December 5, 2011

Plain Dealer introduces series featuring Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood

A ministry of the Sisters of Charity Health System, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland is committed to reducing disparities in health and education in the Central Neighborhood near downtown Cleveland. Residents of this community, like so many in our region, experience poor outcomes in education and health, which make it much harder for residents to move out of poverty. The foundation is working on developing a "Promise Neighborhood" in Central that works to improve children's success in school and the community in general. 

This work has been supported and noticed by many, including The Plain Dealer, which has published the first story in an occasional series about the ongoing effort to create the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood.

Central Promise Neighborhood aims to boost student achievement, break cycle of poverty

Published: Sunday, December 4, 2011
By Margaret Bernstein, The Plain Dealer
Editor's note: This is the first story in what will be an occasional series about the ongoing effort to create the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood.

"How do you feel when you save somebody's life?" a boy is asking Dr. Ben Carson at Stokes Academy in Cleveland's Central neighborhood.

"Wonderful," the famed Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon responds.

His audience of 125 youths is listening intently; so are the adults in the room. Carson grew up in an inner-city Detroit neighborhood not unlike Central.

"To let our kids see that this is what you can become -- we need more of that in Central," says De'Etta Brown, an appreciative mom in the auditorium.

Ten blocks away, during talent show rehearsals held throughout November at Cleveland Public Library's Marion-Sterling Branch, 17-year-old Jameisha Neal is trying to remember to look straight ahead and smile while dancing a routine choreographed to Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA."

Her background dancers are middle-schoolers, and they look up to her, show organizer Lashunda Lee tells her. "When they come and you're not here, they say, 'Where's 'Meisha?' So you see, you're part of something."

And at nearby East Tech High School, a new program is letting teens design their own events and come up with ways to mentor younger students. "This isn't us telling them what to do. It's encouraging them to become leaders on their own," explains volunteer Jerome Baker.

Dozens of events, big and small, designed to stir youths to see themselves as achievers, are happening with increasing frequency in Cleveland's Central neighborhood.

It's an area nearly buried by poverty and blight, yet there's a quiet drumbeat of change.

"I definitely believe there's a sense of anticipation and hope here," says Jimeka Holloway, a Central resident. "You won't know it unless you're here. There's anticipation for the promise to be realized."

"Promise" is a huge buzzword in Central, where an effort has been under way for more than a year to build a "Promise Neighborhood." It will be a spin-off of the Harlem Children's Zone, a high-profile, multimillion-dollar experiment in New York City that is boosting student achievement while trying to break the cycle of poverty.

Launched locally last year by a band of foundations, schools, nonprofits and government agencies, the fledgling effort aims to guide all of the 4,500 children living in Central on a path from cradle to college.

For this promise to succeed, schools will have to be improved. Government and social-service programs will have to wrap families in a blanket of support.

And deep-rooted patterns will have to change.

Inside the area designated as the Central Promise Neighborhood -- roughly an area from Euclid to Woodland avenues and from East 22nd to East 55th streets -- 80 percent of the children live below the federal poverty level. All three of the Cleveland elementary schools -- Carl and Louis Stokes Central Academy, Marion-Sterling and George Washington Carver -- are ranked in Academic Emergency on state report cards. So is East Tech, just across the Promise boundary on East 55th Street.

There are more people living in public and subsidized housing here than in any other Northeast Ohio neighborhood.

Ninety-one percent of households are female-headed, and 91 percent of residents are black.

Cleveland's black community has a rich history here. African-Americans poured into Central as they migrated from the South in the 1900s, establishing institutions like St. John AME Church, the city's oldest black church, and the Phillis Wheatley Association, a high-rise built in 1927 to house single black women arriving in search of work.

The neighborhood has produced politicians Carl and Louis Stokes, Tuskegee Airmen leader Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, actress Dorothy Dandridge, writer Langston Hughes and Olympian Jesse Owens.

"This was Cleveland's black Wall Street. You had all of your black entrepreneurs and businesses, as well as your churches, your social clubs, your social-service organizations," says Carol Malone, one of 20 "Promise Ambassadors" charged with spreading the word about the effort to revive Central.

Cleveland's Central effort showed promise from start

The Promise Neighborhood movement is nothing flashy -- just a slow-rolling train that picks up new supporters constantly and keeps chugging forward.

It began in 2010, when the Obama administration fulfilled a campaign promise by offering $500,000 planning grants to 20 cities willing to try a Harlem Children's Zone approach. A coalition of Cleveland organizations and agencies settled on Central after evaluating several neighborhoods, and raised more than $330,000 in matching dollars.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation, already a major financial supporter of Central programs, was asked to take the lead.

