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An outside-in effort to help poor students  achieve

A new federal program is taking an out-of-the-box approach to improving the classroom performance of low-income  kids by focusing on their needs outside of school. NBC News' Azriel Relph and Richard Lui look at how one program in Brooklyn is making a difference.
/ Source: NBC News

What does the time kids spend outside school have to do with their academic success? Everything, according to some experts.

For kids whose families struggle to meet basic needs like health care and nutrition, keeping up in school can be a daily challenge. Now a new federal program is taking an out-of-the-box approach to improving the classroom performance of such kids by focusing on their needs outside of school.

Patterned after the Harlem program featured in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman,” the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood Program last year doled out $500,000 planning grants to 21 programs around the country. After gathering preliminary data on whether the outside-in approach can help students, it will give up to $30 million more annually to a handful of programs to see their plans through.

One fledgling program has been established in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where almost a quarter of families live below the poverty line. For them, accessing essential services isn’t always easy. There are long waiting lists for day care and too few English language classes to accommodate the large immigrant population, contributing to relatively low educational attainment in a neighborhood where nearly half of adults lack high school diplomas. A third of families in Sunset Park reported not having enough food to eat last year.

The same percentage of families has no health insurance, meaning even a minor illness can have major consequences. When kids get sick, parents have to miss work to take care of them, stretching financial resources to the breaking point. Many parents of dropouts in the area say illness was the main reason their child left school.

Stretched to distraction
Experts say that when families spend so much time trying to make ends meet, they rarely focus on improving their situations.

“If I’ve got all these other things going on, how am I supposed to focus on my schoolwork?” said Stacie Evans, director of the Sunset Park Promise Neighborhood. “How am I supposed to be able to get to the point where I can be successful?”

The Promise Neighborhood Program aims to fill the voids by making sure kids have access to all of the services they need — from “cradle-through-college-to-career” — in their community.

Here’s how it works: Local organizations that receive grants connect existing programs, identify gaps in services and fund new operations where they are needed, creating a network where families can readily address all of their needs. Experts call these “wraparound services,” and say they are critical to the success of students.

Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, an institute devoted to social and economic equality that endorses the Promise Neighborhood Program, said that the idea is to take programs with proven results and bring them to all those who need them. 

“The hope is that from the Promise Neighborhood Program we begin to learn how to coordinate what we already have,” she said. “It’s not enough to have a wonderful boutique program. We have to take it to scale.”

In Sunset Park, 10-year-old Christian Trujillo knows what is at stake. 

“I am lucky to go to school,” he said.  “Without an education you can’t really have a life.  You need to work hard and not just fool around.  Because when you fool around, you get nothing.”

But even with such focus at an early age, Christian is not optimistic that he’ll be able to attend college.

“If I keep up the good work, probably, but if I go down (in my grades) next year, probably not,” he said.

Many students at his school get bored and stop showing up to class, he said, adding that he worries that he, too, could get in trouble if his grades started to slip.

“The only way you can work without education is (selling) drugs, which you shouldn’t do, because after you do that the police find out, and you have the price to pay,” he said. 

Health checks, extracurricular activities
Christian’s chances of beating the odds may be improved now that the Promise Neighborhood Program is being established in his community.

Now he gets regular health checkups and attends extracurricular computer and dance classes. His mom, Carla Trujillo, goes to parenting classes, where she is learning ways in which she can be more involved in his education. 

The 50-square block Sunset Park program, which was established by a coalition of local organizations led by the Lutheran Family Health Center, even includes a community garden with a chicken coop, so families can learn where healthy foods come from.

“Promise Neighborhoods ties together all theses different supports that are looking at all parts of a person’s life, from when their parents first conceive that child up until the time that the child is ready to go beyond college and into a career,” said Evans, the program director.

The Promise Neighborhood Program was modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program featured in "Waiting for Superman." There, community leaders improved test scores, reduced the dropout rate and increased college enrollment by improving "wraparound services" in a 97-block area over a decade.

Some experts are skeptical about the return to investment of wraparound services. A July 2010 Brookings Institute report raised questions about the efficacy of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which operates its own charter school in addition to providing wraparound services.  The report compared test scores from the Harlem school  with other New York City schools where students do not receive wraparound services. It found that students in the Harlem Children’s Zone did better than students in traditional public schools, but not better than other charter schools in the city.

Marty Lipp, a spokesperson for the Harlem Children’s Zone, called the report narrowly focused and short-sighted. “Our perspective is larger than just test scores and academics,” he said. “Those kids need more than just math and English.”

Blackwell, the PolicyLink CEO, said that the Promise Neighborhood program really is based on a promise.  “If you participate with us, and we can get you early — and you’ll take the early childhood program, and attend the school and do your part — we’ll help you succeed in life. We’ll help you get to college.  We’ll make sure you’re successful there.”

The Sunset Park Promise Neighborhood has applied for one of up to six implementation grants that will be awarded by the Department of Education in December, when it also plans to award additional planning grants.

If it is successful in obtaining the long-term funding, the Sunset Park Promise plan calls for expansion of the zone in five years to bring the services to more families.

Christian Trujillo said that for him, success would mean college, then a career as a lawyer so he can help more families like his own. 

“Justice means fighting for good, like you want good things to happen and get rid of the bad,” he said. “Like no more drugs or smoke, and for kids to have an education.”