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Since the Harlem Children’s Zone began in the 1990s, dozens of cities around the country have attempted to mimic its programs and strategies for breaking the cycle of poverty through education. In 2010, St Paul, Minn. joined the list with its own “Promise Neighborhood.” The effort was spearheaded, in part, by City Councilmember Melvin Carter, who now chairs the group’s board. The Hechinger Report spoke with Carter to find out more about the efforts to improve some of St. Paul’s troubled neighborhoods and schools.

Melvin Carter
Melvin Carter

Q: How did St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood start?

A: We are really recognizing, right now the Twin Cities metro area has the highest achievement gap of any major metropolitan area. We also, not coincidentally, have the highest unemployment disparities of any major metropolitan area. We’re recognizing that all of these disparities aren’t really anything we can substantially address working in isolation, but we really have to find ways to break that cycle wherever we can. The Promise Neighborhood is a critical component in that. It’s a 250-square-block area of our city, mostly what are called the Frogtown and Summit University neighborhoods. It’s an area that has a high percentage of people of color, particularly African Americans and Hmong Americans. We’ve identified two public elementary schools right in the heart of both of those neighborhoods. They were really saying, drawing upon success of the Harlem Children’s Zone, let’s build a 360-degree, no-excuse approach to closing the achievement gap and making sure these young people in this community have every opportunity to achieve their full potential.

What makes your Promise Neighborhood unique?

We literally started with the city government and went with, me and the mayor together, going to our school districts and going to our county and saying, ‘These are all the reasons why we pay property taxes in the first place. This is something that local government has lead in order to be able to do it at scale.’ We have a nonprofit anchor partner that we actually selected together and went to. Whereas most of the Promise Neighborhoods around the country started with this nonprofit organization that had an idea and went to try and get the buy in, we started with the buy-in and went to try to figure out what nonprofit organization was going to make the most sense to host it in. While we have pockets of success all around the country, the real problem is nobody knows how to do this at scale. We think we have the opportunity to really demonstrate – even more so than anyone else – how this kind of work can be done successfully at scale.

With the Promise Neighborhood right now, we applied for the federal grant. Despite getting glowing feedback and excellent scores from the reviewers, we didn’t get funded. So moving forward we’re going to be focused on three things. One is high quality and affordable early education. The second piece that we’re really focused on is out-of-school learning time that’s integrated with the in-school learning time. That’s the obvious recognition that students don’t stop learning when the bell rings at 3 o’clock. We have built a robust set of free and affordable afterschool programs. The third piece is family supports. The goal of this third piece is really high-quality parent engagement in this work so that we can have not just a partnership with parents but a push from parents to continue moving it forward.

Five years from now, what would you like to see education look like in the neighborhood and around the city?

I’ve gotten to know [Harlem Children’s Zone founder] Geoffrey Canada somewhat well, well enough to consider him something of mentor in this work. The first time I ever met him, his bottom line message to us was, “It’s the adults; it’s not the children.” The children are all kind of born with infinite possibilities, with infinite ability to succeed and achieve. When an 8 year old fails second grade, it’s really never because of the 8 year old. It might be because the parent didn’t get him to school. It might because of the teacher. It’s because there has been some breakdown with the adults around him.  The first challenge is making sure all the adults really open up our imaginations and really understand that these children – no matter what we’re looking at at 6 and 7 years old – these children really can be the next generation of doctors and lawyers and teachers and everything else. We actually need them to be.

We’ve got metrics that we’re looking for. Obviously I’d love to get us to the point where we can boast like Harlem Children’s Zone that every child in this neighborhood is ready for kindergarten, that every child goes to third grade ready to make that switch from learning to read to reading to learn. Those are critically important. Some of the things that are just as important from a qualitative perspective are just the attitude and the way that we approach education, which is harder to measure and even harder to define.

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