A north Minneapolis coalition wins a Promise Neighborhoods grant to improve life for residents.
Buffeted by applause, Sondra Samuels stood before dozens of supporters Monday, dabbing at tears that smeared her mascara.
Even on the happiest of days, a five-year, $28 million federal grant can provoke that kind of reaction.
Samuels' tears of joy were provoked by the grant that she, as CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, accepted with a pledge to improve life in north Minneapolis, one of the city's and state's most depressed neighborhoods.
The funding from the federal Promise Neighborhoods program aims to guide disadvantaged north Minneapolis children from the cradle to college and take their families along for the ride, bolstering everything from preschool education and housing to health care and career counseling.
Monday's announcement by Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement, at Hall International Elementary School brought both the crowd to its feet and hope for renewed optimism to a neighborhood that has taken its share of lumps.
Samuels allowed the crowd to celebrate, but quickly reminded them the work to rebuild and restore north Minneapolis can't wait.
"Although this grant is great, the need in this zone is even greater," Samuels said. "This is a monumental responsibility."
Bordered by 35th Avenue N., Penn Avenue, 3rd Street and West Broadway, the zone covers a 255-block area plagued by crime, violence and poverty. Mayor R.T. Rybak said the neighborhood has been ravaged by an epidemic of youth violence, a tsunami of foreclosures and the May tornado that leveled homes and, in some cases, hope.
More than 90 percent of children in the zone live in poverty, and state test scores and graduation rates in that part of the city consistently rank among the state's worst.
The conditions "should be a call to arms for a crisis in our community," Rybak said at the news conference announcing the grant.
The more than 50 organizations and schools, both public and charter, that belong to the Achievement Zone coalition hope to replicate the success of the Harlem Children's Zone model made popular in New York by social activist and educator Geoffrey Canada.
The effort improved not only the fortune of children, but also families.
The Promise Neighborhoods funding and the work it will support here is the first step toward changing circumstances, supporters said, allowing the organization to aid families from before a child's birth to graduation day.
'We'll keep trying'
Based on the belief that successful families pave the way for successful children, counselors will help families in the zone find housing, employment aid and health care, especially prenatal.
The funds will allow the Achievement Zone to hire 34 more family coaches trained to work with parents, boosting the number of educators to 40 from six.
"The challenges that this community faces unfortunately are not unique," Shelton said. "These are large-scale problems."
Shelton also announced winning applications from Buffalo, N.Y.; San Antonio, Texas; Hayward, Calif.; and Clay, Jackson and Owsley counties in Kentucky and 15 planning grants to communities from San Francisco to New York.
More than 200 organizations from 45 states, as well as American Samoa and Puerto Rico, applied for 2011 grants.
St. Paul won a $500,000 planning grant last fall to provide services in a 250-block area in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods.
Just a year ago, the Northside Achievement Zone was turned away, coming up short in its application. A simple sentence in this year's submission caught Shelton's eye, perhaps turning sentiment in the organization's favor: "If it doesn't work, we'll keep trying until it does."
This is the second federal funding boost the group has received in the past week.
Last Friday, Samuels learned that her group, along with the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, the White Earth Indian Reservation and Itasca County, will benefit from a $45 million grant designated to help families pay for child care and check a ratings system when shopping for providers. "We hold belief that all our families are going to succeed," Samuels said.
In the past year, the program has served 150 families, with funding coming mostly from private donations and foundations.
The new funding will increase the Northside Achievement Zone's budget more than fivefold, allowing its staff to reach up to 1,200 families and 3,000 children over the next five years.
"Children's lives will be changed, or not, based on what you do," Shelton said.
"[There] is a long journey ahead of us, a hard journey, but a journey worth taking."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491