POSTED ON JULY 11, 2012:
Latest education initiative aims to involve entire neighborhoods
Yes, there are programs conceived by nonprofits like Community Action Project to help improve a community, said José Tabarez, a longtime resident of the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood and father of four.
But parents must unite to become involved in making change happen, said Tabarez, speaking in Spanish. "What we need is something to push us more. I don't know how, but we need more of a push still."
Tabarez, a landscaper and community volunteer, remains uncertain about how this might happen. Local community organizations have lately focused on an ambitious new effort known as the federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
The program, begun in 2010, is part of the federal Department of Education. It offers around $27 million in grants to full award winners. The goal is to improve education by boosting the quality of life for students and their families.
While the focus of the Tulsa effort is on two city neighborhoods -- Kendall-Whittier, east of downtown, and Eugene Field, in west Tulsa -- the vision is to create "an effective model that we can then package and take to other neighborhoods around the city," said Josh Miller, a program officer with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which rallied efforts to apply for the program.
Already, the Community Action Project has won $500,000 in planning funds, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation has supplied a $250,000 grant. Those dollars don't begin to stack up to the largest grants, known as implementation grants. Project officials have been working feverishly to meet a July 27 application deadline for those funds, with up to seven winners nationally to be announced in December.
The big picture approach appeals to Kirk Wester, who's helping manage the effort for the Community Action Project.
"It really looks at the entire system and the entire community. What are all the pieces of the puzzle that need to be solved for?" Wester said.
Miller said that when hunger, crime and health problems envelop a child's life, "school becomes a secondary need." The idea behind Promise Neighborhoods is to "wrap those kids in a comprehensive network of services," Miller said. "That way, they're sort of addressing every need the kid has."
Based on a program in Harlem, the Promise Neighborhoods initiative funnels money to help specific neighborhoods.
"They already had some assets on the ground, inherent and intrinsic to the neighborhood, that allowed us to not start from scratch," Miller said.
He described how Community Action Project has organized meetings to better understand community concerns.
"What's gone on over 18 months is a lot of community engagement to understand what needs to be done, what are the benchmarks to achieve the outcomes of success," Miller said. Goals include improving housing stock and having more students receiving health check-ups.
Wester said details have yet to be worked out on what roles might be played by various organizations. But he called Tulsa Public Schools a "major partner" in the effort.
Miller said any grant "will also provide, hopefully, the next set of tools and funding for TPS to continue to move forward with reforms" in the neighborhood schools, Miller said.
Tabarez has taken on an advisory role in the Promise Neighborhoods effort, though he said his job has prevented him from volunteering much time lately. He praised an early childhood education center developed with help from the Community Action Project
While students at Tulsa Public Schools continue to struggle, researchers like Bill Gormley, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, say Tulsa stands tall nationally when it comes to early-childhood education.
"When Appalachian State beats the University of Michigan, that is news," wrote Gormley, referring to a colossal college football upset. "When Tulsa outshines the rest of the nation in early childhood education, that is also news."
Despite such cheering, however, elementary test scores at Tulsa Public Schools continue to lag behind statewide averages. Only 60 percent of district third-graders tested out as proficient in math for their grade level, compared to 74 percent statewide. Compared to third-graders in other urban districts with a similar socioeconomic profile, Tulsa third-graders were only 1 percent more proficient in math.
Gormley described Tulsa in his contribution to a 2010 book on childhood development programs. His chapter, titled "Small Miracles in Tulsa: The Effects of Universal Pre-K on Cognitive Development," detailed how young Tulsa students showed gains in cognitive development.
In an interview, he described seeing a "substantial, even dramatic effect on cognitive outcomes." He said district-wide results don't take into account children who move away, or how poverty may be worsening in an area.
To see the true effects of pre-kindergarten, he said researchers must compare students with similar backgrounds, separating them into two groups: those who attended pre-kindergarten, and those who did not.
Statewide leaders have pushed early-childhood education, with Oklahoma one of only three states to enroll more than 70 percent of four-year-olds in pre-kindergarten, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Gormley praised the methods used by Tulsa's early childhood educators and said Tulsa would make an excellent Promise Neighborhoods site.
"The CAP of Tulsa County has also been very creative and imaginative in trying to help the children's parents and in working closely with parents to improve the social fabric of the community," Gormley said, adding, "I think the key insight for the Promise Neighborhoods ... if you really want to improve children's outcomes for the better, in the long-run, you need to work directly with the kids, but you also need to work directly with their parents, and you need to try to improve the community as well."
Wester said that part of the planning effort has involved building communication networks with neighborhood residents. He said "branding" is a part of the effort, with each neighborhood effort having a name, like Kendall-Whittier Growing Together and Eugene Field Bridging the Gap. Each neighborhood also has a website to foster community interaction, and monthly community dinners have been held to boost participation. Residents can also now sign up for text-message alerts. The idea is to "have people be interconnected with one another" through a "robust communication system," Wester said.
To Tabarez, neighborhood participation is the key to any such endeavor. If the community doesn't get involved, "it's all for nothing and money down the drain," he said.
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