AP Education Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Residents of the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood have long heard promises about a better life to come.
The promise of a new recreation center. The promise of owning their public housing units. The promise of better schools so their children don’t have to scatter far from home to escape a long history of subpar education in the neighborhood.
All promises unfulfilled.
Then, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative put down a stake with a new promise: to tackle generational poverty with a fresh approach.
With a $28 million Education Department Promised Neighborhood grant and support from former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, the initiative offers services to both parents and children. It stems from research that shows that as a parent’s level of education improves, so does a child’s prospects.
Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, “promised neighborhoods” exist in more than 20 states.
In Kenilworth-Parkside, helping children get a good education is a primary focus, but it’s the adults they must first engage. Many are skeptical.
Taryn Tymus, a 38-year-old mother of four, is proud to call this predominantly African-American neighborhood home. But she doesn’t hesitate to point out the downsides: a six-lane highway families must cross to get to a subway station; the high-priced Kenilworth Market, robbed so many times that cinderblocks now cover the backdoor; teenagers having babies; the violence.
Tymus says she warns young men to stay out of trouble. “It hurt, when they really go down like that,” she says.
Here, single mothers run nearly 90 percent of households with children.
Things haven’t always felt so bleak.
“We were poor but we didn’t know we were poor because we always had something to eat and some place to stay,” says Claudette Brown, one of eight siblings who were among the first residents of Kenilworth Courts when it opened in 1959.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood’s problems attracted the interest of Jack Kemp, the New York congressman and later U.S. housing secretary.
Working with resident Kimi Gray, he helped orchestrate a high-profile federal effort to turn public housing in Kenilworth over to residents to manage and eventually own. The personal ownership plans never fully materialized, and while residents still manage a section of the housing, the District of Columbia Housing Authority had to step in and bail it out.
Residents were hopeful in 2010 when they were told a new community center would be built. But that plan was derailed by environmental contaminants.
Then, three years later came news that Kenilworth Elementary was to close.
Meanwhile, the promised neighborhood initiative was moving forward. It was the brainchild of Irasema Salcido, founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, which opened a middle- and high school campus in the neighborhood in 2005. She quickly discovered that children were performing below grade-level in math and reading.
At a ladies’ coffee, Salcido joined forces with Alma Powell, head of the board of directors for America’s Promise Alliance.
The initiative set up shop in the abandoned Kenilworth school building and converted former classrooms into computer labs and children’s play areas. The old gym became a boxing training area with a ring.
Computer training for adults was started and a parent resource center opened. After-school programming provided children with homework help, hip-hop dancing, boxing and digital media learning.
“We have a second chance to get it right,” said Sharita Slayton, a community liaison.
Residents were leery. “A lot of people come, but they don’t stay,” says Kenya McKeever.
At the after-school center, boxing coach Umar Abdus-Salaam keeps a watchful eye on three of Latissa Tate’s 10 sons. He takes all the boys he coaches not just to boxing matches but also on fishing trips and to sporting events.
He preaches about the value of being a good citizen, and staying out of prison. “We have a goal of trying to live an adult life without entering the penal system,” says Abdus-Salaam, a city bus driver.
Tate says the coach has been a father figure to her sons. “Being a mom, there are certain things I can’t do that a man can do, so he helps me,” she says.
Mrs. Powell said she was delighted when teenagers in one program produced digital media campaigns on preventing teenage pregnancy. In one, a large teenage boy dressed as a baby to illustrate how difficult parenthood is.
“Many of them don’t know how to be fathers because they didn’t have one,” she says. “They think it’s normal to walk away.”
Initiative leaders know it takes much more than after-school programs to transform a neighborhood. All “promised neighborhoods” must carefully track data about the communities they serve, as well as the success or failures of what they’re doing. The model requires partnerships with many organizations so multiple needs can be addressed at once.
But it’s still too early to judge what’s working. The initiative will receive federal grant dollars until 2017.
One of the top programs has yet to start: essentially assigning a personal assistant to about 40 of the neighborhood’s neediest families. This person will advise them in all aspects of their lives, such as how to enter school lotteries, enroll in a GED credential program or find a pediatrician.
“I wish we had made a bigger difference faster but I understand it’s not realistic,” said Wendy Goldberg, the initiative’s board chairperson.
Salcido says one of her students told her that parents cannot see beyond the poverty and public assistance that have marked lives here for so many generations.
The children, this student said, can.
DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative: http://dcpni.org