Single mom with a new purpose shows what the Central Promise anti-poverty effort can accomplish: Margaret Bernstein


By Margaret Bernstein
The Plain Dealer
This article originally appeared at:

How can someone who dropped out of school in ninth grade put her kids on the road to college?

Charlotte Robinson doesn't exactly know the answer, but she is trying to be that mom.

Last Sunday, I wrote about the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood, an innovative effort to intervene in the lives of families living in Cleveland's Central area. One of the key challenges of Promise, a national attempt to turn selected poor neighborhoods into cradle-to-college conveyor belts, is to get parents on board to help their children break the poverty cycle.

I occasionally check in on this initiative to see if it is making tangible progress. Creating a "college-going culture" in Central will be tough -- 80 percent of the children here live in poverty, and only 6 percent of adult residents have college degrees.

I met single mom Charlotte Robinson last week while visiting Marion-Sterling School, a public elementary school in the Promise district. I wrote about her briefly Sunday, but her story deserves to be told more fully.

Talking with her, you can visualize just how this Promise experiment is supposed to work.

She is 36, with a daughter in second grade and another in fourth grade. She lives in public housing and had been ready to leave Central as soon as she moved in a few years ago. She didn't like all the violence and bad behavior outside her door.

But now her children's school has become her lifeline, and there's no way she's leaving.

Ask her how she has learned to be a better parent, and she'll tell you in an instant: Marion-Sterling School.

Promise-funded classes there are helping her learn vital life skills, and Robinson is so grateful for the attention and encouragement that she's blooming like a flower. She has stepped up to lead the school's parent organization.

She's had a chaotic life, but she's eager to undo that chaos for her girls. "I'm trying to show my kids all the love I can. I know where my kids are at all times, I put them in programs, I'm trying to save money for them for college, everything."

School is the last place Robinson expected to find stability. She dropped out of East Tech High School in ninth grade. "A lot of kids thought I was involved in a gang shooting, and they wanted to hurt me. So I left school and I never returned," she said.

At age 14, she also left her mother's home. The streets were calling her: "I was able to survive on the street -- it was like that was my family." Later, she was in and out of jail for minor offenses like writing bad checks and riding in stolen cars.

Her children's father, whom she never married, drifted off after six years. "I don't know where he's at. I get no child support, and I'm doing the best I can. My kids miss him," she said.

Once Robinson reached the end of her welfare eligibility, she lived on next to nothing for several years. She chose to be unemployed when her children were young because she doesn't trust day care providers, she admitted, saying, "I love my babies." Since her children reached school age, she has worked off and on.

When I talk to Robinson, I get the feeling she's been hungry for someone to show her the way to success, but she hadn't been able to make the right connection.
People she has met through Promise are helping her feel empowered. She's talking to school staff about completing her GED.

She founded the Princess Club, an etiquette program for girls, this year when Marion-Sterling received Promise-funded after-school programming from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland. When her princesses graduated, she filled the school's blue-carpeted atrium with parents who watched the girls parade in dresses embellished with tissue-paper flowers. "I teach them how to be young ladies, how to take care of their bodies, keep themselves clean, and how to be respectful," explained Robinson, showing off a picture proudly.

What's working here? I think it's Promise's school-as-community-center concept that lures in parents by offering them what they want: information, connections and emotional support. It's one of many ideas borrowed from the Harlem Children's Zone, a comprehensive anti-poverty program that has no qualms about using incentives to encourage students and parents to get with the program.

The Harlem-inspired Promise initiative, funded by a mix of private foundations, corporations and government agencies, is not like other efforts we've all seen that try to stop the violence or raise test scores. Instead, it aims to address all the pieces of an at-risk child's life, especially the most influential one -- the parents.
It's a huge undertaking, requiring plenty of patience, inter-agency cooperation and money. Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, the biggest local funder of Promise, is willing to invest for the next few years but hopes to win a federal grant to take the pressure off.

Yet some of Promise's fresh ideas don't cost a lot. Next fall, Marion-Sterling School will create a welcome center with coffee, where Robinson and other parents can greet moms and dads as they drop off kids.

"We're still trying to get the parents involved. It's kind of hard. It's like they don't care," said Robinson, who is full of optimism since she landed a job last week as a CMHA maintenance worker. "There's love all through this school," she added. "And I'm about to get some more parents involved so they can see the same thing that I see."

Clearly, Promise has energized one parent.

The challenge is to create hundreds more like her. 

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