Anthony Lonetree, StarTribune, May 2, 2014
Dominiques Perkins works a steady job two blocks from the State Capitol. She’s raising four kids in a stable home about 2 miles away. For the spark to make it happen, she thanks Pam James.
Perkins is a single mother living in the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, a 250-block area in which the Wilder Foundation is helping coordinate efforts to close the achievement gap, first by ensuring that struggling families gain footing through the help of “community navigators” like James.
Through James, the family receives rental assistance, a “big break,” to be sure, Perkins said. But it comes with a price: self-examination, goals, a plan — and that’s all on Perkins to deliver.
The Promise Neighborhood — like its Minneapolis counterpart, the Northside Achievement Zone — is modeled on New York City’s famous Harlem Children’s Zone, an initiative created to give families and children the resources to thrive from “cradle to career.”
Unlike the Northside Achievement Zone, however, the Promise Neighborhood failed to win “the big prize,” as Mayor Chris Coleman described it recently at a state House hearing, that being a $30 million federal implementation grant. But it has an earnest new leader, Muneer Karcher-Ramos, and hopes for $1.1 million in annual state funding.
That proposal, with a price tag identical to the initiative’s current budget, is now before a House-Senate conference committee.
“St. Paul Promise Neighborhood is almost literally at the steps of where people are making the decisions,” said Karcher-Ramos, its director.
A key priority for the initiative is to bolster the ranks of community navigators — the people who now work with parents at Maxfield Elementary, Jackson Elementary and St. Paul City School. At Maxfield, 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; and about one-fifth of students were proficient in math and reading in 2013, according to state test data.
The failure to win major federal funding scuttled a proposal to broaden the Promise Neighborhood’s reach into area high schools, but academic achievement remains a focus in the form of a summer Freedom School sponsored by the St. Paul School District. The Freedom School serves a predominantly black student population, and is tailored to prevent summer reading loss.
In 2013, a Wilder Research study shows, 91 percent of the 361 Freedom School participants maintained or improved their reading level, with 61 percent of that group showing gains. In addition, more than 90 percent of students who took part in the six-week program improved or maintained their self-confidence and self-esteem, according to student and parent surveys.
This summer, Perkins’ four children will take part in the Freedom School, completing a cycle of family involvement in virtually every activity in which the Promise Neighborhood has a role, from navigator help to after-school tutoring to rental assistance — the latter of which is exhausted for 2014, James said last week. For Perkins, the assistance means she works one job, not two, allowing time for the kids and their homework, and for pursuit of her GED and, then, a degree in mortuary science.
“If I may say, the Promise Neighborhood is responsible for all this — the foundation of all this,” she said. Sitting in the Center for Culture, Families and Learning at Maxfield, she then punctuated that appreciation by shifting attention to James, saying, “She’s the best.”
At the recent House hearing, a few legislators questioned the value of earmarking $1.1 million to a single area when needs are great in other places, too. Coleman, for his part, stressed the notion that the initiative’s work could be replicated elsewhere.
Since 1991, James has worked with people in need of stable housing. But rental assistance alone is not the answer, James said.
“Our goal is about the interior,” she said. “We want to change people’s ways of thinking and pull what they have inside of them.”
She said she is impressed by Perkins’ growth, “a very interesting journey,” James noted, and continues to work closely with her and other families in fellowship meetings at Maxfield.
If there is anything universal to be gleaned from the work, any big lesson to be learned from those facing crisis, according to James and Perkins, it’s that you’re not alone. Others have weathered it before you. It’s up to you to find the way out for your family, they agree.
“If we don’t build our children, we don’t build our families,” James said. “And if we don’t build our families, we don’t build our community.”