November 22, 2009
Harlem is coming to Austin. No, not the Globetrotters but an anti-poverty program called the Harlem Children’s Zone. The program has had success in turning poor, at-risk schoolchildren into thriving students and college graduates.
You might be thinking this is another welfare program that aims to make kids feel good about their circumstances. You would be wrong.
This is an initiative with a 20-year track record. It relies on communities and local governmental entities teaming up in a partnership to empower families to be successful by eliminating barriers — as well as excuses — for failure.
The first thing that grabs you about the Harlem program is that it is not a top-down initiative run by a school district or government entity. It is a grass-roots program motored by community-based organizations and the very people they serve.
In the Harlem zone — a 97-block area in New York City serving about 7,400 children and 4,100 adults — families are provided with whatever it takes to get and keep kids on grade level and above, be that health services, tutoring, stable housing or job training for parents. The Harlem zone also is one of the largest employers of residents in the zone.
The Obama administration is right to hold it up as a model for others to replicate and right to offer incentives through its Promise Neighborhoods grants to get the job done. It’s encouraging to see the way the Austin community has pulled together to bring those resources to the city.
In short order, an Austin team has been assembled to apply for a one-year $500,000 planning grant to get the ball rolling. Communities that win a planning grant from the $10 million pool then would receive multiyear financing from the U.S. Department of Education to take the program to scale — if they are able to raise matching funds from private or local government sources.
Texas is out of favor with Washington’s Democatic administration. Even so, blue Austin supported Obama for president. It is well-situated to win a Promise Neighborhood grant because of its power hitters, such as state Rep. Mark Strama and state Sen. Kirk Watson, Democrats with strong ties to the Obama administration.
But Austin also brings strong leadership from Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and equally strong participation from entities such as the St. John Neighborhood Association, Communities in Schools, University of Texas, E3 Alliance, United Way, LifeWorks, Southwest Key, Capital Area Council of Governments, City of Austin and several community leaders. That team demonstrates that Austin could build and sustain a children’s zone program.
Certainly the Austin school district, with 60 percent of its 84,671 students classified as economically disadvantaged and 57 percent as at-risk of failing, has need for the program.
That aside, the way forward will be challenging. The planning team must designate a single neighborhood as the one that would get federal resources. Another potential pitfall is in the selection of one community-based organization to administer grants and financing.
Those are tough decisions, but they need not be fatal if the planning team unites around the goal of selecting the neighborhood or area that has the best chance of meeting federal guidelines to be a Promise Neighborhood.