Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Group wants to replicate Harlem project on education, poverty

Meeting on bringing 'promise neighborhoods' to Austin set for Thursday.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fresh off a trip from New York, a group of officials with the City of Austin, the Austin school district, the University of Texas and various area nonprofits has announced a joint effort to try to replicate a Harlem program that President Barack Obama has called an "all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort."

The group is hoping that Austin will be selected as one of about 20 cities to receive a $500,000 federal grant to copy the Harlem Children's Zone — a project credited with getting struggling students on grade level in school. The zone has garnered significant attention recently as a prime example of successful urban policy reform. Research has shown that poverty is linked to a lower chance of academic success.

The group will hold a public meeting Thursday at the Carver Museum & Cultural Center to begin the grant application planning and neighborhood selection process.

By addressing the challenges associated with living in poverty, Austin organizers hope to provide students with basic services — from ensuring that mothers get prenatal care to tutoring schoolchildren — ultimately improving academic performance at chronically struggling campuses. Organizers said they envision being heavily involved in the lives of as many as 1,500 children in such a zone.

Austin school Trustee Cheryl Bradley said she thinks such a program would be successful in Austin because the district's new superintendent, Meria Carstarphen, is "not afraid to step out."

"We have to make public schools better. So if it's bureaucracy that's keeping us from doing that, then we need to start tearing down the walls of bureaucracy," Bradley said. "If it means we have schools open earlier and stay later and open on Saturday, then that's what we have to do."

In the Harlem zone — a 97-block area serving about 7,400 children and 4,100 adults — families are sought out and provided with whatever social services they might need, such as health services or job training, and then are tracked to ensure that children in the zone succeed in school. The Austin version would draw on a network of public and private groups to serve so-called promise neighborhoods.

"Austin is unique, as we all know, and ... I believe a collaboration like this is very possible," said Mary Ellen Pietruszynski, executive director of the Sooch charitable foundation, which was created by the founder of Austin-based Silicon Laboratories.

Other parties involved include Communities in Schools, UT's School of Law, the United Way, LifeWorks shelters for homeless children, the Webber Family Foundation, Foundation Communities and state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

"We're small enough; people answer the phone; people know one another," Pietruszynski said.

Group members said that the neighborhoods that feed in to Eastside Memorial, Reagan and Travis high schools are eligible to become promise neighborhoods under the federal grant terms, given the high child poverty rates and low graduation rates in those areas. Eastside replaced a school closed by the state for low performance. In August, Reagan was rated unacceptable — the lowest rating under the state's school accountability systems — for the fourth consecutive year.

The group aims to officially apply for the grant in the spring and expects awards to be issued late next year.

Pietruszynski said the selection of neighborhoods will depend just as much on the potential for support and community buy-in as it does on need.

"So many of these projects have the propensity for failure when the community you're trying to help isn't bought," she said. "You need pride and a sense of responsibility. You're not going to get a lot of pride and participation if you're telling them, 'This is what you are going to do.' "

The grants are highly competitive — there were 1,400 attendees at the conference in New York — and group members said one of the challenges for Austin will be convincing federal officials that the Austin district needs the help.

"As a practical matter, Austin isn't on people's list of blighted communities," Strama said, adding that Texas, as a strongly Republican state, might not endear itself to the Obama administration.

"The federal government may not be enamored by the state of Texas right now," Strama said.

But the group is hoping it can turn some of its most unusual challenges into assets. Austin has a large population of students who move from campus to campus during the school year, and demographers suggest that is a growing problem with certain at-risk populations in Texas and elsewhere.

"If we can show a solution to that — a way to make a community desirable that somebody wants to stay in it, that could work in our favor," Pietruszynski said.

"I will say this," Strama added. "There wasn't a delegation at that conference that (huddled) between sessions the way ours did. It was like there was an energy level around our delegation that makes me think we can overcome any disadvantages."

Austin Promise

Neighborhood Initiative

Officials with the City of Austin, the Austin school district, the University of Texas and area nonprofits will hold a public meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Carver Museum & Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina St., to begin the grant application planning and neighborhood selection process for a federal grant to bring a nationally lauded poverty and education program here.

lheinauer@statesman.com; 445-3694

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