Every week, Geoffrey Canada’s hallmark Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) provides well over 10,000 students with the kinds of educational and developmental supports and opportunities that suburban students enjoy as a matter of course. Almost two years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama announced his plan to replicate the HCZ’s efforts in twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the country. A few months ago, this plan marked the first point on the President-elect’s agenda for tackling urban poverty. And with the release of his Budget proposal last month, President Obama demonstrated that he has not forgotten this promise.
While the Harlem Children’s Zone has been a heartening example of the successful coordination of schools and services, it has not come to be so without incident—nor has it been the only attempt at realizing such a vision. If President Obama’s plan for America’s future is to succeed in 20 different cities across the country, it will need to consider more than just the Harlem blueprint.
Fortunately, there are several examples to study. The Parramore Kidz Zone in Orlando, Fla., is an explicit attempt to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone. And in Europe, several countries over the last 10-20 years have initiated programs attempting a similar integration of schools and services. Among these foreign, nation-level programs are France’s Zones d’Education Prioritaire and Scotland’s Integrated Community Schools. These programs have much to teach us, particularly in the areas of operating scale, data-collection, outreach, and governance.
A realistic appreciation for the operating scope and scale of each project site or “neighborhood” will be critical to the success of the president’s plan. Leaders of HCZ had to make tough choices early on, handing over certain elderly nutrition, drop-out prevention and homelessness programs to other agencies. Had they not done so, they likely would have been left with an unsustainable project. And France’s ZEP attempted to incorporate too many programs at the outset and expanded too rapidly. As a result, the program grew both costlier and less effective.
While an understanding of scale is important, a program’s effectiveness cannot be measured, let alone improved, without a relevant data-system in place. Officials with the Parramore Kidz Zone continually face this obstacle in trying to measure the impact of their program. In the Orlando area, much of data, e.g. reported incidents of teen pregnancy and child abuse, is collected at the zip-code level only. But the Parramore Kidz Zone spans, but by no means fills, two zip-codes. As a result, it can’t measure its impact on things like teen pregnancy and child abuse (zip-code-level statistics include a mess of non-PKZ data). Still, with appropriately local data-collection, claims can be made about a project site’s effectiveness. At the end of its first year, the Parramore Kidz Zone was able to claim responsibility for a 28 percent reduction in juvenile crime, thanks to relevant data from the police department.
Outreach is also a critical concern. These initiatives have learned that they must develop and promote their programs in a way that is accessible and appealing—as informed by input from the community—if the programs are to be successful. The Harlem Children’s Zone has successfully used monetary rewards to encourage participation in its programs. And the Parramore Kidz Zone has learned to approach community members on the members’ own terms, rather than to implement (and market) services by some preformed external model. Without a team to assess a community’s needs and to facilitate participation in offered programs, a project site could provide every service imaginable—at great cost—and still have an underserved community.
Still, getting local governments, education authorities, and service providers to work together effectively is difficult and has proven problematic for these models. Scotland’s Integrated Community Schools established an “Integration Manager” to coordinate school and service objectives and resources and found that success or failure of a site was for the better part determined by the success of failure of that person—poor coordination and leadership meant inadequate services and ineffective decisions. While site members must work together to delegate site responsibilities, they will benefit from an external figure (e.g. an education mayor or federal official) with the authority to act in the capacity of an Integration Manager, holding members accountable when internal regulation stagnates.
The success of the president’s 20 Promise Neighborhoods depends on the diligent use of data and outreach, and an effective, empowered governance structure with an appropriate sense of its operating scale. If the administration recognizes this and acts accordingly, we can expect to see the kind of results that the Harlem Children’s Zone has proven possible.
–Guestblogger Christopher Frascella (Frascella conducted comparative research on integrated community/school improvement zones as an intern at Education Sector during fall 2008)