Promise Neighborhood: A promising prospect


Why did the federal government give the Wilder Foundation a half million dollars for a Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood? Don’t Minnesotans already reside in the land of great promise? National publications often tout our state as one of the best places to live. Why do we deserve this grant?

On many indicators, of course, we do quite well. However, troubling signs exist. Students in some of our schools do very poorly in reading and math. (Actually, the students in very many of our schools do not do well in math.) In some of our neighborhoods, a third or more of all residents live below the poverty line; too many children live in poverty. The trend data show clearly that large proportions of our younger generation – the people who we hope will grow up and continue the success of this state, in work, in civic life and in family life – lack the academic skills they should have.

The Promise Neighborhood model provides a cradle-to-career framework for developing a set of supports that will enable a neighborhood’s children to succeed in school and in life.

That’s why we applied for and received a Promise Neighborhood grant – to work with one community to organize its strengths and mobilize existing resources for the benefit of its children. Based on what we learn, hopefully all neighborhoods can become neighborhoods of great promise.

Where is the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood? The Promise Neighborhood encompasses a 250-block area in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods in Saint Paul, which includes two public elementary schools, Jackson and Maxfield. Nearly 40 percent of the residents are younger than 18. Two-thirds of the residents live in poverty; 82 percent of students are eligible for free lunch.

What’s happening over the next 12 months? The Department of Education selected us as one of just 21 communities in the nation to carry out a “planning year.” The year includes a community assessment, lasting several months – shaped by neighborhood residents themselves – to understand all the characteristics of the neighborhood and the needs of the children and families. With the assessment in hand, we will bring neighborhood residents together in “Solution Action Groups” with educators, child development experts, and service providers to develop the best possible approach to supporting the neighborhood’s children. Finally, we will secure commitments from organizations to collaborate to provide cradle-to-career educational, family, and community resources and supports.

What happens after the planning year? If the planning year accomplishes its goals, then by summer of 2011, we will have constructed a network of organizations that will collaborate to provide services in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. This, of course, will include the school district and the two public schools in the neighborhood.

How will we know if this all works? If successful, the first thing we should see – just a year or two from now, is that every child, even before birth, becomes a focus of community attention. Parents receive parent education. Infants and toddlers have access to health care and if they have health issues, these get addressed early, before those issues start to have negative effects on the child’s development and readiness for school. Preschoolers receive good care when their parents are working, possibly from child care providers, possibly from family, friends or neighbors. They develop in an environment in which they learn their numbers and abc’s, so that all of them, not just those with better incomes, can move ahead faster in kindergarten and elementary school.

In not too many years, we should see better school performance. While achievement tests do not measure everything, and we cannot focus solely on test scores to measure success, we should see reading and math scores rise, reflecting greater achievement among children living in this neighborhood.

Momentum has developed already. More than 30 adults who live in the community have completed the second of three meetings to shape the assessment. About 20 young people have had their own meetings for the same purpose. We’ve received calls from volunteers and from organizations who want to take part in the initiative. Our Project Director, Hamilton Bell, is actively reaching out to all who want to be involved.

I’ll have much more to say about this as the year progresses. I expect to learn a lot, and to have a lot of fun, managing this initiative. It has the potential to help us not just on 250 blocks, but throughout this region and our entire state. Stay tuned. If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know.