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LOS ANGELES – Most days, you can find Melissa Estrada at Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School in Central Los Angeles where her son Angel Hernandez is in eighth grade. While Angel is in school, Estrada has taken classes to learn how to track his attendance and grades online and talk to him about drugs and safe sex.

Estrada never finished high school, but hopes to show Angel and her three other children how much she values education by taking workshops at the Romero school in the largely poor Mexican and Salvadoran neighborhood of Pico Union.

Los Angeles Promise Zone
Sixth-grade teachers Erica Silva (left) and Allison Pazar lead a project on how to mummify a chicken as part of a social studies unit on ancient Egypt at Oscar Romero Charter Middle School in central Los Angeles. There’s plenty of time for hands-on lessons like these thanks to Romero’s 10-hour school day. (Photo: Brenda Iasevoli)

“I don’t know if I’m a good parent, but I want my children to see that I’m trying,” Estrada says. “I tell my son, ‘I want you to be better than I am.’”

Classes for parents offered at the charter school are all part of the plan there and at other schools in some low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles to connect students’ families and other community residents with the help they need to find housing, health care, counseling and job training.

The concept is one all schools in Central Los Angeles’s “Promise Zone” – encompassing the neighborhoods of Pico Union, Westlake, Koreatown, Hollywood and East Hollywood – plan to copy.

‘Enormous implications’

With 165,000 residents and a poverty rate of 35 percent – 14 percent higher than for the city as a whole – the Promise Zone is one of five low-income areas named by President Obama in January as test cases for how to transform poor communities through a combination of federal grant support and local investments and partnerships.

The other Promise Zones are in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Within three years, the administration plans to bring the total number of Promise Zones to 20 across the nation.

“What if test scores don’t go up? I mean, we’re sure they will, but what if they don’t? If we reduce poverty, that’s what’s important. That’s what this is all about,” —  Dixon Slingerland, director, Youth Policy Institute

The Promise Zones bring together the central elements of the multiple place-based strategies initiated during President Obama’s first term. These include Promise Neighborhoods, emphasizing schools designed to provide services to students from “cradle to career;” Choice Neighborhoods, centered on improved housing; and the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant program, focused on public safety. In addition, Promise Zones are designed to attract and encourage economic investment and provide job training – and jobs.

“Promise Zones build on a lot of work that has been done already,” says James Quane, an associate director of research at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who advised the Obama Administration on how to evaluate the Zones. But historically different governmental agencies — including the departments of Education, Housing and Justice — carried that work out separately. In the Promise Zones, these federal agencies and others, including the departments of Health, Treasury and Agriculture, will work together toward the goal of ending poverty, and each will be held accountable for its role.

“The push in the Obama Administration has been to put schools at the center of these agency networks,” says Quane. “So for example, there will be a push for interagency collaboration around the Department of Education’s goal to improve the academic performance of kids. If done right, this combined effort can have enormous implications.”

Los Angeles Promise Zone
Sixth graders tackled a math problem independently, while teacher Alma Renteria led some classmates in a number-line lesson and other students played math games in this blended-learning class at Oscar Romero Charter School in central Los Angeles. (Photo: Brenda Iasevoli)

Another distinctive feature of the Promise Zones is that they will get preference when applying for federal grants. An array of city agencies, the Los Angeles Unified School District and 83 additional nonprofit and corporate partners have identified more than $500 million in potential federal grant money these partners can apply for under the Promise Zone initiative over the next 10 years – all aimed at not only giving families like the Estradas a chance to succeed but also to lower unemployment rates and raise income levels.

The city of Los Angeles has pledged nearly $33 million annually toward implementing and sustaining Promise Zone strategies.

In addition, nearly 50 business and nonprofit partners are on track to contribute $387 million to the LA Promise Zone. Combining revenues from all these sources, including support from philanthropic foundations, the LA Promise Zone is projected to benefit from an infusion of about $900 million over the next 10 years.

Schools at the hub

The LA Promise Zone will build on the substantial work of the Youth Policy Institute, which won a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 to revitalize the low-income communities of Hollywood and Pacoima, under the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhood program.

Nineteen schools in the Promise Neighborhoods operate much like the Romero school, offering job training, one-on-one tutoring, after school programs, and health care to serve the whole community.

“When a student steps into a school, it’s our job to meet the needs of that student and her family, whether those needs are education-related or not,” says Dixon Slingerland, director of the Youth Policy Institute, which runs the Romero school and three other schools in Los Angeles, and will play a leading role in the LA Promise Zone.

