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August 4, 2010

Keeping promises

New federal education initiative could transform west Louisville neighborhood

In the 40212 ZIP code, many people are crossing their fingers.

That’s because the ZIP code — which includes the Portland, Russell and Shawnee neighborhoods — is one of 340 nationwide competing for “Promise Neighborhoods” designation, a new federal initiative that aims to match college graduation rates for inner city students with those of their largely suburban counterparts.

Widely considered the Obama administration’s signature piece of education legislation, it could effectively scale back much of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act that sought to cultivate academic excellence via an adherence to standardized test scores and school-centric performance. It’s also modeled after the work of rock star educator Geoffrey Canada, who founded the concept in the form of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Basically, a “zone” consists of a low-performing school and the surrounding neighborhood, which are viewed as a holistic entity subject to the urban ills of poverty, crime and a lack of access to transportation. So the socioeconomic factors impacting a student’s life outside the classroom become just as important as the life inside the classroom. Therefore, social services within the zone are better connected to the schools in an effort to foster a community-wide safety net for students and their parents.

In this case, the zone is the Portland, Russell and Shawnee neighborhoods and the six schools that reside therein. The area lags behind most of Metro Louisville in terms of income, property value and educational attainment — a seemingly perfect candidate for the bourgeoning program.

“We’ve known that this initiative was coming down the pike,” says Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, whose district comprises most of 40212. Over the past several months, Hamilton has convened with groups ranging from Jefferson County Public Schools and Metro United Way to Family and Children’s Place and Making Connections Network to hammer out a plan for the beleaguered district. In the end, 40212 was the obvious choice as Louisville’s contender, and the University of Louisville wound up writing the grant.

“We did some research to see which area of the city had the most likely chance of benefiting and looked at what area would have neighborhood support and strong community involvement,” Bryant Hamilton says. “There was a synergy there (in 40212).”

At this point, it’s unclear exactly when the U.S. Department of Education will decide which applicants will be selected as Promise Neighborhoods zones. If Louisville ultimately is chosen, the 40212 area could receive up to $500,000 for various educational and social service programs.

This marriage of social work and academics, while revolutionary as a federal policy, isn’t without its critics. The Brookings Institution recently released a report suggesting the Harlem Children’s Zone’s flagship school, The Promise Academy, hasn’t faired as well when compared to other charter schools that don’t receive the benefits (social, economic or otherwise) within a zone.

But for the past four years, principal Dewey Hensley has proven Brookings wrong by replicating the zone-technique at Portland’s J.B. Atkinson, which was long one of the state’s worst-performing middle schools before he arrived, and now boasts vastly improved reading and math scores.

“There’s an African proverb that we like to say here: ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child,’” Hensley says. “But the inverse is true as well, because it takes a whole child to raise the village. This is a reciprocal investment in our kids and our overall community by encircling them with the resources they need, from the cradle to a college degree.”

Having spent 18 years as an educator, Hensley is excited about the change of direction that Promise Neighborhoods represents relative to traditional federal policy, which he criticizes as ignoring important factors like home life and quality of neighborhoods in academic achievement.

“We can pretend all we want that kids walk to the front door of a school and they all start out at the same place, but that’s a false pretense,” he says. “We know there are great challenges that impoverished kids face. We know that on the other end of it, at the ground level, we need to be able to support kids, and for the first time the federal government is acknowledging that.”

Lora Haynes, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville who helped write the city’s grant application, agrees with Hensley’s assessment.

“I don’t know if we’re always doing enough work to make sure that when kids leave for school we know what’s happening to them,” Haynes says. “I mean, is it safe for a child to leave school and walk home?” she continues. “Do they have safe sidewalks? Do they have traffic lights or crossing guards? What’s it like to be in their neighborhood, and what sense of community and safety nets are there? There’s a lot to be said for looking at safety and other health issues as well, but there are other resources that exist that aren’t being connected. We want to make those connections.”

One of those “connections,” for example, would be with Portland’s Neighborhood House, which offers community services like supplemental education, health classes and job training to area residents. Under a Promise Neighborhoods designation, the nonprofit would be eligible for funding to offer increased services for children.

“It would help us to do more of what we’re dong already,” says Cindy Frazier, executive assistant at Neighborhood House. “It would greater help children break a cycle of poverty, and give the community the tools to do it. To empower kids, you have to empower their parents.”

Whether 40212 becomes one of the lucky 20 to actually receive the designation might be irrelevant due to a perceived lack of congressional support. Last week, both the House and Senate voted to reduce the Obama administration’s initial $210 million funding request to $60 and $20 million, respectively.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth’s office says one shouldn’t look at those numbers at face value, as they merely represent the quizzical budgetary process of Congress. Furthermore, the Louisville Democrat is a supporter of the idea.

“Making our schools work for all of our children requires a comprehensive solution that recognizes that successful learning does not take place in a vacuum,” Yarmuth tells LEO Weekly. “By modeling its efforts on what has worked at the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Promise Neighborhoods initiative seeks to surround students with a strong community, family support, and an environment in which they can thrive and reach their full potential.”

If 40212 isn’t selected, it won’t change what Hensley already has accomplished as principal at J.B. Atkinson and in the surrounding neighborhood, but he admits the funding would help further his efforts.

“If we don’t get it, then 20 neighborhoods that get it, down the road, will show the feds that encircling our kids really works,” he says. “We’ve managed to do a lot on our own, anyhow, without any help from government. We will simply keep doing what we’re doing. It’s worked so far.”