Group hopes to get “Promise Neighborhood”

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Plans are in motion to create Austin’s first Promise Neighborhood, a community initiative that would provide children with effective schools and support to successfully transition to college and a career, say board members of the community building group Austin Coming Together.

The U.S. Department of Education provides one-year grants annually of roughly $500,000 to selected non-profit organizations and higher learning institutions to develop a plan for implementing a Promise Neighborhood, which aims to improve education block by block. A Promise Neighborhood has a strong emphasis on collecting and analyzing data to demonstrate results.

Austin Coming Together applied for the plan grant – detailing its approach as well as what partners will be involved – in September and expects to hear whether it was chosen in mid-November, said Andrew Born, project coordinator for Austin Coming Together.

In 2010, President Obama started the Promise Neighborhood program, which is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone – a cradle-to-college program that has demonstrated positive results for children of all ages and has more than 600 youth in college, according to the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative.

A Promise Neighborhood focuses on creating an aligned partnership with schools, community organizations and other service providers in distressed geographic areas, so children will not fall through the cracks, Born said.

“Schools are doing their thing to educate children, and everyone else is kind of scattered and fragmented doing their own thing,” Born said at the Sept. 29 Austin Coming Together monthly meeting.

“The idea is to get everyone one board with the same goals and outcomes.”

The planning process for Austin’s Promise Neighborhood will take up to one year, Born said.

“Regardless if we get the funding – well, we’ll get the funding – but if some reason we don’t, we’re going to go through with the process anyway,” Born said.

“We’re going to find a way to do it.”

Austin Coming Together was required to provide matching funds in its application to the U.S. Department of Education — which would come from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Born said.

“The Chase Foundation is supportive of this initiate, and we are hoping that we can work with them to help us gather some resources,” he said.

During the planning stage, Austin Coming Together will start a pilot neighborhood located in the area bounded by Lake Street to the north, Quincy Street to the south, Austin Avenue to the west and the train tracks east of Cicero Avenue.

The boundaries are based on neighborhood attendance for the community elementary schools, Born said.

The schools located in the area include Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, Robert Emmet Elementary, Ellington Elementary, Depriest Elementary, Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School and the three high schools on the former Austin High School campus.

Born said the goal is to try and target every child and family in the Austin neighborhood, but “in order to do this, we need to start at a smaller scale to identify what programs and services are working.”

“We selected this as the pilot neighborhood, because it was a very close cluster of schools,” Born said.

Born said Austin Coming Together will scale up the neighborhood in the coming years in order to serve the entire Austin community. It is still being determined when the pilot neighborhood will kick off.

Some Austin Coming Together Board members raised questions about what  happens to the schools that fall outside the pilot neighborhood.

“You are going to create two tiers of schools and two tiers of neighborhoods,” said Brad Cummings, an Austin Coming Together board member and associate editor of The VOICE Newspapers.

“That isn’t particularly healthy.”

Born said the Promise Neighborhood needs to start small to ensure there is a capacity to reach all schools and families in Austin.

Mildred Wiley, Austin Coming Together board president and senior director of government and community affairs at Bethel New Life, said once the organization has “worked out the kinks” and has a working model, the pilot neighborhood can be replicated, and the data can be distributed to the rest of the community.

“Once we get to that level of sophistication and development, then we can scale it up.”

There are multiple objectives to be accomplished in the planning process for Austin’s Promise Neighborhood, Born said.

Data needs to be collected on a number of indicators that will help Austin Coming Together identify high-, medium- and low-need children and families.

A plan also needs to be developed to deliver the “cradle-to-career-pipeline,” and long-term partnerships need to be created with public and private funders to support the initiative.

Austin Coming Together is  in the process of building a longitudinal data system that will analyze existing programs and services and continue to record the Promise Neighborhood results.

This student-level database is important because it tracks students’ educational trajectory and gives Austin Coming Together the capacity to measure student results, Born said.

“We can look at seniors in high school and see all the programs they participated in since they were 3 years old, and see what programs worked, what didn’t and what they are achieving,” he said.

Born said the Westside Health Authority will lead a community-based participatory research project to collect initial assessment data — including the current impact of Austin programs. The Westside Health Authority will also promote the Promise Neighborhood with families and residents and collect community feedback.

Collecting assessment data is going to take some time, Born said.

“For people that want to participate in this, there is going to be some upfront investments of time and resources,” he said.

“We think the benefits will definitely outweigh the costs.”

Austin Coming Together will hold a public meeting Nov. 1 to further discuss the initiative. Time and location are still to be determined.

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