An impoverished pocket of Northeast Washington has been receiving $25 million in federal grants to fund tutors, literacy programs and early-childhood education, largely to improve the neighborhood’s three struggling schools. Officials say school attendance is up, and the local charter high school has seen a boost in math scores.
But the children of Kenilworth-Parkside aren’t all benefiting from the “Promise Neighborhood” program. Less than a third of the 1,600 students who live there attend neighborhood schools; the rest are enrolled in 184 others, scattered across a city that has embraced school choice more than almost any other.
The children in the neighborhood — and similar communities across the country — are living with two sometimes-competing visions of education reform. One offers a better education and a brighter future through a citywide enrollment lottery that sends them to schools far and wide. The other promises positive outcomes from heavy investments in schools and services near their homes.
“Traditionally, many years ago, you could target this sort of effort in one physical geographic location and you would reach students the entire time they are awake,” said Isaac Castillo, deputy director of the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative. “Now you have to be more creative. We don’t have staffing and resources to be at 184 schools.”
Promise Neighborhoods are modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada’s widely publicized effort to saturate 97 square blocks of New York with support from infancy through adulthood. The approach is considered one of the most ambitious anti-poverty experiments in a generation.
The U.S. Education Department has awarded 58 Promise Neighborhood grants since 2010, a combined investment of more than $200 million through 2014. Mary Brown, the program’s executive director, said the work is only beginning and is focused on raising funds and setting plans for the long term. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Kenilworth-Parkside three years ago to celebrate its designation as one of these areas.
The District — where 44 percent of public school students attend charter schools — offers a wide range of educational choices for families. But the growth of charter schools and flexible enrollment policies — which send students away from their neighborhoods for the school day — are common strategies for improving the prospects of poor children in the types of disenfranchised communities that have been designated as Promise Neighborhoods, which focus investments in the communities where children live.
In the Mission Promise Neighborhood in San Francisco, just 15 percent of the 4,300 students in the designated neighborhood are enrolled in one of the four target schools, where the Promise Neighborhood provides mentors, a nurse and social worker, as well as support for after-school programs, technology, and college and career services.
In the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, less than half — 45 percent — of the students served by the program attend one of nine “anchor” schools, where the Promise program employs “family coaches” and “academic navigators.”
Michael McAfee, vice president for programs at PolicyLink, an organization that supports Promise Neighborhoods across the country, said school choice presents complexity because programs must work with individual students and families to tailor plans.
The scattering of students also makes it more difficult to gather data and monitor the program’s success. The Education Department tracks progress in target schools, but little information is available about the performance and trends for the large number of students who leave their Promise Neighborhoods for school.
The District’s Promise Neighborhood is an island hedged in by the Anacostia Freeway, the Anacostia River and a decommissioned Pepco plant. It includes a mix of public and subsidized housing, a once middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes, and new townhomes and condominiums advertising affordable market rates.
The area is home to about 5,800 residents, including 1,800 children and teenagers. Ninety-eight percent of residents are black, about half live below the federal poverty line, and nearly 90 percent of families with children are headed by single women, according to initiative data.
A convenience store is the only retailer. The Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center once offered a pool and basketball courts but was fenced off in 2010 after the soil at the park, near a former landfill, was found to be contaminated.
The proposal for the D.C. program was spearheaded by Irasema Salcido, the founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School that has middle and high school campuses in Parkside. Some school choice advocates say that a good school is enough to change a child’s trajectory, but Salcido said she thinks that resources must extend into the community because “schools alone cannot do it.”
“It’s important to go outside and really understand what our kids are facing because those things don’t go away,” she said. Expanding school choice has created hope for many families, she said, but it’s time to examine its effect on neighborhoods that used to revolve around a central school.
Salcido partnered with the principals at two nearby traditional schools and the leaders of national and local organizations to create the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, hoping to transform the four public schools there. It called for a network of services, expanding quality programs for infants and toddlers, improving college readiness, boosting teen pregnancy prevention, and helping parents with financial literacy and workforce development.
The goal in the District, and in other Promise Neighborhoods, is to improve the schools so that families will be drawn back to them. But attracting families to their neighborhood schools is about more than turning around academics; it’s also about changing the neighborhood’s reputation.
“I don’t want my kids going to school with neighborhood kids. I wouldn’t dare,” said Chanel Mitchell, 34, a mother of six, with one on the way, who enrolled some of her children in a new D.C. charter school. “People here have a lot of problems.”
Just weeks after the federal grant was announced three years ago, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson unveiled plans to shut down Kenilworth Elementary, along with 14 other schools, for low enrollment. That move was a blow to the initiative, removing one of its intended targets for new investments.
In the past two years, with the help of the federal Promise funding, Neval Thomas, the remaining traditional elementary school, has received an updated library, teacher training, a parent resource center and on-site after-school programs. The initiative funds literacy and math assistance, and works to improve school attendance.
Math and reading test scores remain well below city averages, but the school has seen improvement in its attendance rates — with the portion of “chronically absent” students who miss 18 or more days dropping from 36 percent to 24 percent.
Cesar Chavez Public Charter School earned “Tier 1” status from the D.C. charter board this year, a milestone achieved by just six charter high schools in the city that followed a jump in its math scores. Administrators credited the success to the tutors, new curriculum and professional development that flowed from the federal grant.
Despite its recent success, it’s been difficult to recruit students from the neighborhood. Fewer than 100 of the 356 students at the school came from Parkside-Kenilworth last year.
For children who go to other schools, the program pays for summer camps and offers after-school programs — a common strategy in Promise Neighborhoods to reach students who attend outside schools.
At 4 p.m. on a spring afternoon, children trickled in wearing the button-down shirts and solid-colored pants from a dozen different school uniforms and sat down for snacks and help with their homework. At Kenilworth Court, middle-school boys were excited to play basketball through a program called Chase your Dreams, run by a former Women’s National Basketball Association star. At another community center, children and teenagers crowded into a sunny room to practice routines with Dance Visions of Art, a program started by a local dancer.
The programs are often offered steps from where the children live, but it can be tough for them to get there on time, or at all, if they are commuting from schools in Northwest Washington or if their own schools have an extended day or after-school programs, said Kenya McKeever, a community liaison.
The initiative reaches more families through a monthly food bank and is hiring a team of “Promise advocates” — akin to case managers — to begin providing one-on-one services, including help selecting the best school and after-school options and help with mental health, housing and other services.
Mitchell said she goes to a lot of the neighborhood events, including a “Take and Play,” where parents get books and activities and learn how to teach their young children.
And although she is wary of the neighborhood schools, she enrolled her younger children in Educare, a reputable early-education center recruited to the neighborhood.
She was recently asked to help start a prenatal class at the center with 11 other pregnant women, an opportunity she called “a blessing.” Her new baby also will be able to attend Educare for free. She sees the Promise program bringing some of the prosperity that’s evident elsewhere in the District to her corner of the city.
“They are doing everything to help us if we want the help,” she said.