Promise Winners Named, Future Funds in Doubt

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Twenty-one communities have been chosen to participate in one of the Obama administration’s most coveted new youth-related grant programs: the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative.

More than 300 applicants vied for Promise grants, which provide about $500,000 each to plan networks of services based on the model of the Harlem Children’s Zone. The objective is to build community-based “cradle-to-career services that improve the educational achievement and healthy development of children,” the Department of Education said in a prepared statement.

Despite the selection of the winners, it is unclear whether any of their plans can be funded next year. The Obama administration’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal sought $200 million to help communities implement Promise Neighborhoods and $10 million for more planning grants, but House and Senate committees voted this summer to provide $20 million and $60 million, respectively. At a news conference announcing the winners, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the administration will push “very, very hard” for more money as Congress prepares to vote on the full budget.

In the meantime, the grantees must plan their Promise Neighborhoods without the promise of more money. “Further congressional funding will be incredibly helpful, but it’s not something we’re especially concerned about,” said Alex Reeves, communications chairman for the Athens Clarke County Family Connection, a grant-winning organization in Georgia. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before then.”

That work involves creating, improving and connecting an array of services, as the Children’s Zone model includes charter schools; out-of-school tutoring and enrichment; access to social workers and counseling; healthy meals; recreation; and free medical, dental and mental health services. Evaluations have hailed that holistic approach as a model for boosting the academic performance and behavior of low-income youth.

But the Harlem’s Children’s Zone has been built with tens of millions of dollars in donations by Wall Street leaders and millions more in state and federal funds.

For the winners of the competition, many HCZ-type services already are being provided in their communities, making their challenge the process of putting the pieces together. “It’s just the next step in what we have been working on and will continue to work on,” said Reeves, who noted that the area covered by his organization reports a 31 percent poverty rate and high levels of infant mortality, child poverty and crime.

Grant recipients ranged from small to large, and from rural to urban – such as the Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles, and the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Wyoming. Some focus primarily on educational programming (like the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), while others concentrate on providing health services and strengthening family and community support (like the Community Day Care Center of Lawrence, Mass.).

Although the grants originally were intended to be made available to 20 organizations, Jim Shelton, assistant deputy education secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, said that because some applicants requested and received less than the $500,000 maximum, money was available for an additional grantee.

Although the planning grant recipients can apply for the future implementation grants, they are not guaranteed additional funding. The application process will be open to all, according to the Education Department.