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November 22, 2014

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Program would help at-risk children from cradle to college

Intense support

Promise Neighborhoods is modeled after Harlem Children’s Zone, a successful, multiyear initiative. It starts with “baby college” for new parents, and supports children with intensive programs through preschool and into the program’s K-12 Promise Academy and until they graduate college.

Beyond the Sun

Southern Nevada has long struggled to build a sense of community, and now a crossroads of sorts is approaching.

A new federal grant program appears to be tailor-made for the Las Vegas Valley — hundreds of millions of dollars to help at-risk children succeed in school and life, with a cradle-to-college approach.

But the program, known as “Promise Neighborhoods,” requires a massive commitment from the wider community. To get the money, everyone — from the private nonprofit organizations to the Clark County School District to higher education to municipalities and public agencies — will have to work as a team.

Unlike the Race to the Top grant competition, in which individual states compete against each other, the Promise Neighborhoods application’s lead author must be either a nonprofit or faith-based organization, or an institution of higher education. That means community leaders, not K-12 public school officials, must steer the ship.

The competition is stiff: Nearly 1,000 organizations nationwide have notified the U.S. Education Department they intend to apply for the planning grants, which amount to as much as $500,000 for each group. But only 20 Promise Neighborhoods will be fully funded by the feds. The full grants will be awarded next year.

No one from Nevada is on the feds’ preliminary list, but 100 Black Men of Las Vegas President Larry Mosley said the group would be submitting its application by the June 28 deadline. Its proposal was drafted in collaboration with North Las Vegas, United Way of Southern Nevada and 100 Academy of Excellence charter school. The application has the support of the Clark County School District, Superintendent Walt Rulffes said. Successful applicants will either have to partner with local public schools or have the capability to operate their own campuses.

Promise Neighborhoods is modeled after Harlem Children’s Zone, a successful, multiyear initiative that targets children and families in the New York neighborhood.

In essence, a net of support services — medical, educational and social — has been dropped over a 100-block radius. The program started in 1997 for just 24 blocks.

The program starts with “baby college” for new parents, and supports children through preschool and into the program’s K-12 Promise Academy. Students — and their families — will be supported through intensive programs until they graduate from college.

The results so far have been both measurable and astonishing: On recent standardized tests, students in the Harlem Children’s Zone outscored their peers in more affluent areas statewide, also eliminating the long-standing achievement gap between black and white students, a problem that persists nationwide. This year, 90 percent of the program’s 12th graders graduated and are headed to college.

With one of the nation’s worst track records for graduation and dropout rates, the goals of the Promise Neighborhood “fit nicely with who we are as an organization,” Mosley said. “This is about strategic planning and alliances, to partner the public and private sectors and hopefully do a better job for Southern Nevada.”

The organization’s recent success with its Shots for Tots, which brought together nearly 20 community partners and vaccinated more than 24,000 children, gave 100 Black Men confidence that the Promise Neighborhoods grant wasn’t beyond its grasp. The local organization has a track record of successful mentoring and outreach programs over its 10-year history, and was named chapter of the year for two consecutive years by 100 Black Men’s national office.

But even Mosley admits there are significant hurdles to overcome. Clark County might not yet have the infrastructure necessary to support an actual Promise Neighborhood, Mosley said.

Even if the planning grant application is not successful, the process is worth the effort, Mosley said.

Rob Lang, co-director of the Brookings Mountain West Initiative at UNLV, agreed.

“We have to start somewhere,” said Lang, who is also a professor of sociology at the university, on loan from the think tank’s Washington headquarters. “The success here could be the process of engagement, not necessarily winning a particular grant.”

East Coast communities have an infrastructure of community groups with long histories and connections, while “there has not been that history of community engagement in this region,” Lang said. “Part of it is the newness — a lot of the energy went into just building this place.”

The Lincy Institute at UNLV, which was created in August to serve as a resource to help local nonprofit groups identify and apply for federal grants, would likely be a part of Promise Neighborhoods later in the process, officials said.

Three Square president and chief executive Julie Murray said the regional food bank is also interested in participating.

“This one is too important for us not to come together and pursue it,” Murray said. “It can’t be just Three Square or the Lincy Institute or UNLV — it’s going to have to be all of us together.”

Communities in Schools of Nevada opted not to apply for the grant because of the time it required with no guarantee of a payout, Director Louise Helton said. It was decided the time and resources would be better spent on the organization’s current programs, such as the campus-based health centers that serve thousands of children annually. But the group “definitely” intends to be part of a team effort for the full grant, Helton said.

Elaine Wynn, who heads the national Communities in Schools executive board, said Nevada, sadly, is well positioned for the federal grant race, both for Promise Neighborhoods and the better-known Race to the Top.

If Nevada’s dismal track record for student achievement “doesn’t qualify us for needing triage more than any other state in the nation, I don’t know what does,” Wynn said.

Despite those dreary statistics, she hasn’t seen what she called a key component to Nevada actually turning itself around: outrage.

“There’s isn’t enough public outcry, there isn’t enough furor,” said Wynn, who serves on the governor’s blue-ribbon panel that drafted the state’s Race to the Top application. “People have been in denial about how serious this crisis really is, and they’re still in denial.”

Wynn said she worries too many people are trying to “reinvent the wheel” with the various federal grant programs, which would bring badly needed funds to local schools. There are pockets of success throughout Southern Nevada, and the focus should be on taking those to scale, Wynn said.

“You should go to school, be guaranteed a good teacher and an effective principal, be able to go to college, and it should be equitable,” Wynn said. “How unreasonable a demand is that?”

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