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How A Federal Grant For Promise Neighborhoods Is Changing A Chula Vista Community

Above: A Promise Neighborhood staff member works with students after school in the Castle Park Elementary computer lab in Chula Vista, Sept. 19, 2013. The software, paid for by the Promise Neighborhood is helping students improve their reading skills.

— Ten-year-old Emily Jimenez Ayon wants to be a doctor. To do that, she knows she’ll need to go to college. And to get there she’s willing to make some sacrifices. For the moment that includes giving up her Qiunceañera, which is kind of like a coming out party that many Mexican-American families throw for their daughters’ fifteenth birthdays.

Aired 10/3/13 on KPBS News.

Last year, a partnership of almost 30 organizations in Chula Vista's Castle Park neighborhood received a five-year grant to provide "cradle-to-career" support for the neighborhood’s children and families.

A Promise Neighborhood staff member works with students after school in the Castle Park Elementary computer lab in Chula Vista, Sept. 19, 2013. The software, paid for by the Promise Neighborhood is helping students improve their reading skills.

“I want to save the money for when I get into the university," she said.

That’s right – she wants the money to go toward the cost of college. Her mother, Gladys Ayon, said this is a new outlook for her daughter that came after a few weeks of summer camps provided through a program called Promise Neighborhood.

“Before, we didn’t talk a lot about it," Ayon said in Spanish. "But the people from Promise came with the mentality of helping the mothers from the time they’re pregnant and helping them so that their children do well, and little by little, get to college.”

Castle Park’s Promise Neighborhood program is one of about a dozen Promise Neighborhoods operating across the country. The federal government has set aside about $100 million over the last three years for programs like these. Last year, a partnership of almost 30 organizations in Castle Park received a $28 million, five-year grant to provide what’s being called "cradle-to-career" support for the neighborhood’s children and families.

“We saw a lot of gaps in services and we saw a lot of what was keeping kids from being successful in school or keeping kids from going to college,” said Kathryn Lembo, CEO of South Bay Community Services, the group leading the Promise Neighborhood. “You had parents – 96 percent of the parents – saying they wanted their children to go to college and they talked to their kids about it. But then when you asked them what they were talking to them about, it was that, “we can’t afford it, you can’t go to college.”

But changing that mentality is a tall order in a neighborhood like Castle Park, where English proficiency is low, two-thirds of adults don’t have a high school diploma and more than half of households do not have a full-time breadwinner. That’s why they have to start early.

“There’s an early learning network and that has to do with preventing any gaps or getting rid of the gaps kids have even before they enter school," Lembo said.

A preschool that opened this year on the Castle Park Elementary campus where students are learning in English and Spanish is part of that network. It also includes newborn home visits by staff from family clinics and parenting classes called Universidad de Padres, or Parent University. Those classes are giving Gladys Ayon tools to get involved with her daughter’s education.

“This helped me a lot because in my daughter’s classroom everything is in English and the teacher gives me all the work in Spanish so I can explained it to her," Ayon said. "Now I communicate a lot with the teacher. It helps me with my daughter because I struggled a lot with English.”

Ayon is also spending more time on the school’s campus. Not just in classes – but planting and tending a once-neglected garden that parents took over as a result of those Promise Neighborhood classes. She says her two daughters are eating fruits and vegetables they would have refused before - or that she never would have thought to give them.

Evidence of Promise Neighborhood programs is everywhere on campus, from in-class and after-school tutors to an after -school computer lab where students catch up on reading skills.

The school’s resource teacher, Kim Callado, said they're also getting a direct connection to important services.

“We had a family that needed immediate help with shelter, so we went through the Promise Neighborhood, we ask them if they could do a referral then they helped them through the whole process,” she said.

Those connections have only been in place since school started at the end of July, but Callado said they’re starting to pay off.

“We’re still working on it, but yes, we’ve already seen a difference because we’re getting so much support on calling parents, asking them why they’re absent," she said. "So last week we were celebrating that we did really well with our attendance.”

But being on campus isn’t enough to make the Promise Neighborhood idea work.

On a recent afternoon the Promise Neighborhood’s Promotoras were getting ready to go knocking on doors to recruit for one of their programs. Cyndi Gonzalez became a Promotora after years of volunteering at her son’s school, Castle Park Middle, which is one of the four other schools that are part of the Promise Neighborhood.

“We are the eyes, the ears and especially the voice of the community," she said. "We’re there to inform the community of everything that we’re learning and we’re also there to navigate them through all of the programs.”

The Promotoras are neighborhood residents – so Gonzalez believes parents trust them in a way they may not trust school administrators. If parents are more comfortable, they’ll open up and let Promotoras know what services they may really need.

Gonzalez saw first hand what the influx of support and extended school day programs meant at her son's school.

“I would hear every morning, ‘I don’t want to go to school, I don’t want to go to school.’ And it was a struggle,” she said.

But – along with Promise Neighborhoods came a new philosophy.

“It holds them accountable for not going to school, for not doing their homework," she said. "And he would have to make up his days on Saturdays. I stopped hearing that every morning 'I don’t want to go to school,' because he knew – there’s consequences.”

Now, he’s in high school outside the neighborhood, but he knows college is in his future. Gonzalez's family is planning for him in ways they didn’t for his older sister.

“We didn’t have all the information," she said. "I’m sure the school had it, but it wasn’t accessible, readily accessible to us at the time and I think that’s one of the reasons why I got involved also, because I wanted to share that information with the community also.”

When the five-year grant ends, the schools and organizations will have to find other ways to keep the successful programs running, Lembo said.

They’ll be gauging success in a lot of different ways -- tracking things like how many infants and toddlers have access to medical care somewhere other than an emergency room, asking parents how much they read to young children and harder data like high school graduation, college enrollment and test scores.

But Gonzalez is looking for something else.

“I’m hoping that the community wakes up and realizes that they have a voice and that they can make a difference in their communities and their schools for their children,” she said.

That kind of change, she thinks, might outlast any program.

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