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A Neighborhood Tries To Start Anew

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Students from George Washington University practice language, literacy and math skills with pre-schoolers at Neval Thomas Elementary as part of Jumpstart DC's partnership with the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative.
Jumpstart DC
Students from George Washington University practice language, literacy and math skills with pre-schoolers at Neval Thomas Elementary as part of Jumpstart DC's partnership with the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

When Sharita Slayton describes her community, she talks about the strong leaders and historic homes. But she also mentions what’s missing.

“No stores, no restaurants,” she says. “There is a Circle 7, which is more like a 7-Eleven, and a little deli at the most north end.”

The Urban Institute calls the Parkside-Kenilworth area in Ward 7 an “island of concentrated poverty, cut off from the rest of the city by the Anacostia Freeway, the Anacostia River and a decommissioned electrical plant.”

Teen pregnancy and crime rates are high, birth weights and test scores are low. As a result, Slayton, who serves on the local advisory neighborhood commission, says the neighborhood’s children often grow up sequestered from life’s opportunities.

Irasema Salcido hoped to change all that. She opened up a campus for the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy in Parkside because she wanted to increase opportunities for the neighborhood’s children.

“But four years into being here we were not achieving our goals,” she says. “Our results were not demonstrating that we were preparing our students to be successful in college.”

And she says principals at the area’s two elementary schools were facing similar challenges.

“A lot of the 3-year olds were coming to them unprepared,” she says.

Salcido began thinking about the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, where Geoffrey Canada created a cradle-to-college continuum of services to help children succeed. She wanted to do something similar in Parkside-Kenilworth, by addressing all aspects of children’s lives, from health and housing to schools and safety.

“We are talking about turning around an entire community and solve [sic] all the social ills that come with poverty,” she says.

Bringing Promise Neighborhoods to Parkside-Kenilworth

A team of advocates started putting plans in motion. Then, in September 2010, the U.S. Department of Education offered grants to help communities create their own “Promise Neighborhoods” based on Canada’s approach. Parkside-Kenilworth was one of 21 communities across the country to win a $500,000 dollar planning grant.

“We are making a commitment to deliver five basic promises,” Salcido says. “That every child that grows up in this community will have a caring adult in their lives, will have a healthy start, will have a safe place to grow. They will have a high quality education, and equally important, they will have opportunities to give back to this neighborhood.”

Partners, including city agencies, area universities, and local nonprofits, signed on to support the initiative. Mobile health units pulled up to street corners, and college students with Jumpstart began working with preschoolers on language, literacy and math.

Jumpstart Executive Director Katey Comerford says her program came back to Parkside precisely because of the Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

“We haven’t gotten any funding to come here,” she says. “Knowing there are resources to continue to support this community work and continue to support the growth of the children we work with, is what makes it so appealing to be here. It means nothing will be lost.”

But something was lost. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education offered implementation grants to help Promise Neighborhoods achieve their goals. The D.C. group tried to apply, but an error prevented the application from going through.

“Unfortunately because of a technical difficulty, we were not able to submit,” Salcido says. “But all along we weren’t counting on federal money. Obviously, it’s needed, and we want to have access to those resources when available. But this initiative was started three years ago.”

Comerford says it was disheartening to learn that a mistake had derailed chances for an even larger investment in the community’s children.

“I think people who were involved felt deflated at first,” she says.

But she says most participants are sticking with their plans to work with Promise Neighborhoods, even without federal funding.

“People are still bringing resources in kind, and we’ll continue to do that,” she says. “And we’ll continue to build this momentum going forward.”

Meanwhile, Salcido says the initiative has raised almost $850,000 from private funders to keep the initiative going. The U.S. Department of Housing recently announced a $300,000 grant to improve public housing in the area. And organizers are hoping to apply for the next round of Promise Neighborhoods funds.

“What is the expression? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Salcido muses. “Challenges we face in building this initiative make us more committed to make sure this happens, and allows us to really create a sustainable initiative.”

She says it is a promise.

[Music by: "A Change Is Gonna Come" by King Curtis from The Best of King Curtis]

Photos: Parkside-Kenilworth


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