Boyle Heights gets grant to explore ‘Children’s Zone’ program

The community of Boyle Heights has been selected for a federal grant that could lead to $1 million or more to improve education in the area by focusing intensely on children’s needs from the time they are born until they graduate from high school.

The idea, tried most famously in New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone, is to give kids all the support they need – inside and outside of school – to succeed academically.

Marilyn Gavin is one of two principals at the new Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center in Boyle Heights, the first new school to be built on Los Angeles’ Eastside in more than 80 years. She says that the new facility has given a boost to local education, but neighborhood students are still in need of in-depth preparation.

“By the times students get to high school it’s their last opportunity to have success for college and beyond,” she says. “It would be nice for them to come here prepared to do rigorous high school work instead of having to catch up.”

Gavin is one of the many educators, community leaders and nonprofit representatives who were excited to learn that Boyle Heights community building organization, Proyecto Pastoral, was selected to receive a $500,000 Promise Neighborhoods planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Gavin says.

The one-year planning grants are part of the first phase in the DOE’s Promise Neighborhood program, which is based upon Geoffrey Canada’s successful cradle-to-college approach to education in Harlem. The 21 awardees will work in their individual communities to identify the best educational reform strategies for their neighborhoods.

Next year the Boyle Heights group will apply for the next round of $1million-to-$2 million implementation grants.
Proyecto Pastoral’s interim executive director, Fatima Djelmane, says that the neighborhood’s 65 percent dropout rate for youth of color, and large enrollments of English Language Learners who aren’t able to fulfill requirements to graduate high school are some of its most significant challenges. Additionally, of the small percentage of students that do actually graduate from high school, only 3 percent are eligible to apply to a four-year college.

When students return home they face another set of troubles. One third of Boyle Heights Families live below the federal poverty line.

The bright side is that the community is well equipped to use the grant to meet these obstacles head-on.
Proyecto Pastoral’s plan involves initial partnerships with Hollenbeck Middle School and the Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center. They foresee adding another school four years later and one more each subsequent year. Project partners include organizations with a history of community involvement including Union de Vecinos, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative, InnerCity Struggle and White Memorial Medical Center. The group also has a commitment for technical assistance from the California Endowment.

“We believe that one of the main reasons that we were selected as one of the awardees is because of our community building approach,” Djelmane says. “Community residents and youth are really at the forefront of this project. Any initiative that we propose is going to be ratified by the community.”

The first task will be conducting a month-long community engagement during which the partners will survey at least 700 residents about their perceived educational needs. During this time the partners will be recruiting residents for two different involvement opportunities; working group members who will assist in analyzing survey data and creating proposed solutions, and at least 40 members of a general voting body who will vote on the best solutions.

“I think equally important are all the assets and the resources that are available that really prime for this type of project,” Djelmane says. “Boyle Heights has a history of community engagement and of residents mobilizing to create change.”

Much of that history has been initiated by Proyecto Pastoral and by its parent organization, the Dolores Mission. In 1988 a group of mothers formed the neighborhood’s first childcare cooperative which has since evolved into two early childhood education centers that more than 100 toddlers and preschool-age children. The same year former Dolores Mission Pastor, Father Greg Boyle, started Jobs for the Future, a precursor to the at-risk youth jobs program, Homeboy Industries.

More recently, Proyecto Pastoral has expanded to providing afterschool programming for K-12 students through its IMPACTO program. Djelmane says she has seen how the cradle-to-college program can be effective in students who have attended Proyecto Pastoral programming for more as long as eight years.

“You have a bigger impact when you’re able to work with the students for a long period of time and not just the students, but also the parents,” she says.

In addition to Proyecto Pastoral’s deep well of knowledge and experience, the partner organizations will each bring a unique set of resources to the planning process. ELACC has been integral in addressing quality of life issues in Boyle Heights since 1996. They have held workshops for first-time homebuyers, advocated for affordable housing and helped to support local grassroots leadership.

“I feel like ELACC’s role in many ways is really looking at the community development side in Boyle Heights in land use air quality and public safety and how the streetscape is laid out and how those all come to bare on the life of children,” says ELACC President Maria Cabildo.

“On a very basic level is the idea that it takes a whole village to raise a child. We want to make sure that everywhere that a youth goes they see better streets and they see better buildings,” adds Isela Gracian, ELACC’s director of community organizing.

While each of the 21 awardees will have a strong chance of procuring the larger implementation grants from the DOE, they aren’t guaranteed winners.

“I think that the communities that received grants are very excited to have federal support for this work,” says Larkin Tackett deputy director of Promise Neighborhoods in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. “I’m also getting a sense that this is really a movement and that communities are going to be proceeding with the work regardless of the planning grant.”

Djelmane concurs.

“We’re committed to this process and so even if we weren’t to get money from the federal government, we have a resource advisory committee and we’re working with them to identify other potential funders,” she says “we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket.”

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