Neighborhood initiative in D.C. wins federal backing

The D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which aims to lift children out of poverty, involves marshaling schools, nonprofits, and other community organizations to help children in troubled neighborhoods from 'cradle to college.'

Cliff Owen/AP/File
A three-year-old pre-kindergarten student practices drawing spirals during a class at Powell Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative offers 'cradle to college' help to children in the nation's capital.

The D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, one of the country’s premier efforts to lift children out of poverty by offering a comprehensive array of educational and social services, has won a five-year, $25-million federal grant to step up its work.

The grant, one of just seven of its kind that the Education Department awarded last month, was an especially sweet victory for the Washington project, which is working to turn around the city’s Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood. Last year, it failed to win a similar award because it missed the application deadline due to technical problems it faced when e-mailing its proposal.

This time, the group’s leaders left no stone unturned to ensure the application met all of the federal agency’s specifications, says Ayris Scales, the executive director—who now calls the project “the comeback kid” and says she feels like “Cinderella at the ball.”

The Washington effort is among dozens across the country that are following an approach pioneered by Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, which involves marshaling schools, nonprofits, and other community organizations to help children in troubled neighborhoods from “cradle to college.”

With strong backing from President Obama, Congress has allocated money each year since 2010 to support projects called “Promise Neighborhoods” across the country. The D.C. group received a $500,000 planning grant in 2010, then made its failed bid last year for a much bigger award to put its plans into effect.

The Chronicle has been following the group’s ups and downs as a way to look in-depth at the challenges of spreading this idea outside New York.

The organization will use its 2012 grant to expand a new approach to boost the impact of its work—an effort it dubs “Five Promises for Two Generations.”

The goal is to provide more services to single mothers with children up to age 8, for example helping them get schooling and job training, Ms. Scales says.

“When we invest in mothers, we invest in children,” she says, “and you get greater returns.”

She says the project plans to increase the project’s full-time staff members from four to 30.

The D.C. effort—which unites two public schools, two charter schools, city agencies, corporations, social-services, and medical groups—has raised $30-million in cash and donated services to match the federal grant.

 That money could come in handy given federal budget wrangles. The Education Department announced the group would get $25 million over five years but said only $1.9 million would be allocated immediately. The rest must be approved by Congress in annual spending bills.

The Promise Neighborhoods budget grew from $10 million in the 2010 fiscal year to $60 million in the 2012 fiscal year. President Obama proposed increasing the budget to $100 million this fiscal year, but Congress has not yet approved a 2013 budget because of partisan bickering and has kept spending at 2012 levels.

• Note: See The Chronicle’s package of articles about the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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