Obama administration awards two grants to Atlanta community; pointing to new urban strategy

By Guest Columnist CLARA H. AXAM, president and CEO of Clarification & Mediation, Inc. a management consulting firm offering strategic assistance to support to change initiatives

In September of 2010, the Department of Education (DOE) awarded Morehouse School of Medicine on behalf of the Atlanta University Center Consortium colleges, and the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, a Promise Neighborhood Planning Grant in the amount of $500,000.

Since then, a community of stakeholders have had nose to the grindstone, researching best practices for eradicating poverty and exploring application to the target area surrounding the Atlanta University Center campuses, known as the Atlanta Promise Neighborhood (APN).

Fast forward to Friday, April 1, 2011, to what might be characterized as a déjà vu moment. For the second time in less than twelve months, a federal agency awarded the area surrounding the Atlanta University Center campuses a development grant.

This time, Edward Jennings, Jr., Regional Administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), presented a Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant in the amount of $250,000 to Dr. John Maupin, President of Morehouse School of Medicine on behalf of the Atlanta University Center Consortium and Renee Glover, President and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

The award of two federal grants to the same area is no accident. President Barack Obama gets it, and now Atlanta has the opportunity to demonstrate it!

The Obama administration has introduced a new approach to overcoming the problems of concentrated poverty and transforming disinvested communities into vibrant, healthy neighborhoods where children have the opportunity to excel, families can thrive and the living environment is safe and secure with the promise of economic growth.

President Obama is encouraging cities to apply a place-based strategy to urban ills, premised on an interdisciplinary, results based approach that appreciates the strategic layering of programs to transform neighborhoods. He is not simply talking the talk; he is walking the walk through targeted federal grants.

The Obama administration’s new approach combines the efforts of place-based programs of different agencies:
• Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods which funds the transformation of distressed public and assisted housing into mixed-income housing
• Department of Education Promise Neighborhoods which funds cradle-to-career education initiatives
• Department of Justice, Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation which fosters partnerships between law enforcement agencies and community organizations
• Department of Health and Human Services Community Health Centers which provides free health care, and psychiatric and addiction treatment to poor communities.

Within targeted neighborhoods, these programs are expected to be layered, integrating community-based experience, subject matter expertise and social capital to drive sustainable, transformative results.

At its core, the theory is to prevent yet another generation of children from being lost to poverty and the ravages of low academic achievement, poor health, drug abuse, crime, prison and unemployment.

The DOE Promise Neighborhood initiative, modeled after the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone In New York, is a place-based strategy intended to assure that all children growing up in a targeted neighborhood will have access to great schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and a career.

The APN target area was defined based on a need-index that takes into account indicators of distress such as income, education, housing issues and population density, as well as the potential for existing community resources to improve outcomes for children and families.

The APN is comprised of 16 census tracts that run through eight neighborhoods surrounding the Atlanta University Center campuses. The area is home to the largest concentration of historically black colleges and universities in America – a veritable brain trust where some of the best and brightest leaders of tomorrow attend college, graduate school and medical school.

And yet, the neighborhoods surrounding the Atlanta University Center campuses are currently characterized by concentrated poverty, high unemployment, high crime, struggling schools and poor housing options.

Of the 40,000 residents living in Atlanta’s Promise Neighborhood, 22 percent are children under the age of 18, nearly 60 percent of whom are living in poverty. One in four are not reading on grade level by third grade—the most reliable predictor of high school graduation.

Families are living pay check to pay check at best, many without a source of income from gainful employment. Twenty percent of the housing stock is vacant and an even larger percentage is dilapidated, and the streets are unsafe and often unkempt. Healthcare is poor with an overwhelming number of youth at risk of developing chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

As its organizing strategy, the APN has embraced a cradle-to-college career continuum of high quality academic programs and related support services for children and youth, birth to 21, to prepare them for success in college, work and life.

The APN logic model, adapted from the nationally acclaimed Ready by 21 Investment in Youth Program, requires caring adults and parent engagement, financial and economic stability of families, health, wellness and fitness programs, and safe living environments to support the educational pipeline from birth to 21.

The Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant will complement the APN initiative, targeting the redevelopment of the former University Homes public housing development that lies within the APN target area.

The Plan will generate a community support service model, consistent with the APN strategy, to create a foundation for cradle-to-college educational opportunities. Like the APN initiative, the Choice Neighborhood program will apply a cross-disciplinary, collaborative approach to meet its objectives.

Leveraging the Choice Neighborhood focus on troubled housing and the Promise Neighborhood focus on education holds the promise of revitalizing the former University Homes public housing site and harnessing the talents, resources and leadership of Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities, community stakeholders and service providers to improve the quality of life for children and families living in the neighborhoods surrounding the AUC campus.

The interdependency of these programs recognizes that neighborhood revitalization will not happen simply by working to improve housing, or solely by addressing the needs of schools. It will require efforts on both fronts and complementary support to make a sustainable difference.

The DOE and HUD planning grants are merely the beginning. Come on Atlanta! Let’s show our commitment to overcoming generational poverty, improving our schools and revitalizing our neighborhoods by capitalizing on the hope these grants promise.

We can create a better tomorrow for our children, and indeed our city if we seize the opportunity to work together today.

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