To give all St. Paul children the resources and support to be successful from "cradle to career," city leaders are collaborating on a long-term plan that starts with 250 blocks and two elementary schools in the central part of the city.

A broad array of local governments, community organizations, nonprofits and foundations are joining forces to pursue a $500,000 grant from the federal government to design a system that will bring together educational, social, medical and municipal services in a concentrated area.

It's being called a "Promise Neighborhood," after the U.S. Department of Education initiative that's making $10 million available to as many as 20 organizations for one-year planning grants. About 340 groups nationwide have applied.

Local foundations have contributed a total of $160,000 in grants to match government in-kind donations. Even if the federal grant doesn't come through, the planning still will happen, leaders say.

Promise Neighborhoods are based on the success of a program in New York City: the acclaimed Harlem Children's Zone, a 97-block area where the goal is to support families and children from birth. The guiding principle: Children do well when families do well and, for that to happen, communities must do well.

In St. Paul, the focus will be on Jackson and Maxfield elementary schools and the 22,000 residents surrounding them in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods. A number of social and educational programs are already at work, but leaders want to weave them together in a coordinated way to cut the achievement gap, improve neighborhoods and create an expectation of higher education.

"To me, this is not a new program. It's organizing work we've been doing and makes it more effective to really close the gaps that exist," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who has made education a priority in his administration. "We need to get away from funding individual programs and start looking at things from a systematic standpoint."

The Promise Neighborhood grant applications will be reviewed over the summer, and the Education Department will announce up to 20 recipients in September.

President Obama's 2011 budget includes $210 million for five-year grants to put the Promise Neighborhood plans into action. Those grants also will be available to organizations that didn't receive planning grants.

Lots of information needed

The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is leading the St. Paul planning effort.

It will take a tremendous amount of research and community outreach to figure out what will work best, said Paul Mattessich, executive director of Wilder Research.

The research methods are being designed now, and reaching out to residents will follow. Examples of data that need to be gathered include neighborhood crime rates, children's health status and the number of missed school days.

After advisory groups form, planners will figure out what the area's needs are and work with residents and project partners to figure out how best to provide them. "No one entity can do this," said Andrew Collins, director of turnaround schools at St. Paul public schools. "There isn't a simple recipe."

The goal, leaders say, is to create a plan that can be successful and spread to other parts of the city.

The challenges

The 250-block area is one of the poorest in St. Paul.

A few demographic facts to consider, as referenced in the federal grant application:

• Almost 40 percent of residents are under 18.

• 23 percent of the residents were born in other countries.

• About one-third of residents live below the federal poverty limit, which is a $22,050 yearly income for a family of four.

• 82 percent of students are eligible for free lunch at school, a leading indicator of poverty.

• Compared to others across Minnesota, residents are 2.3 times more likely to be victims of a serious crime.

Among elementary schools, Jackson is considered a low-performing school by the state. Maxfield is among the 32 lowest-performing schools in Minnesota; test results from the 2008-09 school year showed only 30 percent of students proficient in reading and 24 percent proficient in math.

Daunting as some of the statistics might appear, people involved in the project are optimistic about turning them around.

"There's promise because there's a commitment," Collins said.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148