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D.C. nonprofit wins $25 million federal grant

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Applause and cheers echoed off the cinderblock walls of an elementary school auditorium in Northeast Washington on Friday, as teachers and community leaders celebrated news of a $25 million grant for the Kenilworth Parkside neighborhood.

“The hunger for this kind of work in the nation is huge,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the crowd. Only seven grants were awarded out of more than 200 applicants. “So many communities are desperate to replace the cradle-to-prison pipeline with a cradle-to-career pipeline.”

The five-year grant, part of the national Promise Neighborhoods initiative targeting high-poverty communities, will go to schools and families in the area to create a network of support. The program is modeled after Harlem’s Children’s Zone, which aims to push not only students but entire neighborhoods to be successful, with help in areas including prenatal care for pregnant women, after-school tutoring and crime prevention.

“They ask everyone to take responsibility for helping children,” Duncan said at Neval Thomas Elementary School, one of the four schools included in the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

D.C. schools, which have long struggled with problems, are already investing lots of money, with some of the highest per-pupil spending rates in the country. But advocates of the program say this is a new way to help some of the neediest students.

The nonprofit will help build a completely integrated approach so children come to school more prepared, said Kaya Henderson, chancellor of D.C. public schools, after the event.

Ninety percent of children in the neighborhood are being raised in households headed by women, and half of them are living below the poverty level, said Ayris Scales, the executive director of the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative. So a program was designed to focus not only on children, but also on their moms. She said research demonstrates a huge benefit for children 8 and younger if their mothers graduate and are able to get better jobs. The program will work with 20-30 women to create individualized plans. Maybe they need a high-school diploma, she said, or help figuring out financial aid for college. “And literacy is a real issue here in this community,” Scales said.

The grant would help improve child care to make sure children are ready for kindergarten; build on mentoring, tutoring, after-school programs, and college and career counseling; and work with dozens of community partners on health and other issues.

“It’s a new beginning,” said Elisa Woods, a neighborhood leader who was so thrilled she brought her mother, a former teacher, to the announcement. The community “has been downtrodden for so long. Now it can rise up. It’s a blessing.”

© The Washington Post Company