© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A promise yet to keep: St. Louis fails to win grant to develop Promise Neighborhood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2010 - St. Louis did not make the cut this year for a planning grant to set up a Promise Neighborhood on the north side. The program is modeled after the highly praised Harlem Children's Zone project in New York. The initial funding, announced late this year, involved awarding planning grants to establish 20 Promise Neighborhoods. St. Louis' application ranked 27th in the competition, earning 95.3 points out of 100.

Boston, Mass., ranked first among applications for planning grants, followed by Buffalo, N.Y., South Tucson, Ariz., and St. Paul, Minn.

Despite the setback, three key St. Louis groups -- Grace Hill Settlement House, the lead agency; Incarnate Word Foundation; and Urban Strategies -- as well as more than 70 other local organizations are committed to continuing the work of setting up a Promise Neighborhood here.

Bridget Flood, executive director of Incarnate Word Foundation, says St. Louis has been invited to participate in technical assistance training because its application showed many strengths.

"We're excited about that," she says. "What it means is that because our application for a planning grant ranked so high, we were encouraged to apply for implementation funds. I would say the technical system part will give us a leg up because our plan will be very well refined by the time applications are due. This is a huge opportunity for St. Louis."

The only other stumbling block in the event St. Louis is eligible for an implementation grant is Congress. Implementation funds were included in the omnibus budget package, which Senate Democrats withdrew for lack of enough votes. Even so, the Obama administration remains committed to funding Promise Neighborhoods initiatives, an administration official said in a statement following the Senate action.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below.

Bridget Flood, executive director of the Incarnate Word Foundation, has had Harlem on her mind lately -- more specifically the Harlem Children's Zone. She is part of a local group hoping to apply for and win a federal planning grant to try to replicate the Children's Zone in St. Louis.

The zone provides about 8,200 of the 11,000 children in struggling Harlem neighborhoods with medical, psychiatric, dental, educational and family services. It is designed to make certain all the youngsters are healthy and ready to learn once they enter school -- and that they stay on track. One study shows that children taking part in the zone's programs have eliminated the achievement gap in math and have reduced it by half in reading.

Still there are challenges. The zone has had to lay off 10 percent of its staff due to a decline in donations and the economic downturn, along with the loss of nearly $4 million of its endowment from investments with Bernie Madoff.

In any case, the zone's founder, Geoffrey Canada, believes wraparound services are the key to breaking generational poverty. His program starts with what Canada calls Baby College, a nine-week program focusing on prenatal care and parenting, followed by preschool for 3-year-olds, then enrollment in the zone's successful charter schools.

The program has caught the attention of the Obama administration, which will try to replicate the zone's work in what will be known as "promise neighborhoods." The administration is budgeting $10 million for competitive grants for 20 promise neighborhoods nationally.

The Beacon asked Flood several questions about her efforts in St. Louis.

Tell us about your foundation and how it fits into the attempt to set up a children's initiative here.

Flood: This idea has been percolating for a long time. Over the years, some agencies and the Mayor's Commission on Children, Youth and Families have expressed interest in it. The foundation's interest is in providing a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment for children. My concern is that we have a lot of great organizations working with children. There's no doubt about that. But is there a way that we can get better results? Is there a way of working together rather than one group addressing a particular need and somebody else working on another need. If we will work together, perhaps we can create the kind of wraparound program that's a signature of the Harlem Children's Zone.

Would your foundation serve as the lead agency for seeking the federal grant?

Flood: One of the service providers would have to do that. We've had several providers express interest in being the lead applicant. The foundation is more of a facilitator; we're one of the supporters of the initiative. It's really a broad coalition of people.

About 88 people have attended some of our meetings, and we have a steering committee, of which I'm a member, of about 20 people. Those attending meetings have included representatives from social service organizations, the Missouri Foundation for Health, neighborhood people, and representatives from (elected officials). It's a collaborative effort, and it's a pretty informal group. People can get bogged down on who's in charge. Things work better when people work in a group and you have a rotating leadership structure. Let me also stress that no grant has been prepared or applied for yet because the federal government hasn't issued the note for the funding. We expect that will come most any day.

How did the foundation get interested in this issue?

Flood: We're recently redone our focus areas, and north St. Louis is one of our focus areas, as is East St. Louis, which is another conversation for another day. We will be working in north St. Louis with people who are interested in addressing the needs of children and families up there.

Ideally, how would St. Louis replicate what Canada has done?

Flood: The essential component is coordination of services so the needs of children are met. It has to do with the whole concept of readiness for school, of teaching children before they're 4 years old so that they are ready to learn. That's important because remediation is very expensive. The foundation wants to find more effective ways to address the needs of children. I'm talking about providing a safe, healthy, nurturing environment for children.

I was struck by the fact that the administration wants to spend only $10 million in startup money and wants to fund only 20 demonstration Promise Neighborhoods.

Flood: My guess is that implementation money will come down the road. The bottom line is that (they're) only giving 20 grants. That's a pretty small number. We also need to look at how existing resources are deployed. There's a lot of money already out there. How do we look at resources already coming in from government, from local funders, the business community and use it in the most effective way and leverage national funding? I don't know that there's a full court press on issues like this. Everybody is out there doing little pieces and people are really working very hard, but I think we could get further if there were a more coordinated approach where we say we're going to tackle this issue.

And there's no guarantee that St. Louis will be awarded one of the Promise Neighborhood grants?

Flood: This is a long journey and I want to emphasize that this isn't just about one grant. It's really more about how do we look systemically at addressing the needs of children of north St. Louis. This isn't a one-shot deal where we are simply trying to get funding and if we don't get it, we say that's it. I am hoping that we'll put this in a larger context so that we stick with this because of the needs of children. I can't emphasize that enough. Whether we get a grant or not, everyday, even as we speak, children are not getting what they need. Children are not learning, and children are not succeeding. So the grant application is just one facet of what needs to be done.

Would the local group target a specific neighborhood of geographic area at the beginning.

Flood: Right now we're looking at some specific areas for a grant application. We're talking about having a pilot geographic area and have other incubator neighborhoods in other parts of the city. That could include south St. Louis.

What do you know about children who grow up in poverty?

Flood: I have been tutoring a little girl who lives on the north side. She's in third grade and doesn't know her sight words. It's much more challenging working with someone in third grade than it is with someone when they are 2 to make sure they have the same basic foundation for learning that children from other backgrounds would have.

When you're dealing with poverty, you have to address poverty. When children take food home from school so that their families have something to eat in the evening, obviously that isn't the best way to feed people. Also, many people living in poverty want their children to succeed. Take a grandmother that I know who is raising four kids. The mom is in prison. The kids are well behaved, well cared for. But they're dealing with poverty, and they don't have the same opportunity as other children.

I once asked my little friend what I should bring her. I just knew she'd ask for an iPod or something like that. Know what she said to me? She said she needed a book bag. This little girl isn't asking for a toy or a teddy bear; she's asking for a book bag.

Can an equivalent Children's Zone work without a Geoffrey Canada?

Flood: There is no reason we can't do the same thing in St. Louis. Some people say you know Geoffrey Canada is the centerpiece of the Harlem Children's Zone, and we don't have a Geoffrey Canada in St. Louis. Well, we don't, but we have lots of other really smart people here. I refuse to believe that we can't pull people together here to do it. I know we can.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by The Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.