Attacking Poverty

A new program holds new possibilities.

There was joy in the Parkside-Kenilworth section of Anacostia on Sept. 21 when Education Secretary Arne Duncan, joined by other Cabinet members and White House officials, announced this poverty-stricken neighborhood of the nation's capital would benefit from a grant to help improve its children's chances for success.

Standing among the luminaries that day was Irasema Salcido, founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Parkside. She is the spark plug who organized the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative's grant application, one of 20 winners among 329 applicants. A Mexican immigrant with a compelling life story of achievement against the odds, Salcido has developed an extensive plan to offer children the kinds of support they need from the cradle through college to succeed. "Ten or 20 years from now, it's got to be different here," she said when I visited her recently. "Our children, successful in their lives, will come back to improve their neighborhood."

The grants Duncan announced were the first installment in the new Promise Neighborhood program President Obama pledged during his campaign after visiting the Harlem Children's Zone, a pioneering education improvement program in a low-income neighborhood of Manhattan.

Education is much in the news. This fall, NBC News' weeklong "Education Nation" series featured Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem program, as a hero, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, as a punching bag. The movie Waiting for Superman made its high-profile debut, arguing charter schools outperform regular public schools, and villainizing teachers unions for opposing reform. And President Obama earned headlines when explaining why he hadn't sent his children to Washington's public schools. In all of this, urban public school systems are portrayed as wholly incapable of preparing children for college and careers. Charter schools, which also are publicly funded, get much better marks, though they educate a tiny fraction of the nation's students, and only some succeed.

Canada's Harlem Children's Zone experience is described in gripping detail in Whatever It Takes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008) by journalist Paul Tough. Canada took on a 24-block area in northern Manhattan, determined to better the lot in life of its 3,000 children, 60 percent of whom were living below the poverty line and three-quarters of whom were scoring below grade level on standardized tests. He centered his efforts initially on a charter middle school. But after finding that most kids in the zone weren't prepared to do the work, he began an effort to address their needs from the very beginning.

So Canada created a "baby college" to educate young pregnant women about how to keep their babies healthy and eager to learn. He drew in many other services in his zone, creating what Tough calls a "cocoon of educational, emotional and medical support that starts at birth and never stops." The relentless focus on educational achievement and getting children into college that Canada embraced and the Promise Neighborhood program supports could constitute the first serious national attack on poverty in a generation, experts believe. It could create the "contamination" effect Canada would like to see if college graduates return in substantial numbers and begin influencing behavior in Harlem.

Salcido hopes her plan will earn her another grant next year to step up the program. But federal money isn't the be-all of her efforts. Parkside already stands to benefit from a new early-childhood Educare facility established with help from a foundation started by Susan Buffett, daughter of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Hospitals and many other partners have joined in Salcido's crusade, seeing a duty to help provide the promise of a better life for the neighborhood's children, fully 40 percent of whom are living below the poverty line.

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