Robin Black sat in a bedroom of the apartment she shared with her grandmother, mother and five children, and cried.
Her sons, unable to get a good night’s rest in their hot, cramped room, were falling behind in school. She could not find a job that would pay their bills.
“I felt like I was at rock bottom and had nowhere to go,” Black said of that time two years ago.
That’s when social workers at her children’s school told her about the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood. Suddenly, all the assistance she had been struggling to pull together was offered to her in one place.
For the past five years, the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood has helped families who live in a 250-square-block area in St. Paul’s Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods navigate the complicated network of social and financial resources. It is a program local leaders — including Mayor Chris Coleman and Melvin Carter III, who is angling for Coleman’s job in 2017 — want to expand beyond those neighborhoods.
Promise Neighborhood staff are applying for a federal grant that could help make that vision a reality.
Many high-poverty communities across the country have received Promise Neighborhood grants to help children prepare for school, college and a career.
St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood is a partnership that has been doing similar work, but on a limited scale with less money. The Wilder Foundation spearheads the program, which pulls together resources in the community and connects families with them. It has focused on early education and creating stable, healthy homes.
Standardized test scores for the four elementary schools participating in the Promise Neighborhood have shown mixed results and continue to lag behind the school district as a whole.
But parents, educators, community members and political leaders said they have seen unquantifiable changes, such as students who are better prepared to learn, parents who are more confident, and stronger community ties.
They pointed to data other than test scores to show the program’s impact. It has grown from helping 127 children in 2012 to 1,951 this year, Promise Neighborhood Director Muneer Karcher-Ramos said.
Among students in Promise Neighborhood summer programs, 96 percent returned to school prepared to continue learning at the same reading level or better. And, as of the end of 2015, the rental assistance program helped 50 families secure housing.
“It’s working,” Coleman said. “And we’d like to see it work across the city.”
Another chance at funding
It was 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and the “Cha-Cha Slide” was going down in the gym of St. Paul City School, one of the four Promise Neighborhood schools.
Dozens of kids were starting the day with chants, songs, dance and enthusiasm. It was a typical morning at Freedom School, a national program that aims to motivate kids to learn, empower them and prevent summer learning loss.
St. Paul Promise Neighborhood works with about 90 organizations, such as the Freedom School, to provide services. It relies on foundations, organizations, businesses and the state for financial support.
Those ties were forged in part because of a blow dealt in 2012, when the Promise Neighborhood lost out on a federal implementation grant. Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone had secured $28 million from the U.S. Department of Education to create a Promise Neighborhood the year before.
Yeu Vang, principal at Jackson Elementary School, another Promise Neighborhood school, remembers a resolve to push on.
“Dollars or no dollars, our community deserves better. Our children deserve better than what is being presented right now,” Vang said.
Since then, “we’ve had to scrap and scrape,” Coleman said, but that has resulted in a community-driven program.
The Promise Neighborhood has an annual budget this year of $4.1 million. It has a new chance to win big as the U.S. Department of Education prepares to dole out another round of grants.
His group will apply, Karcher-Ramos said, and he is hopeful things will be different.
Plans to expand
With or without the federal funding, people want the Promise Neighborhood to grow.
It has focused on elementary school students, and Karcher-Ramos said services for middle schoolers is the next step. Longer-term, community members and political leaders said they want the program to help students through graduation and expand into different schools and areas of the city.
But to make that happen, Coleman said they need money, community partners and other institutions willing to help.
“I absolutely see the Promise Neighborhood going citywide,” said Carter, who helped create the Promise Neighborhood as a City Council member before becoming director of the state’s Office of Early Learning.
Staff with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association suggested another direction they would like the Promise Neighborhood to grow. The program has helped a lot of individuals, said Tia Williams, an outreach organizer at the association, but she wants it to tackle the systems that create disparities.
Carter said he sees the Promise Neighborhood — with its goal of making sure every child has the opportunity to achieve their potential — as “going upstream” of societal and systemic issues.
Black, the mother who felt stuck, agreed.
“I think it definitely does need to be expanded,” she said. “It will calm our world down today because there is so much going on and these kids really need that attention.”
Black now has her own home and works at the Cultural Wellness Center, a Promise Neighborhood partner organization, where she helps other families find resources. She tells parents that everyone falls down.
“Sometimes you just need something to lift you back up or something to tell you that it’s going to be OK and keep going,” Black said. “And the Promise Neighborhood gave me that.”