March 16, 2011

OVER THE YEARS, many programs have aimed to ease poverty’s grip on Washington’s Parkside-Kenilworth Community, and each has failed. Now the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, basing its ambitious effort on the cradle-to-college model of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, is hoping to break that pattern.

The Ward 7 neighborhoods, on the eastern edge of the District, trace their decline to construction of the Anacostia Freeway in the 1950s, when this middle-class community was cut off from the rest of the city. The loss of local industry fueled deterioration as those with means fled to the Maryland suburbs. Today Parkside-Kenilworth suffers the familiar scourges: crime, unemployment, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, failing schools.

Mr. Canada, whose work was showcased in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believes in giving poor children better education and the uninterrupted academic, medical and social support that wealthier children can take for granted. His approach remains a work in progress, but it is sufficiently admired that President Obama is seeking to replicate it nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education provided $10 million planning grants to those hoping to copy the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Parkside-Kenilworth was among the recipients.

Its effort is spearheaded by Irasema Salcido, the charismatic educator who founded the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in the community, but its unusual strength lies in the 70 nonprofits, businesses, churches, foundations and resident associations that have signed on. In a refreshing partnership, two traditional public schools, Kenilworth and Neval Thomas elementary schools, have joined the coalition with their charter neighbor. The targets are 2,000 youths who live in Mayfair, Parkside, Eastland Gardens and other neighborhoods in the area, which is less than two miles long and a mile wide. The goal is to increase the number who complete school and enter adulthood as productive citizens.

The group, including residents, is immersed in an intensive effort to design a strategy that could attract an implementation grant (the federal budget and Congress willing). But the group intends to forge ahead with or without federal money. This week, for example, one of the group’s partners, Educare, broke ground on an early childhood center that will serve 171 of the community’s children when it opens in 2012.

Perhaps its biggest challenge is convincing beleaguered residents, who have seen countless anti-poverty programs come and go, that this time will be different. “We are talking about making a commitment to people’s children,” said Gregory Rhett, the community activist in charge of citizen engagement. “The point is to change the entire paradigm of this community so that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, you can . . . pull up the stats on juvenile-related crime, on teen pregnancy, on dropouts, on test scores and you should be able to see a noticeable change.” What he thinks distinguishes this initiative from other failed anti-poverty programs is that it aims to identify and treat the root of the problem — the institutional failure to educate poor children — rather than “just slapping on a Band-Aid and hoping the bleeding will stop.”