Cleveland's proposal didn't make the cut during that first round of grants, yet the foundation's highly collaborative application got high marks from the U.S. Department of Education. Cleveland was invited to join the grant winners in receiving technical support and advice from the national Promise Institute.

It seemed like a bad time to quit. So, tripling its own investment to $195,000 to keep the project moving, the Sisters of Charity Foundation continued to hold community meetings that pulled in ever-increasing crowds of elected officials, educators, law enforcement and residents.

"I'm very excited," says Cleveland Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, who grew up in Central and now represents the ward. She said that if the Promise effort is able to replicate what's happening in the Harlem Children's Zone, "that would have a catalytic impact on our community."

Susanna Krey, the foundation's president, explains that once enthusiasm began sprouting, she hated to disappoint people by giving up.

"One of the things we knew only too well in the Central neighborhood is there have been many fits and starts -- people who started something and then moved out and just didn't keep it going," Krey says. "So when we didn't get funding, our board was gracious enough to say, 'You know what? Let's keep it going.' "

In September, the Sisters of Charity Foundation reapplied for Promise dollars, this time seeking an implementation grant of up to $6 million.

Cleveland, which is competing against 35 other applicants for six grants, will find out this month if it is a winner this time. But Promise efforts will keep moving forward, even if the city loses out again, says foundation spokeswoman Joan Mazzolini.

To construct a "cradle to college" pipeline in Central, some invisible barriers will need to be demolished.

Although two college campuses fall within the Promise Neighborhood's borders -- Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College -- only 6 percent of adults in the target zone have degrees, according to the grant application.

Collaborative push begins to change the culture

A seismic cultural shift will be needed to boost those numbers. For inspiration, the Sisters of Charity Foundation in 2009 sent a delegation to visit the Harlem Children's Zone, and came away convinced that the first priority is to identify the challenges facing families and help overcome them.

To do that, local schools, social-service groups and government agencies will have to stitch their services together in a more seamless way.

Early next year, months of planning will finally yield some tangible changes. Through collaboration between Cleveland public schools and the foundation, two of Central's three elementary schools will stay open late on weekdays for student and community programs. The foundation will hire two nighttime principals to organize and oversee mentoring, tutoring and other activities.

In addition, the foundation, which funded Dr. Ben Carson's November visit as part of its 15th anniversary celebration, has invested $20,000 to create a Ben Carson Reading Room at Stokes Academy. Set to be unveiled next year, the room will be an attractive environment where kids can read for pleasure.

Then there are the Promise Ambassadors, the on-the-ground soldiers who are already reaching out to residents. They must use their credibility to motivate parents in the Promise zone -- most of whom have never attended college -- to support their children's school programs, emphasize academics at home, and see teachers as partners, not adversaries.

Currently the job is unpaid, but finding people willing to do it hasn't been hard.

"Talk about brand loyalty," says a laughing Robbin Hudson of Neighborhood Leadership Institute, the agency charged with training Promise Ambassadors. "I don't know what it is about Central," she says, but people raised in the area are diehard loyalists, even if they've moved away. "People are calling me, saying, 'I want to be a Promise Ambassador.' I'm like, slow down -- do you even live there?"

The ambassadors chosen are already involved in the community.

Jerome Baker, who six years ago started a mentoring group, Men of Central, says he can do more with the backing of the Promise Neighborhood than he could do on his own. He and his wife used to dip into their own pocket to fund their community activities, but now he knows about new funding options, including Promise-targeted grants from Cleveland Foundation's Neighborhood Connections.

He likes how he's gotten to interact with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority police chief and school administrators through the frequent Promise meetings. "Having that connectedness, it really supports my effort."

"I couldn't do this by myself. Impossible," Baker says.

Yet, youth program leader Lashunda Lee, 33, has misgivings about how much the effort can really accomplish. She paced the room for much of her first Ambassador training session, declaring herself "meetinged to death."

She's impatient, she explains, because despite all the talking, Central's kids have urgent needs that aren't being met. She recently got word that the Marion-Sterling school drill team she has directed for four years can no longer take part in competitions, due to budget cuts.

"I'm going to continue on, even though we won't have a competition," Lee says. After-school activities "kept me out of trouble, and I want to pass them on."

Lee adds: "I see our children falling through the cracks."

Still, there's no way she's letting the Promise train leave without her. She's one of the Promise Ambassadors coordinating the upcoming talent show, and every week she can be found at the library, helping kids polish performances, vetoing songs that are too profane or sexual, and doling out praise to those who try not to miss a practice.

At Promise meetings now held frequently in Central, committees are starting to identify the many gaps that trip up youths on their journey to college.

Hudson, of Neighborhood Leadership Institute, recalls one meeting last year where an East Tech junior said, "I'm taking AP chemistry, but our chemistry lab doesn't have running water."

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