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US looks to boost schools in 3 cities

‘Promise’ funds go to Worcester, Lawrence, Boston

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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Three Massachusetts nonprofits will receive federal planning grants to transform distressed neighborhoods in Boston, Lawrence, and Worcester into tightly woven hubs of health care, social services, and public education to help improve the academic fortunes of children, the US Education Department announced yesterday.

The ambitious effort to establish “Promise Neighborhoods’’ attempts to remedy a major stumbling block in turning around some of the nation’s worst schools: The best teachers and programs can do only so much when students arrive at school lacking sleep, food, and health care, or suffering the repercussions of domestic abuse or neighborhood violence.

The national program, initially pitched by President Obama on the campaign trail, is modeled after highly regarded programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone. Created more than a decade ago, the Harlem program encompasses about 100 city blocks and has achieved national recognition for accelerating student achievement and reducing hospitalization rates for children with asthma, among other feats.

As US Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it yesterday: “You can’t have a healthy community if you have a broken school. You need great schools and great community support to fundamentally change educational outcomes. We have to be bold and courageous.’’

Massachusetts tied with California and New York for securing the most planning grant proposals. More than 300 communities from 48 states and the District of Columbia submitted applications, and only 21 proposals were selected.

Receiving the planning grant is just one step in a long-term process. The funding will cover the costs of putting together a comprehensive plan for implementation, which states will have to submit for another round of federal funding actually to set up the Promise Neighborhood.

But for Boston, the $500,000 grant to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community-based organization, represents a major milestone in replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone locally. For years, different groups of city leaders, philanthropists, and community activists have toured the Harlem program, returning each time to Boston energized, but unable to sustain the momentum.

The Dudley Street group is targeting a swath of the city that extends from Dudley Square in Roxbury to Uphams Corner in Dorchester to create “Boston’s Promise Initiative.’’ The area includes two underperforming schools, Dearborn Middle School and Orchard Gardens K-8 School, and it is part of a broader region of the city that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been trying to galvanize to improve public schools.

“It’s a bold vision, but the kind of vision you need to have to make the impacts you want on the age-old achievement gap and poverty,’’ said John Barros, Dudley Street’s executive director and a Boston School Committee member.

Partners include the City of Boston, colleges, a group of ministers, after-school programs, prominent philanthropists, and cultural institutions, such as the Museum of Science and the Children’s Museum.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said the federal program complements the overall goal of Governor Deval Patrick’s education agenda — providing intensive support for children from birth to when they enter the workforce.

“This really will accelerate our progress on education reform,’’ Reville said. “I’m confident these recipients will put together first-class proposals that will make a tremendous difference in their neighborhoods.’’

The United Way of Central Massachusetts, which received a $456,308 planning grant, is looking to provide intensive support to families in an area of Worcester that has been struggling to “regain its footing after a precipitous post-industrial decline and major demographic changes,’’ according to its application.

The area includes many low-achieving schools but also a potentially strong partner to help turn them around: University Park Campus School, a nationally recognized academic standout founded by Clark University and community development organizations for students in grades 7 through 12.

Similarly in Lawrence, the Community Group — a nonprofit that operates a day-care center and an academically strong charter school — is looking to work with a section of the city hard hit by foreclosures and unemployment and home to an underperforming school, where overhaul efforts appear to be taking root.

“The neighborhood has always been dear to our heart,’’ said Sheila Balboni, executive director of the group, which received $500,000 and runs Community Day Care Center and Community Day Charter School.

Jamie Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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