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Should New Promise Neighborhoods Include Charter Schools?

Winners of grants for 21 new "Promise Neighborhoods" based on the Harlem Children's Zone were announced today. Will they need charter schools to work?

The Obama administration yesterday announced the winners of planning grants for the development of "Promise Neighborhoods" around the country. The communities are inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides everything from charter school educations to so-called "wraparound services," such as asthma prevention and career counseling programs, all designed to improve the educational outcomes of children living in the nearly 100-block area.

According to Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who spoke with education reporters via conference call this afternoon, there were more than 300 applicants for the grants and 21 winners, who will receive up to $500,000. Duncan also noted that the number of winners was limited to 21 by the $10 million in funds that the Office of Innovation and Improvement had on hand to mete out. He added that there were 100 excellent applications, and he hopes that by releasing the results of the competition, local corporations and philanthropic organizations will step in and help develop these communities.


The centerpieces of the template Harlem Children's Zone are its two Promise Academy charter schools. Earlier this year, a Brookings Institution study argued that by comparing its students' test scores to those of other New York charter schools, the wraparound services provide no apparent academic benefit—that it's simply the curriculums at these charter schools that are improving outcomes.

When asked whether charter schools will be at the center of each of these new Promise Neighborhoods, Duncan said that these new developments are taking a number of different tacks to ensure one common goal:

What they all have in common is saying quality public education has to be at the heart of this work. So, some include charter schools, many include traditional public schools, many will also be in the business of turning around chronically underperforming schools. So this is about communities where educational outcomes haven't been what any of us would want and there's again tremendous courage and leadership to challenge the status quo and get dramaticallyy better. That's going to look very different depending on the community.

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It's easy to forget that kids growing up with the bounds of the Harlem Children's Zone are also attending several traditional public schools in the area. And it may very well be these kids who are getting the most benefit from the community's wraparound services.

Sara Mead, a senior associate with Bellwether Education Partners, argued just that point in the wake of the Brookings study in a post on Education Week's Policy Notebook blog:

But I'm more curious about what, if any, HCZ's social and community services have on children who live in the zone but do not attend the Promise Academy charter schools. This is an important question for two reasons: First, proponents of a more social-services based approach sometimes seem to be arguing for social and community services as a substitute for school reforms, rather than a complement to them--so it's important to know what the relative impacts and cost-effectiveness of school-based reforms and social/community services interventions are. Second, there are a lot more kids in the Harlem Children's Zone service area (about 8,000) than there are enrolled in the schools (about 1,200), so it's important to know if HCZ is making a difference for those kids.

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She goes onto quote researchers from Harvard's Education Innovation Laboratory who had found "'substantial anecdotal evidence that Harlem Children's Zone was unsuccessful in the years before opening the charter schools.'" Still, hard data has been, well, hard to come by.

One hopes that when it does, it will show that a community banding together to create, effectively, an incubator that churns out young adults who are well-prepared for life and careers is an unequivocal success. Provided that Congress doesn't slash its funding, we'll soon have tens of Promise Neighborhoods around the U.S. trying to prove that's, in fact, the case—and that there are multiple ways to get there besides relying on charter schools.

Photo via Department of Education.

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