St. Paul launches Promise Neighborhood to improve student performance

Maxfield Elementary
Maxfield Elementary school in St. Paul is one of the schools in the Promise Neighborhood, which is a new project designed to help students aim to attend college.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

St. Paul community leaders are launching a new education experiment called a Promise Neighborhood, which is designed to help children make it to college. The effort targets 250 blocks with overlapping services they hope will promote educational success.

St. Paul applied for and won one of 21 competitive grants from the Obama administration to begin the project. The $500,000 federal grant is to help the city plan the Promise Neighborhood. Another 20 cities across the country also won grants. The city can apply for additional money next year.

Dozens of parents rubbed elbows with city officials and educators Thursday night at the Jimmy Lee Rec Center -- which lies within the targeted neighborhood -- to kick off the project.

City Council member Melvin Carter revved up the crowd by asking for help.

"If you get engaged, if you get involved, if you volunteer, if you get into one of these schools and tutor, if you participate in one of the solution action groups, if you get your act together for the children around you, then we will find that absolutely this was the opportunity that we need it to be," Carter said.

The Promise Neighborhoods concept is modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone -- a non-profit organization that funds and operates educational, health and social services for low-income children in a 100-block section of Harlem, in New York.

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The Harlem Children's Zone is widely considered a success at helping kids overcome poverty and excel in school.

Nancy Stachel
Principal Nancy Stachel of Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The idea behind the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood is similar -- to stitch together a network of supportive community and school services to boost student achievement.

Frogtown resident Sylvia Perez added her name to the volunteer list. She said she frequently talks to her seven grandchildren about going to college, even though they're still in elementary school. She said she's hopeful the Promise Neighborhood will help more families in St. Paul make college a goal for their children.

"Yes, we live in Frogtown. Yes, we are struggling. But there is a degree for you in college," said Perez. "We just need for them to know about this, and get them ready and prepared for that."

The Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods -- which are not far from the State Capitol -- were selected for the Promise Neighborhood because of the area's high rate of poverty and related problems. More than three-quarters of students living in the area qualify for free school lunch.

The Promise Neighborhood includes Jackson and Maxfield elementary schools. Test scores at both schools are below state averages.

Maxfield was named one of the state's 34 worst-performing schools earlier this year, and is now a so-called "turnaround school."

Maxfield, which houses pre-kindergarten through 6th grade students, is 86 percent African-American, and 98 percent of its students live in poverty, according to principal Nancy Stachel.

Stachel said she hopes the Promise Neighborhood project will help Maxfield turn itself around for good.

"Because the Promise Neighborhood is really about building that stability and rebuilding the community, and that includes the neighborhood as well as the quality of the program in the schools," she said.

Planners say the Promise Neighborhood will coordinate existing resources with community groups to help families support their children's education and make college a reality.

Sharon Brown-Rowe's children go to schools outside the Promise Neighborhood but she has family inside the zone. She is throwing her support behind the project.

"Everyone deserves a chance," she said. "I feel that there are certain environmental barriers or circumstances that prevent certain kids from feeling that they can achieve, because they are looking at their environment. I believe that this will make a difference."

Promise Neighborhood planners hope so, too. Over the next few months, they'll ask the community to help shape the Promise Neighborhood project. They'll use the information they collect to develop a plan, and hope to put those plans into action next year.