Baltimore left off 'Promise' list

Lack of collaboration hurt city's chances of getting federal funds to emulate Harlem Children's Zone

September 26, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Among those who care about getting American children out of poverty, there is a certain "Be like Geoff" phenomenon, and for good reason. For several years now, the gospel of Geoffrey Canada, founder of the widely praised Harlem Children's Zone and star of the new Davis Guggenheim documentary on public education, "Waiting for Superman," has been spreading across the land. And last week, the Obama administration planted seed money in 21 American communities that intend to emulate Mr. Canada's comprehensive, cradle-to-college project.

Baltimore, unfortunately, was not among the winners in the "Be like Geoff" sweepstakes.

Baltimore most certainly could use a Harlem Children's Zone, or two.

There had been considerable talk during the last 18 months that one organization here would emerge to get a crack at the $220 million the Obama administration has for "Promise Neighborhoods" modeled after Mr. Canada's HCZ.

So it was utterly disappointing to hear no reference to Baltimore when Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, announced on Tuesday the winners of $500,000 Promise Neighborhoods planning grants.

The list included foundations, neighborhood centers, faith-based organizations, universities and a couple of regional United Ways, from Los Angeles to Boston, St. Paul to San Antonio. A nonprofit development corporation in Philadelphia, a youth center on a Cheyenne reservation in Montana, and a charter school in the District of Columbia were among the winners.

Each organization will have to follow the Harlem example of comprehensive educational and social services for poor children and their families.

The HCZ, established 20 years ago, now covers 97 blocks of Central Harlem, and its focus on education — in both charter and public schools — has led to increasing numbers of children passing standardized tests and finishing high school. In fact, the HCZ says more than 90 percent of its 2009 high school graduates were accepted into colleges.

That's why the Obama administration announced plans in 2009 to replicate the HCZ in U.S. communities with high poverty and low academic achievement.

Baltimore's lone entry in the "Be like Geoff" sweepstakes was the Center for Urban Families, based in the northwest part of town and committed to helping low-income families, encouraging responsible fatherhood and getting ex-offenders, among others, into the workforce. (The center gave its first national Urban Visionary Award to Mr. Canada, who was in Baltimore for the presentation in June.)

But the Center for Urban Families was not the only organization interested in a Promise Neighborhoods grant.

For at least two years before Barack Obama's election, groups connected with the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute on the east side and the University of Maryland School of Social Work on the west side had been planning to establish comprehensive programs like the HCZ. East Baltimore, with an ambitious renewal effort already under way north of the Hopkins medical complex and with a new and promising pre-K-through-8 community school, seemed prime territory.

According to Robert Blum, director of the Urban Health Institute at Hopkins, five groups from Baltimore attended a meeting in New York convened by Mr. Canada for organizations interested in applying for Promise Neighborhood grants.

"The message from the very beginning was that the mayor of each city would need to select one applicant," Dr. Blum reports. "Rather than encouraging the various groups interested in applying for a Promise Neighborhood award to cooperate and collaborate, the mayor of Baltimore [Stephanie Rawlings-Blake] anointed one applicant. Regrettably, it was not one of the strongest groups, and it did not build on the three years of previous history and work undertaken in both east and west Baltimore."

He added, "It was clear from the beginning that success would only come as a result of very strong collaboration. Were that to have been fostered by the mayor's office, I suspect the outcome for Baltimore would [have been] quite different."

Imagine that — public health expertise from Hopkins, social services expertise from the University of Maryland, family and employment support from the Center for Urban Families, public education under the leadership of schools CEO Andrés Alonso. All the promising pieces were there; they still are.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake should take a new look at this and call for collaboration. The opportunity to get some federal funding may have passed, but there are others who would put money behind such a project, as long as it promised to "be like Geoff" and get children out of poverty.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is

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