Promise Neighborhood project rolls ahead, despite funding challenges

jmink@macon.comMarch 30, 2014 

  • The partnership between Promise Neighborhood and Communities in Schools is one of the few functional pieces of the local Promise Neighborhoods effort. Site coordinator Kathleen Richardson talks about tutoring Ingram Pye Elementary students.

Jaylyn Griffin sits cross-legged in a classroom in one of Macon’s most impoverished neighborhoods. He isn’t thinking about blight or poverty or unemployment.

He’s thinking about a book his tutor is reading, called “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

And 6-year-old Jaylyn has plans to go places. The shy, thoughtful kindergartner wants to be a police officer when he grows up. He likes to paint, and when asked what he likes about school, he softly responds: “The sentences.”

Jaylyn is proud of the sentences and the words he has learned. He points to an easel, where his teacher has written a sentence he created. His newfound love of vocabulary is a testament to daily tutoring sessions at Ingram-Pye Elementary School, where two mentors work with Jaylyn and other students.

The tutoring program, sponsored by Communities In Schools of Central Georgia, is part of the Macon Promise Neighborhood project, which seeks to revive the Unionville and Tindall Heights areas of Macon.

The Promise Neighborhood project is massive and involves much more than the Macon Promise Center -- a former school building on Anthony Road that has generated controversy. The project is a collaboration involving a slew of organizations, which would offer much-needed services to residents to try to boost graduation rates, address high levels of poverty, increase health literacy and improve the quality of life.

But an expansion of services takes money, and project coordinators are in the middle of a campaign to raise essential funding, they say.

‘Glorified pilot stage’

Last year, project managers learned that the federal government would not fund a $28.5 million five-year grant, which would pay for the program.

Now, a new organization, United Way of Central Georgia, has taken over as the backbone of the massive project, and it is trying to make up for those lost funds. The organization has identified more than 30 foundations that help fund projects such as Macon Promise Neighborhood, project managers say.

In 2011, a $500,000 planning grant fueled the initiation of some programs and the completion of a community assessment.

A recent $150,000 grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation has allowed the program to maintain two staff members and keep some programs operating. A commission has been established to help get money, pinpoint specific needs and find ways to meet those needs.

“We were able to raise the money to keep the effort going in sort of a glorified pilot stage,” said George McCanless, United Way’s president and CEO.

It’s far from a simple task, program managers say. There is the lack of funds, a Macon Promise Center that is half empty and a long list of issues plaguing a section of Macon.

Still, as funds are being sought, some programs are underway and are making a difference, project coordinators say.

“This pipeline is so huge and it’s important, but we can’t do it all at once. It’s just impossible,” said Sarah Roche, director of community engagement for Macon Promise Neighborhood. “There are some difficult choices ahead of us in terms of what our priority areas are. Where do we start? Where are we going to get the best return on our investment? What are funders most interested in funding right now?”

‘Extremely, extremely important’

The targeted areas need plenty of services, from early childhood education to health care. The Promise Neighborhood staff will not directly provide those services, but it will help connect the neighborhoods with existing organizations that offer those services, Roche said.

The Promise Neighborhood collaborators include organizations from mentoring agencies to child care centers to the Women, Infants and Children program.

Central Georgia Technical College has rented space in the Promise Center. The college’s basketball court is there, and it will be using the rest of its space to offer adult education courses. Currently, about 25 students take classes there. Most of those students live in the surrounding neighborhoods, said Kenneth Brown, director of operations for adult education at the north campuses of CGTC.

The college is using the center to offer morning, afternoon and evening adult education classes, which are led by two teachers in two classrooms and a computer lab. Students take GED preparation courses and job search training. The goal is to enroll about 100 students.

“It’s extremely, extremely important. We just have so many ... who never got a high school diploma or GED,” Brown said. “It’s immensely important that this place grows and stays open.”

The Bibb County public school system is leasing the other part of the building, which remains empty for now. The school district is leasing the building for $575,000 a year over 10 years. School district attorneys are ironing out some particulars of the lease “to make sure the space we’re leasing corresponds with the square footage that’s available to us,” and district officials are working on a plan to occupy that space, interim Superintendent Steve Smith said.

The plan is to possibly move the future Hutchings College and Career Charter Academy into the Promise Center. School officials are applying to turn the current Hutchings Career Center into a charter school by August. The idea is to move that school into the Promise Center by summer 2015. The biggest reason for the planned move is the proximity to Central Georgia Technical College, which will partner with Hutchings, Smith said.

“We’ve got a huge investment in the Promise Center,” Smith told The Telegraph. “If we’re going to pay $575,000 a year (for 10 years), we’ve got to have an educational entity in there. We’ve got to get some return on our investment.”

‘Development of the individual’

Besides Central Georgia Tech’s adult education classes, some Promise Neighborhood programs are progressing.

One partner organization is mentoring children in the area. Organizers recently hosted a health fair and a poverty simulation event in the area. An internship program at Southwest High School is placing 21 students in jobs to gain work skills, and those students are on track to graduate on time, Roche said.

And project managers are teaching residents to be their own advocates. The project has identified neighborhood liaisons, who communicate what is needed in their communities. One resident, for example, is lobbying for better traffic control when children are walking to and from school, Roche said.

“It’s important to understand that those are the conversations right now,” said Tammie Collins, executive vice president of community impact for United Way. “What do you want to happen in your neighborhood? And we will help you find out how to make that happen.”

Then, there’s the Ingram-Pye tutoring project. About 65 children who are developmentally behind are receiving extra help. In three months, a vast majority of the students have shown enough improvement to pass on to the next grade level, Roche said.

On a Thursday afternoon, two tutors sat with a handful of kindergarten students, teaching them to sound out words and create sentences. Kathleen Richardson, site coordinator for Communities in Schools, has noticed a difference. One of her second-graders, for example, started his tutoring sessions reading on a kindergarten level. Now, he has surpassed the reading level of many second-graders, she said.

“It’s not just about tutoring. We’re really developing a relationship with the kids,” Richardson said. “It shows not only that school and academics are important, but the development of the individual is important.”

Jordan Dunn, a Mercer University student, spends time tutoring students at Ingram-Pye. She sat at a table with a group of students on Thursday, asking them to identify words.

“You can tell they’re really getting these words,” she said. “It’s cool to see it firsthand, their improvement.”

‘Trying to do the work’

Those types of efforts are important because children who live in poverty often don’t get as much exposure to language, McCanless said. For that reason, a short-term goal is to fund a program that would teach parents how to educate their children as early as infancy. Counselors would regularly visit households, where they would teach parents the proper ways to raise their children, Roche said. The goal is to better educate children at an early age, so they will go on to graduate from high school and become productive adults.

Project coordinators also are considering transportation needs -- many families in the targeted areas do not have vehicles, according to an assessment survey. There are some unique programs organizers are reviewing. One, for example, would give residents grants to purchase vehicles, encouraging them to buy large vehicles for carpooling.

But it all comes down to funding. And that’s the primary goal for now, they say.

“Can we keep that flame alive and find nongovernmental funding, primarily, to continue trying to do the work?” McCanless asked.

At Ingram-Pye, Richardson says she isn’t sure how long the tutoring sessions will be offered, but she hopes it’s indefinitely.

As students clustered on the classroom floor, a tutor read a section of a book that mentions moving mountains.

“Who thinks they can move mountains?” she asked the children.

They all raised their hands.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.

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