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Early Learning Challenge Fund; Promise Neighborhoods Q &A

My colleague Michelle McNeil has the scoop on the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Fund here. The Department of Education has started a blog about the competition and welcomes public comment.

As the new round of competition gets underway, it's a good time to take a look at what's happenin to another federal competition with a strong early learning component, Promise Neighborhoods. Last fall, 21 community collaborations won planning grants to develop Promise Neighborhoods, and in April the Department of Education announced another $30 million will be awarded, divided between planning and implementation grants.

The national nonprofit PolicyLink has created a Promise Neighborhoods Institute to support grantees as they move from planning to implementation.

Michael McAfee, formerly with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, now serves as the director of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute. I emailed Michael a set of questions to hear more about how the grantees are doing, their efforts in early learning and what the future of Promise Neighborhoods might be given the federal budget challenges. Here's what he had to say, edited for length and clarity:

Q. How is your organization working with grantees, specifically on the early-learning components of their proposals?

A. Part of our work is to lift up the great early-childhood work going on in [the District of Columbia], in San Antonio, in Berea, Ky., and make connections between these groups and others looking to strengthen their early-learning work. Each group does it differently, so we end up with a lot of good examples. We help the groups share their successes and challenges, and provide additional resources to help build strong Promise Neighborhoods with great early-learning components.

Q. Are there any particularly exciting early learning efforts you'd like to highlight?

A. Eastside Promise Neighborhood, in San Antonio, has the Tynan Early Childhood Education Center, a Head Start program, as one of their main partners. Tynan is doing some really innovative interactive learning work using technology. And the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative is working with an Educare center.

Q. What are grantees doing in the area of birth to 3? Are any grantees working on parent education programs in birth to 3, like Harlem Children Zone's Baby College program?

A. All of the grantees are working on providing key services for parents, babies, and toddlers, because we all understand how important programs like Harlem Children's Zone's Baby College are. Some great examples are Hayward Promise Neighborhood in California, Berea Promise in Kentucky, and Main South Promise, in Worcester, Mass., which have done great work to research and plan programs that have parent-education and early-childhood programs integrated into their Promise Neighborhoods. In fact, even Promise Neighborhood efforts that did not receive federal funding, like one in Columbia, S.C., have begun efforts like Columbia's Parent University, which just graduated its first class.

Q. Are there common challenges they face? What are the biggest hurdles?

A. Working to address common challenges has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this work. You know, we thought it would be hard to bring everyone together, to form partnerships, figure out data systems. And it is hard, but what's been amazing is that every time we break down the silos, and work together to solve problems, the Promise Neighborhoods get that much stronger.

Q. You mention data is a common obstacle. How are you helping grantees create better data systems?

A. Data is a huge obstacle, partly because it's so expensive, and partly because it's hard to know what data groups need to collect and analyze. We help them understand the different pieces of information they need to collect to apply for the federal application, but also that will be helpful in the formation of Promise Neighborhoods—about safety of streets, number of children in a school district, graduation rates, units of available affordable housing. Also, a difficulty with data is understanding the legal language and privacy issues that may come up in collecting data. The Institute has brought in lawyers and other experts in a series of data-focused webinars to talk to the Promise Neighborhoods about how to navigate these challenges.

We have helped the grantees create a list of criteria for an ideal data system, and are currently in the process of facilitating the possible selection of a system that would be used by all the groups, together. Hopefully, this will address their needs, and make the system accessible and affordable.

Q. What does the future look like for Promise Neighborhoods planning-grants awardees? If the feds are unable to follow through on implementation grants, what then?

A. The grantees are doing great! Their neighborhoods are getting organized, and they're preparing for the next round of federal grants as we speak. It's also exciting to see that even without federal funding, new Promise Neighborhoods are sprouting up in Seattle, in Tucson, in Savannah. They're doing good work, and many are ready to apply for planning or implementation grants.

Promise Neighborhoods is not a new concept; it builds on and connects efforts already underway. These communities have been doing the work for decades. Their commitment is so strong, they'll continue to do the work, with or without the federal program—though federal support would ensure stability and sustainability. They know it's important for their kids, and they know it's the best way their neighborhoods can thrive. And you know what? Foundations and corporations are realizing this, too, and are stepping up to get involved. SGA Youth and Family Services recently launched their Promise Neighborhood effort in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago's South Side—and they've already raised $2 million in private and foundation support.

Q. What will Sen. Tom Harkin's new Promise Neighborhoods bill, introduced last week, do?

A. Great question. Sen. Harkin's legislation would fund competitive, five-year, renewable grants to help communities build pathways for children from birth to college. The bill demonstrates that Promise Neighborhoods have a deep commitment from every corner of our society—community groups, foundations, policymakers, schools. Many of these folks didn't know what Promise Neighborhoods were two years ago, but because we're able to lift up examples of the great work on the ground, Sen. Harkin and his colleagues see that this is the model that really works.

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