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A Closer Look at Obama’s FY11 Budget: Promise Neighborhoods

Published:  April 7, 2010

In a July 2007 campaign speech, President-to-be Barack Obama unveiled a plan for improving urban America. “The first part of my plan,” Obama said, “will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country.”

This campaign promise may be brought to life with Promise Neighborhoods, a program that President Obama would like to fund with $210 million in fiscal year 2011. The program provides grants to community-based organizations for development and implementation of so-called “pipelines” of services that reach children from birth through college, providing those in America’s poorest urban areas with an extensive network of social programs (such as health care, after school activities and truancy prevention), as well as a high-quality education (most often, charter schools).
 
Congress appropriated $10 million to the Promise Neighborhoods program in fiscal year 2010 to pay for 20 one-year planning grants, presumably $500,000 per grant, that grantees (community-based organizations) would then use to develop “a feasible, sustainable plan” for a Promise Neighborhood program.  The Department of Education will release the request for proposals soon, according to Steven Hicks, the Special Assistant on Early Learning at the Department of Education.
 
The FY11 budget, if approved by Congress, would add an additional $200 million to the program. According to the Department of Education’s budget justification submitted to the Congress, that money would pay for more planning grants as well as five-year implementation grants for grantees that “prove their ability to build effective partnerships” between schools, nonprofits, and other state and local agencies, and “through those partnerships, bring a variety of resources to the program, including matching funds.”
 
To understand what these organizations would do with Promise Neighborhood funding, let’s step back and take a look at the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program Obama wants to replicate with Promise Neighborhoods. The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is a network of schools and services in Harlem that has been in the spotlight for its efforts to lift kids out of poverty by providing them with a high-quality education and extensive support systems (from health care to college counseling) that are often unavailable to low-income children.
 
The Harlem Children’s Zone has received a lot of attention recently, but the program began in 1970 as the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. When Harlem suffered during the crack epidemic of the 1980’s, the Rheedlen Centers decided to develop a holistic strategy to save the neighborhood. They created the Harlem Children’s Zone with the goal of providing services to every family within a 24-block radius of Harlem, and rebuilding a community that was on the brink of total collapse. Since its inception, the HCZ has grown to include 97 blocks, as well as charter schools with extended-day programming and after-school tutoring all year round.
 
Several features of the Harlem Children’s Zone focus on young children. Harlem Gems, a full-day pre-K program, has a 4:1 child-to-adult ratio and on-staff family workers to reach out to parents and families. Another feature of the Harlem Children’s Zone is Baby College, a series of Saturday morning classes for parents with kids 3 years of age and younger. Those who attend the nine-week Baby College learn about topics ranging from brain development to asthma and receive perks such as free breakfast and lunch for attending. HCZ employees actively recruit new parents in the neighborhood to attend Baby College and conduct weekly home visits.
 
At Early Ed Watch, we strongly support programs such as these for young children if and when these programs are of a high quality. The so-called “elephant” sitting in the middle of the Promise Neighborhoods program is just this: Can 20 other organizations around the country successfully replicate the 94-block mosaic of social programs and schools that comprise the Harlem Children’s Zone? The HCZ is a product of almost 40 years of steady growth and relentless effort from dedicated leaders such as the Zone’s founder, Geoffrey Canada—and it may be too early to tell if the Harlem Children’s Zone can be replicated. Currently, there is only one major study on the HCZ. Though the results of this working paper showed positive results for children in the charter school, more research is still needed on exactly what contributed to that success.
 
One last point: Though the FY11 budget request specifies that Promise Neighborhoods should serve kids from birth to college, it remains to be seen how much emphasis each Promise Neighborhood will put on early childhood programs, such as those like Baby College and Harlem Gems. If and when Promise Neighborhoods are eventually built, we will be keeping a close eye on whether early childhood maintains its central role in this “birth to 18” pipeline.

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