Bloomberg's 2009 proposal came as the Obama administration was ramping up its Promise Neighborhoods program, also built on the Harlem Children's Zone template.
That federal program awarded development grants earlier this month. Two New York City organizations were among the nation's 21 Promise Neighborhood winners—central Harlem's Abyssinian Development Corporation, which geographically overlaps with Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, and the Lutheran Family Health Centers, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
But to date there is no sign of the two independent, local programs the mayor promised. Representatives for the mayor were unaware of the national Promise Neighborhood initiative on repeated inquiry, and could not provide details on whether or how the mayor's 2009 promise will be realized.
Meanwhile, the federal program has shifted from the model that the Obama administration first proposed—and that the Harlem Children's Zone has made famous.
Traditional Schools Dominate
From the outset, potential Promise Neighborhood grantees were encouraged to anchor their proposals with high-quality schools. Charter schools are central to the administration's main education policy initiative, Race to the Top. But in the awards were made this September, traditional, non-charter public schools took prominence. *
Among the winners, 90 percent of the schools at the center of Promise Neighborhood proposals are traditional publics. The remainder was mostly charters. (Some unsuccessful applicants, like the local Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, proposed a hybrid of charters and traditional schools.)
Sheena Wright, CEO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, tells City Limits, "We are firmly invested in and committed to working in public schools. The charter movement spurs innovation, it pushes the envelope, but charters alone will not save us. Quality schools have to be the focus."
"Education—really great educational opportunities for our children—has always been a part of a sustainable, successful community," says Wright, who said that Abyssinian's community development efforts predate the creation of Rheedlen Family Centers, the nonprofit that gave rise to the Harlem Children's Zone. "We've been at the school business for 17 years," she adds. (Canada's charter schools, the HCZ Promise Academies, first opened in 2004.) The Abyssinian Baptist Church, now led by the Rev. Calvin Butts, has been active for over 200 years.
In Harlem's school district 5, "there are 39 schools, including eight charters," Wright says. "Some [do] well, some [do] terrible. The vast majority of kids go to the 31 public schools. If we're really serious about community development, we have to be focused on these 31 schools and figuring out how to turn them around. School closure is not going to save us, either. You can't shut down an entire system."
The Abyssinian Development Corporation's Promise Neighborhood proposal encompasses 134th to 140th Street, from St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenues in the West to Lenox Avenue in the East. Where Canada's Harlem Children's Zone often invokes the image of a conveyor belt or pipeline that supports local youth from infancy to adulthood, Abyssinian planners plan to weave a "quilt" of integrated supports and services. Central to that plan is the transfer of administrative authority for the struggling Bread and Roses High School from the city Department of Education, a move that has already been granted state approval. Abyssinian currently runs the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a secondary school.
Also crucial to Abyssinian's plan is youth mentoring for disconnected young adults, health evaluation and treatment services for local residents—and a "charrette" review process that will bring the group's plans to the community in a series of open meetings designed to invite feedback and integrate local voices into the organization's program.
In South Brooklyn, Lutheran Family Medical Center's proposal targets a 50-block area of Sunset Park, says Stacie Evans, Director of Lutheran's Community Empowerment Program.
"Our plan is small, but one of the things that may be unique about our program is Sunset's Park network of community organizations. We are part of a six-agency alliance working to improve services in the community; we already have that to jump off of," Evans says. "Everyone is already on board, we've got that foundation."
Lutheran's plan is anchored by a handful of neighborhood public schools, including PS 24, MS 281 and Sunset Park Prep middle school and Sunset Park High School, which opened in 2009. Targeted to provide education and health services to local schoolchildren, families and up to 8,000 young adults disconnected from either school or work, Lutheran will partner with the Brooklyn College School of Education and local institutions like the Sunset Park Alliance for Youth and the Center for Family Life. "Conversations in our planning year will include as many residents in our catchment area as possible," Evans explained, predicting both formal events like town hall meetings and less-structured conversations in the community. "We want to include as many voices as possible."
Long Odds in New York?
Of the 339 organizations that applied for Promise Neighborhood grants nationwide, 13 were from New York City, with two from central Brooklyn and one from the South Bronx. The Harlem Children's Zone was not among the applicants, surprising many in New York and beyond. (HCZ is in the middle of trying to establish a new charter school on the grounds of the St. Nicholas Houses development, with the strong support of the New York City Housing Authority, a recent $20-million gift from Goldman Sachs—and some local opposition.)