Children's Zone: Can Harlem Come to Austin?

Travis County groups are competing to become part of a grand experiment

Geoffrey Canada
Geoffrey Canada

During his 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama applauded the Harlem Children's Zone in New York for using governmental, educational, and nonprofit groups in a coordinated program to break the cycle of childhood poverty. His election pledge was to create 20 Promise Neighborhoods that could apply the lessons of Harlem across the nation. Now public agencies and nonprofit groups in Travis County are competing to become part of this grand experiment.

The Harlem Children's Zone was founded in 1997 by education advocate Geoffrey Canada: Serving 15,000 children and 7,000 adults in a 100-block area of New York, the concept is to create a pipeline from cradle to career, bringing together every possible neighborhood influence and social agency to both enrich the educational process and remove impediments to childhood development. The Obama administration's Promise Neigh­bor­hood initiative, as it's described, won't simply duplicate what worked in Harlem with the hope it will work everywhere. Instead, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said it takes the "core concepts of the Harlem Children's Zone" and creates localized solutions to specific local problems.

The basic idea is to target specific neighborhoods, selected on criteria of poverty and academic underachievement. A consortium of governmental agencies and nonprofits would then work together to provide interlocking services to address the root causes underlying childhood poverty and consequent academic difficulties. Since each community has different issues, from high parental unemployment to limited English language proficiency to child homelessness, each project proposal must reflect the needs of the individual community. Texas Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said it's all about giving kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to thrive by providing the same resources and opportunities as those available to children from affluent homes. He said, "There's nothing explosive in that – except no one's ever tried to do it."

There's more on the line than convening a few interagency committees. Before the summer, the Department of Education will release the terms to apply for the first stage: selecting 20 neighborhood consortia, each getting a $500,000 planning grant funded with American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act money. There will be additional long-term federal funding, and the consortia will work with federal agencies including the Department of Hous­ing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency. Welcoming the change of focus on barriers to childhood development, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees Presi­dent Mark Williams said: "Sometimes we have a tendency to look at schools and say, 'You're failing kids,' and we don't realize that there are many other factors that impact how they perform in school. Are they hungry, scared, sleepy, sick, don't come to school at all?"

Two proposals are being drafted in Travis County, both focusing on East Austin. One, backed by the Sooch Foundation and the Webber Family Foundation, brings together representatives of the city of Austin and AISD, as well as local nonprofits such as dropout prevention experts Communities in Schools, youth services provider LifeWorks, and affordable housing advocates Foundation Communities. Their focus is on the St. John/Coronado Hills neighborhood planning area between I-35, Highway 290, and Highway 183, potentially using AISD's Reagan High "vertical team" – from elementary through high school – as the project backbone. Education nonprofit Southwest Key Programs is working on its own proposal for the Govalle and Johnston Terrace neighborhoods. This would build on its existing East Austin Children's Promise program and use resources like Southwest Key's East Austin Family Center and its charter school, the East Austin College Prep Academy.

Potential confusion or competition among local bids may be the least of Austin's worries. Representatives from 120 consortia from across the nation attended the Chang­ing the Odds conference hosted by Duncan and the Harlem Children's Zone in November, but there are expected to be between 150 and 200 applications filed. Strama attended the meeting with the St. John group and warned: "We're going to be going up against Detroit and Cleveland. When Austin's application reaches [the Department of Education] they're going to say, 'Austin doesn't have blight.'" The challenge will be breaking that presumption, and Strama said the city's high child poverty and low graduation rates could strengthen its case. He said, "When they put up the numbers that they were attacking in Harlem, I said, 'That could describe East Austin.'"

Council Member Sheryl Cole serves on the local Promise Neighborhoods advisory committee and described this project as almost a missing piece in council thinking. She said, "We spend a lot of time, and rightfully so, dealing with the implications of climate protection, transportation, and public service issues, but all those things depend on us having a future generation." Staff is already looking at using city-owned assets like recreation centers as part of any eventual program. She said, "I'm really anxious to see in what capacity we can use those facilities [to] improve student performance."

Whatever the final result for Austin's applications, both local initiatives applaud the process. John Turner, Southwest Key's interim communications director, said, "If we got this grant, it would be great, but it would really just accelerate what's happening anyway." St. John Community School Alliance facilitator Allen Weeks echoed that sentiment: "The coalition building part is the greatest benefit for any city. That will remain, whether we get the grant or not."

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