Conversation: In the Zone, Spring 2010

Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Educators in urban schools can find themselves overwhelmed by how many different factors can limit their students' capacity to get the most from their education, from public safety to habits students learned before they even set foot in kindergarten. In New York City, one program is attempting to simply leap over the collection of barriers to learning in one swoop. The Harlem Children's Zone uses robust and sustained investment to offer a broad set of supports from early childhood through college to all of the more than 10,000 children living in 97 square blocks of Harlem.

The idea has captured the imagination of many policymakers, including the federal government, which is launching an initiative to create 20 Promise Neighborhoods across the country in areas that have high levels of poverty and crime and low levels of student academic achievement. The Obama administration has requested $210 million for the program in the 2011 budget, to be matched by local funds.

Bishop Arthur M. Brazier recognized the opportunity the idea holds for Woodlawn, where public schools educate more than 6,000 students, 95 percent of whom are low-income. Pastor emeritus of the Apostolic Church of God, Brazier has served the community for 50 years as a church and community leader, including helping to start many local neighborhood development organizations. As chair of the Woodlawn New Communities Program, a nonprofit dedicated to comprehensive community development, he convened a group that lead to the exploration of how a promise zone could work in Woodlawn.

One of the participants at that initial meeting was Charles Payne, the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor at SSA. The author of numerous books and articles about urban education, Payne has served on many organizations and programs dedicated to education, including as co-founder of the Duke Curriculum Project and the John Hope Franklin Scholars.

Today, the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community is a new organization that has begun to think about how to impact early childhood development, afterschool time, health care, violence prevention, parental involvement, school reform and more in Woodlawn. Bishop Brazier, chair of the zone, and Professor Payne, who coordinates the commitments of the University of Chicago (which is a junior partner in the efforts), talk here about how the program is mixing ideas from Harlem and the University, the progress to date and how education plays a role in improving a community.

SSA: How did the different elements of the educational blueprint of the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community come together?

Payne: The Bishop, in December 2008, called together a group to develop a plan to make sure that youth in

Woodlawn were going to have dramatically improved life outcomes. The Advisory Committee consisted of a number of folks who had worked at organizations dedicated to Woodlawn, residents of Woodlawn, some of them retired teachers, nearly all the school principals in Woodlawn.

People from the University working in education were also on that committee, Tim Knowles from the University of Chicago Charter Schools and John Easton from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. When we were looking for strong models of success in urban schools over the last couple of decades, the kind of work that the University of Chicago Charter Schools does—such as extended learning time, integrated social sup ports—stood out, and the Consortium has become a national model for the quality of its work. So naturally, they had considerable impact on our thinking.

And the folks from U of C also identified other people in the city who had relevant capacity. The University of Illinois at Chicago is a partner and is going to help build a pipeline of the best students in its School of Education into our schools and work with the schools on principal development. Youth Guidance [a nonprofit that works with Chicago youth] has a strong connection to SSA and a long history of doing good work in tough schools and has an especially strong history of promoting parent engagement in schools. They're going to be involved.

Brazier: I had said to Dr. Payne, who is really the key person in this program, we would like the University to work with us, but not develop a proposal then hand it to us and say, here's the proposal that you wanted, goodbye. Because it would probably gather dust on somebody's shelf. And we also indicated that we did not want the University to run it. That was agreed upon. So what we have here is a community that has asked one of the major universities in the United States of America to become a junior partner with the community to develop a proposal that's going to lift the academic level of all the children in this community.

SSA: And now that things have started— how is it going?

Brazier: Well, we're trying to develop a proposal that would meet the RFP [request for proposal] that will be coming from Washington probably in the next three or four months. We asked for a meeting with [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan. We did not ask for a commitment of any kind. We just wanted to know if we were planning on the right track—he thought we were. And we are reaching out to the Harlem Children's Zone. We don't want duplicate what they're doing, but we do want to take a look at programs and activities that seem to have met with such success in Harlem.

We realize that in order for us to be successful here, we have to have the support of various aspects of the community. We needed to get some support from Ron Huberman, [the chief operating officer of the Chicago Public Schools], and Barbara Eason-Watkins, who is the chief education officer at CPS [she has since resigned from the position]. But then we also reached out to all the principals to get their support and the support of the teachers and as many local school board members as possible. And finally, we had a breakfast in which we met with the parents of the nine schools in Woodlawn.

Payne: In some ways, typically that kind of process is slow. I don't think that's been the case here. In fact, this has developed much more rapidly than I would have thought possible. The advantage is that you do get a kind of legitimacy, and you have access to a wider range of resources because so many different groups and individuals can bring their talent to the table. The process of getting real ownership over a plan like this, I think, probably takes three to four years. But the fact that the project developed as an answer to a call from community leaders makes a great deal of difference.

Brazier: And at the same time, I think Dr. Payne gave the principals a sense of security. I think that without a person of his character and his background, it may have been different: Just a group of community people trying to do something in education, which educators may have felt we were not qualified to even talk about. So it's very important that we keep in mind the role the University is playing in this development.

SSA: Bishop Brazier, how did you and other community leaders decide that education was an issue that you wanted to prioritize here in Woodlawn?

Brazier: Over the years, there were a lot of small programs in the community, a lot of small funding that went on, but the nature of the community never really changed. The New Communities Program started in Woodlawn with a goal to make comprehensive changes.

So, for example, we work to bring jobs to the community. And you'll notice on 63rd Street between Dorchester and Woodlawn, there's new housing. Ten years ago that wasn't there. It was an el structure where no trains ran, but it contributed to crime because it darkened the street and created all kinds of problems. We were able, with the help of the mayor of the City of Chicago, to get that structure down. Once that was done, we were able to build mixed-income housing.

All the people around the table who were members of the New Communities Program said that we really needed another arm to change the quality of education in this community, which we then thought would actually change the nature of the community itself. So we formed the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community. And as our schools improve, we will effectuate the idea of developing a mixed-income community because where poor people and middle-class people live together, the nature of the community changes.

SSA: It's interesting to hear you say so clearly that improving education is an end unto itself, but also part of a comprehensive community development plan.

Payne: Yes, and I should note that the University is also partnering in that. The Medical Center this fall has become very involved, for example: Members of their staff have been participating on a regular basis on our Health Planning Committee, trying to work with a set of Woodlawn-wide clients to improve the health outcomes of young people, looking particularly at youth obesity and asthma. And youth safety issues: There are parts of Woodlawn where the number of traffic accidents involving children is alarming. Chapin Hall has also been very good about helping us develop baseline data. I think we're finding a lot of ways for the University and SSA to be a part of this project.