Standing next to a line of yellow school buses outside Jackson Preparatory Magnet Elementary earlier this week, Principal Yeu Vang waved goodbye to her students in Hmong and English.
Vang's school is one of two elementary schools near the state Capitol that will look different when students go back in the fall. The schools sit in the footprint of the federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative, a program that aims to help children in high-poverty areas make it to college.
Jackson is mostly Asian-American and offers the first Hmong Dual-Language Program in the district, and about 80 percent of the school's 575 students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Vang, 37, said her students face many serious challenges outside of school.
"Safety and crime and chemical dependency are among the greatest concerns in our neighborhood," Vang said.
Local leaders selected the 250-block Promise Neighborhood area — in the Frogtown and Summit University neighborhoods — because of its high level of poverty and concentration of needs. Fifty-six percent of the households in the zone earn less than $35,000 a year and 45 percent of the households with children earn less than $18,000 a year. A survey identified at least 1,000 homes in the zone are vacant.
Vang said poverty is a big barrier to student achievement.
"When you don't have a good meal in the morning or if you don't know when you go home if there is going to be a meal that evening, all of those worries just kind of occupy their mind during the day so they are not fully focused on their work," she said.
The St. Paul Promise Neighborhood hopes to counteract the effects of poverty on children by creating a network of so-called "cradle-to-career" services. These are things that many parents in affluent communities are able to provide for their own children: such as mentoring and health care.
The project would also provide support to parents, more hours of classroom instruction and activities after school. And Promise Neighborhoods would use a sort of case management approach to helping families so that schools and the outside groups they work with can share information.
Even though the project is still only in the planning phase, Vang said Promise Neighborhoods has already changed how she thinks about her school. She is bringing more outside resources into the classroom, and next year she is expanding her staff.
The school is also adding an extra hour of instruction and launching an effort to help parents understand the school system.
"What I would like to see more is parents coming in to voice their concerns and observations and advocacy for what they see that their children are needing and struggling with," Vang said.
MAXFIELD MAGNET ELEMENTARY
A few blocks from Jackson, near I-94, is Maxfield Magnet Elementary — the other Promise Neighborhood school. Maxfield is one of 34 low-achieving schools identified by the state for turnaround over the next three years. Less than a quarter of the kids at Maxfield are on track to graduate from high school.
Maxfield's principal, Nancy Stachel, was brought in to improve the school's academic performance. She is the eighth principal the school has had in ten years.
"We are 97 percent students of color; of that, we are 88 percent African-American," Stachel said. "
Stachel said the school has the highest concentration of African-American students of any elementary school in the district, and 96 percent of the students at Maxfield qualify for free and reduced lunch.
"Think about it like this: out of the 300 students, I have here there are only 12 do not qualify for free or reduced lunch," Stachel said.
Stachel is confident the Promise Neighborhoods model will help the kids at her school to see college as an option for them. She said it's not the idea that there is a "silver bullet" or there is just one thing to fix — it's that wrap-around service approach.
"It's the idea that you have got a solid foundation of everything from how are we taking care of the block, how are we taking care of the homes, [and] what are the safety nets that we can wrap around them," she said.
Congress has appropriated $30 million for cities to implement their Promise Neighborhoods plans, though this is far less than the $210 million the Obama administration requested. Organizers say the shortfall won't affect the program because if the city wins another grant it'll pay for infrastructure but not the provision of services. The St. Paul Wilder Foundation, which is overseeing the project, is fundraising.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and other Democratic lawmakers are pushing a bill that would provide a more stable source of funding for the Promise Neighborhoods project to keep it going.