Big grant could change the face of Macon neighborhoods

Having lived in Macon’s Tindall Heights neighborhood for the past four years, Marna Cooper is well aware of the struggles there.

As a substitute teacher in the Bibb County school system, Cooper sees the challenges that neighborhood students face -- in the classroom and also when they get home.

“The data shows that most of the residents (of Tindall Heights and the nearby Unionville neighborhood) are living at or below the poverty gap,” said Cooper, noting a graduation rate for Southwest High School of less than 40 percent.

But there may be hope for that troubled part of Macon. After landing a $500,000 federal Promise Neighborhood planning grant last year, a coalition of 35 agencies is aiming for a much bigger pot from which to address problems there. If the coalition gets funding, it will be used to turn those areas into a Macon Promise Neighborhood.

The four schools in the area -- Ingram-Pye Elementary, Hartley Elementary, Ballard-Hudson Middle and Southwest High schools -- are among the lowest-performing schools in Bibb County.

Last year, the group that proposed the plan put together a long-term strategy to not only improve those schools, but also to help the neighborhoods around them.

Last month, the same coalition turned in a 200-plus page grant proposal to the Department of Education, hoping to gain up to $60 million to reinvest in the community -- up to $30 million in federal funds and $30 million in matching funds, said Cliffard Whitby, chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority.

“When Macon received one of (the 15 planning grants), I was astonished,” Whitby said. “Not only did we get one, but we were the third-highest scored (proposal). It was unprecedented that Macon would score so high.”

Whitby said it was the Macon group’s holistic approach that helped secure the first grant. Each of the 35 partnering agencies contributed dollars -- and expertise -- designed to improve the neighborhoods.

“We put together a hell of a proposal,” Whitby said. “We’re changing the way we do business in this county.”

If the second grant is awarded -- and officials are optimistic about their chances, given the success of the planning grant and the matching funds guaranteed by the coalition -- it would lead to a complete overhaul of the four schools involved and probably other schools in the system, Bibb County school Superintendent Romain Dallemand said.

“It’s a game-changer,” Dallemand said. “Public education has so much need that it takes a whole community to help. This brings our partners to the table so we can share resources to get the job done. It’s a new way of doing business in public education.”

Mary Alice Morgan, senior provost for service learning at Mercer, helped put the grant together. She said the partners -- which include Macon, Bibb County, the Bibb County Board of Education, Mercer University, Wesleyan College, Central Georgia Technical College, the Macon Housing Authority, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Peyton Anderson Foundation and others -- adopted the strategy used by Geoffrey Canada to revitalize a neighborhood in Harlem, N.Y., when he created the Harlem Children’s Zone.

“The idea is that schools only have the students for six or seven hours a day,” she said. “If they are going home to a situation of poverty, it limits the impact the school can have.”

Officials said the grant money would provide “wraparound services” for children that could range from psychological counseling to tutoring.

The grant would “support neighborhoods, not just schools,” Morgan said. “There’ll be site coordinators in all four of the schools. If a child needs counseling, for example, the coordinator will make arrangements for that service. ... There are various areas of need -- tutoring, health, safety, family counseling. It’s a holistic approach.”

Job retraining and more

Whitby said the grant not only would help neighborhood children, but their families as well. For example, thanks to the partnership with Central Georgia Technical College, there would be opportunities for job retraining for adults.

Whitby noted a study of some 300 people living in the Tindall Heights neighborhood conducted during the grant’s planning phase. One of the things officials learned is that a quarter of the neighborhood residents use public transportation, and it took an average time of 107 minutes to get to work.

“That’s more than three hours a day that they can’t donate to their child,” Whitby said. “It boils down to the issues we face in the community. We want to prepare people to take ownership (of their neighborhood). We’re preparing families to take full responsibility for their future. That’s what the strategies we are preparing for them are designed to do.”

Cooper, who worked on the neighborhood study by going door to door to survey the residents, said the No. 1 issue that concerns them is jobs.

“(The Promise Neighborhood) will help them sustain their own lives,” she said. “(It) will focus on the skills in the neighborhood (and) use problem solving to create a neighborhood for the future.”

Cooper said there’s still skepticism among residents because of previous programs that were introduced and then disappeared. But the coalition held a kickoff for residents to explain how the implementation grant would be different.

“It let people know that we’re bringing education to the forefront,” she said.

When local officials went to Washington for a briefing on the implementation grant, Whitby said they were shocked to learn that they had just 45 days to prepare their submission.

Retired Mercer University professor Peter Brown, the co-lead investigator on the grant proposal with Morgan, delayed his 50th anniversary vacation until after the proposal was submitted, Whitby said, citing that as one example of group members’ dedication.

Sarah Roche, a neighborhood facilitator for the group, said neighborhood residents are taking an active role in the grant, going door to door to find out information relevant to the grant and serving as advisers to the coalition.

“They’ll hold us to it,” she said. “One-third of the governance structure of the grant is supposed to be comprised of residents.”

Officials expect to learn before the end of 2012 whether Macon will be awarded a grant and how much that grant amount might be. Even if Bibb County isn’t awarded the full amount, he said, there would still be matching dollars of the partner agencies to contribute to the effort.

Officials are cautiously optimistic about their chances, given how highly Macon scored on the planning grant.

“It’s a very complicated process, but we’re the only community to have a collaborative approach,” Whitby said. “Our approach is to bring in the resources that already exist. The challenge has always been about people wanting to protect their turf. That’s what we have to change. Every partner is fully aware of this across the board. This is about communities and families struggling.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.