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The promise (and peril) of Promise Neighborhoods

Randall F. Clemens

I originally posted this blog on June 28, 2010.

Geoff Canada has quickly become a popular example of the charismatic, transformational leader necessary for positive educational change. His vision of the potential of one neighborhood is nonpareil and extraordinary. His non-profit organization, the Harlem’s Children Zone, which provides a comprehensive suite of services to children and families within a 100 city block radius in Harlem, is ending generational poverty. Over the past several years, Canada has been featured in multiple newspapers, in a book written by Paul Tough, on segments for 60 Minutes and CNN, and even in an American Express commercial.  In fact, Canada and HCZ have been so successful that President Obama, using non-profits and higher education institutions as local implementers, wants to replicate the model in communities across the United States.

The purpose of the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods Program is to improve the outcomes of children through a continuum of “cradle-through-college-to-career” services. Of note, applications for the first stage, the planning grant, which provides a year of funding in order to develop an implementation plan, were due yesterday.

Promise Neighborhoods provides an opportunity to catalyze sustainable place-based reform; however, tremendous obstacles exist. Canada, for instance, estimates a program similar to HCZ will cost approximately $35 million. Even with matched funding from philanthropic organizations, organizations are not likely to achieve that amount. Other challenges include the politics of policy design, implementation, and evaluation, as well as the involvement of community stakeholders. Yet, the trend to fund community-specific  initiatives, while not new (see the Community Action Agencies established with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society), is essential to improving the lives of historically marginalized populations. Even though limitations certainly exist, Promise Neighborhoods represents an acknowledgment of the multidimensional aspects of education and community building. It may also represent, I hope and believe, an important shift in policy design.