really have," he said.

Money Can't Buy Happiness

The Department of Education is scheduled to review all applications in August, with an announcement of the winners in September at the earliest. Even should the Austin Achievement Zone or the East Austin Children's Promise defeat the long odds and get a grant, the truth is that half a million dollars, even matched by donations, isn't a fraction of what's needed for truly permanent neighborhood change. So what will this money really do?

This is, after all, only a planning grant, but it's the key to unlocking further federal grants, and Obama has said that he plans to make billions of dollars available long-term to ensure the success and expansion of these projects. Meadows Center Associate Director Greg Roberts said, "It's important to distinguish between the planning year and the big grants that will come out, starting next year, that will provide for implementation of actual models." What this money is about, he said, "is getting ourselves organized, as a collective and in the community, so that when those $10 million grants do come down, we have our act together."

The long-term hope of the Obama administration is that the initial pilot phase of Promise Neighborhoods will be so successful that the program continues and expands into other cities. If it pays off, it could become the standard operating procedure for fixing broken communities. For Dulaney Smith, that's a strength of the Austin Achievement Zone proposal. The immediate plan is to start fixing the problems in St. John. If that works, the project will expand beyond the 78752 ZIP code, bringing in the kids at the equally troubled Dobie and Pearce middle schools. At every step, Dulaney Smith said, staff will ask themselves: "How do we do something that's model-able and that we can replicate elsewhere? That's what is different about this, rather than other efforts where you just dump a bunch of services in a neighborhood."

And according to their sponsors, even if both Austin applications fail, the projects will live on. The East Austin Children's Prom­ise is an extension of what Southwest Key is already doing, and a core part of Dulaney Smith's job involves finding alternate funding to continue the same projects with the existing partner agencies. Moreover, as Roberts of the Meadows Center noted, "If you don't get funded for the planning grant, that does not disqualify you from applying for the implementation grant."

And just the sheer act of applying for a grant can have a positive effect. Weeks said, "A lot of communities have said that the real benefit of this process is that it's started a really helpful conversation about breaking down [bureaucratic] silos and connecting systems." He's already seen partner agencies start to discuss educational outcomes as a component of their budget discussions, "so I think all across the nation where people are doing this kind of planning for this grant are engaged in something that they really should be involved in anyway."

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