Federal bill that would tackle poverty to improve student results introduced

Roland Fryer Jr. and Geoffrey Canada, Founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, at the Aspen Ideas Festival (Flickr/Nathan Laurell)

Congress is considering a bill that would issue competitive grants to develop neighborhood-specific programs in economically disadvantaged communities toward improving student school performance and college readiness.

Appearing in both chambers under the same name, the Promise Neighborhoods Act of 2011 is self-styled after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, which has been a national model in revitalizing troubled areas by improving school, public health and civil engagement through organizational partnerships.

In the Senate, the proposed law was first released by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa); Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) introduced the bill in the House. If passed, it would empower the U.S. Dept. of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to consider a community’s proposal on the basis of its plans to address:

(A) ensuring school readiness, including success in early learning;

(B) improving academic outcomes, including academic achievement and graduation rates;

(C) increasing college and career readiness, including rates of enrollment in institutions of higher education; and

(D) improving the health, mental health, and social and emotional well-being of children.

In the bill’s introduction, a litany of facts are used to draw the correlation between poverty and academic performance. Within the scope of poverty, the architects of the bill consider a child’s access to quality meals, books, health access and early education access. A large-scale study at the University of Minnesota found a child’s exposure to pre-K academic instruction increases the likelihood of high graduation, college completion, avoiding incarceration and finding well paying jobs. Separately, An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report that examined over 20 countries concluded (PDF) socioeconomic factors outside the classroom are the most significant variable in a student’s success.

In a sign the bill would do more to address socioeconomic conditions than the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which critics say places an unnecessary burden on teacher accountability when the majority of a student’s income is predicated on factors outside the classroom, the Promise Neighborhoods Act would tackle the symptoms of poverty head on.

It would ask grant seekers to provide early learning opportunities for children, beginning prenatally and extending through the third grade. The proposed law also stresses outreach to troubled youths, particularly collaboration with juvenile detention system and support for adjudicated youth.

Some portions of the grant will be renewable for up to five years, while others will require a new application after 12 months.

In announcing the bill to the House two weeks ago, Payne said, “[a]s a former teacher, I witnessed the challenges students face when socioeconomic issues impede on their academic success. The Promise Neighborhoods Act would allow communities to scale up the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone by focusing on the whole child and whole community.”

Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) also stressed the bill’s merit is in what it offers outside of school. “The key to education reform is to focus on the child,” he said. “This means not just focusing on what happens in the classroom, but looking at all the factors that lead to young people being successful.”

Neighborhood partnerships hoping to participate in the program would have to provide a wide swath of services. Included in the bill’s language are provisions on access to nutritious foods, preventative health care including dental and vision and outreach to community leaders.

The legislation nonetheless looks into in-school factors. A significant portion of the language is dedicated to articulating how grant seekers will improve school conditions, like teacher recruitment and preparedness, college preparatory courses, dropout prevention, test score improvements, declines in suspension and expulsion rates and guidance through grade transfers and the college admissions process. The law also specifically mentions charter schools.

However, though the law would ask for a longer academic season and more school hours, increased pay for professionals is addressed. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law that increases the number of hours a student spends in school. Though supported by the Chicago Teachers Union, the longer hours refer to instructional time, meaning teachers will need to add extra time to their day on top of grading, planning assignments and off-hours consultation with struggling or inquiring students.

A 2010 profile of Harlem Children’s Zone in The New York Times showed that students enrolled in the two charter schools within the program perform better than surrounding-area schools, but one lagged behind the city average in reading by a few points while beating out other Harlem schools by nine points. On math, both schools tested well above average. Because the neighborhood program, which began in one block in the mid-90s but has since spanned a near-100 block zone, offers a wide swath of services, its per-pupil budget amounts to a cost thousands above the national average for spending on students.

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