The schools are based on the community school model, in which campuses become a hub for a range of programs for neighborhood residents. Educating students is just a small part of the services available to students and their families at the school. “If they’ve got housing problems, need counseling or therapy, we have full-time staff at the school site whose only job is to make all this stuff work,” Slingerland said.

Of the 19 schools in the Promise Neighborhoods, 11 have seen test score gains. Three of the schools are too new to have comparative test results. The schools with test results available saw on average a 17-point gain on the Academic Performance Index, according to numbers reported on Ed-Data, a website providing statistics on California schools. The index is the scale California has used to rank schools and is tied primarily to the test scores of their students.

The community school model is based on the idea of providing “cradle-to-college” services along the lines of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a 97-block section of Manhattan that has emerged as one of the most prominent place-based initiatives in the nation.

Despite skepticism among some researchers as to its effectiveness, President Obama has been sufficiently impressed with the Harlem project and its founder Geoffrey Canada that he has made it a model for his Promise Neighborhood program, and now for his Promise Zone initiative.

Long-term transformation

The Los Angeles Promise Zone will arguably be even more ambitious in its plan to transform schools than the Harlem Children’s Zone, which centers on three charter schools. The city hopes it can transform all 45 public and charter schools within the zone into resource centers for the entire community.

Los Angeles Promise Zone
Andres Ochoa tutors a student in Alma Renteria’s 6th-grade math class at Oscar Romero Charter School in central Los Angeles. Tutors provide one-on-one support in all math classes at Romero. (Photo: Brenda Iasevoli)

A large measure of the Promise Zone’s success will depend not only on whether it can improve children’s academic performance but also whether it will promote business investment in its communities and create jobs for its residents.

Youth Policy Institute’s Slingerland says he is pleased with success stories like the Estrada family. Yet he points out that the long-term goal is to put people to work through job-training programs offered through schools, or in one of three job-training centers that will be funded by the city and are expected to be up and running in the Promise Zone by this summer.

The Los Angeles Unified District, with the help of Youth Policy Institute, will transform all high schools in the Promise Zone into “linked learning” schools – effectively linking the academic curriculum with preparation for college and careers. To that end, schools will partner with high growth industries in the Promise Zone such as health care, construction, tourism and entertainment.

“If you look at data and statistics, a majority of our students tend to stay in this area,” says Esther Soliman, head of Los Angeles Unified’s linked learning initiative. “We’ll look at economic forecasts throughout the country, and specifically in LA, so we can determine the areas where students can actually get an entry-level job. We want them to go to college, but if they don’t, we want them to be prepared to make other decisions and make positive contributions to the community.”

Promise Zone leaders will be expected to collect data to measure their progress. That shouldn’t be a problem in Los Angeles, where the Youth Policy Institute spent three years building a data system in its Promise Neighborhoods in Hollywood and Pacoima to track children’s attendance, grades, test scores and post-graduation plans, including college attendance.

“For the first time ever we’ll be able to track families and say after five years what happened to those families,” says Martha Rivas, who directs research and evaluation for the Youth Policy Institute. “We’ll be able to say what services they received, what was effective, what wasn’t effective, what happened to family education level, family income, and begin to get more of a holistic picture of what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do to change.”

Los Angeles Promise Zone
Pablo Dominguez, 21, paints a mural with his sister on volunteer day at Oscar Romero Charter School in central Los Angeles, where Dominguez’s sister is in the sixth grade. (Photo: Brenda Iasevoli)

Melissa Estrada has seen firsthand how the school has helped her son Angel. At many schools, there’s only time to teach reading, writing and math. At the Romero school, the first class begins at 8:30 a.m. and the school day ends at 4 p.m. After school programs continue until 6:50 p.m. That leaves time for hands-on science experiments in class, as well as computer and leadership lessons.

All students at the school get free breakfast, lunch and a snack (some community schools serve dinner). Tutors give students one-on-one help in all math classes. After school, there’s soccer (her son Angel’s favorite), chess, piano lessons, computer graphics and more one-on-one tutoring.

Plus, his mother’s involvement in the school also benefits her son. When she noticed Angel hadn’t turned in two history assignments, she spoke to his teacher right away – thanks to the workshop that taught her how to track his attendance and grades online. Since then, Angel’s history grade has improved from a C-plus to a B-plus.

But it is not test scores that are the most important goal of the initiative, says the Youth Policy Institute’s Slingerland. “What if test scores don’t go up?” he said. “I mean, we’re sure they will, but what if they don’t? If we reduce poverty, that’s what’s important. That’s what this is all about.”

This story is the product of a partnership between The Hechinger Report and EdSource Today, the largest education reporting team in California. 

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