Promise Neighborhoods: An Optimist’s View

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Rick Cohen’s article, “Obama’s Zone Offense” (November), is appropriately cautious about the ability of the Promise Neighborhoods to “replicate” the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) across the country, but it does not adequately highlight the important lessons learned by the HCZ about how to improve outcomes for children and youth that can be applied in other settings.

Whether or not the HCZ can be replicated is not the right question to ask at this moment. We should be asking what we can learn from the HCZ and other recent efforts to change outcomes in disadvantaged communities that can and should guide Promise Neighborhoods and other place-based investments by the [Obama] administration. Some of the lessons include:

• There is considerable evidence from around the country about best practices and programs that work to promote early child development, school success and youth development. The HCZ has demonstrated that it is possible to assemble that evidence and turn it into a coherent strategy for investing in children in poor neighborhoods.

• It is possible to implement programs with high enough dose and quality to achieve significant improvements in outcomes.

• Excellent management, effective implementation and strong accountability are feasible in nonprofits working in even the toughest of neighborhoods.

• Formative feedback and internal learning mechanisms are necessary in any good organization, and techniques and technologies for building them in nonprofits working in distressed communities are available.

• If the Promise Neighborhoods can be married with Choice Neighborhoods and other efforts to rebuild communities, their collective investment will have the potential to change entire neighborhoods.

Strong organizational capacity developed over many years, charismatic leadership and significant amounts of flexible funding have certainly facilitated the HCZ’s success. Those favorable conditions have also permitted the HCZ to demonstrate many of the programmatic, operational, managerial and oversight building blocks that are needed to improve the well-being of children in a poor neighborhood and to identify which ones are key. Those are the findings that HCZ can share with others, and that the Promise Neighborhoods should help to disseminate to other locations.

We must be realistic about what Promise Neighborhoods can be expected to accomplish. But this is a moment to focus our energy on identifying the kinds of outcomes that are possible and the stepping stones that are most likely to get us there.

Anne Kubisch, Director
Roundtable on Community Change
The Aspen Institute
New York