The new head of a District nonprofit has raised the organization's profile by winning a $25 million grant from the federal government in December. The DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) will receive funding over a five-year period from the U.S. Department of Education to provide wrap around services and support to children and their parents in the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Ward 7.
"We proposed a model that was centered around children and parents simultaneously," said Ayris T. Scales, DCPNI's executive director since April 2012 about the grant write up. "It was a very different approach, based on a two-generational model where education reform is about community empowerment through parental engagement."
The grant will be used to apply this model approach where both parents and children have their needs met, expand staff, increase community outreach, strengthen partnerships and programming, and monitor DCPNI's success, said Scales, an Ohio native and Ward 7 resident who's in her 30s.
"This is not a gift, it's an investment," said U.S. Secretary for Education Arne Duncan when he announced the Promise Neighborhood award at a press conference in December. DCPNI is one of 60 Promise Neighborhoods – part of the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative – that seeks to align federal funding to help transform neighborhoods of poverty into those of opportunity.
DCPNI was one of seven communities to win the implementation grant, out of 60 applicants. In 2010, it was one of 21 to secure a planning grant.
Since its founding in 2008, DCPNI has offered a continuum of cradle-to-career services to the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Northeast. Its broad coalition of partners – D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), D.C. Housing Authority, and the Children's National Medical Center – currently operate programs serving more than 1,000 children. The grant will support two DCPS schools, Neval Thomas Elementary and Kenilworth Elementary, which is slated to close this July; and two public charter schools, Chavez Parkside Middle School and Chavez Parkside High School, which were founded by Irasema Salcido.
Although Kenilworth will close, Scales said she received a commitment from DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson who will continue to support DCPNI.
"I don't know what that looks like but we have her commitment," she said. DCPNI is housed at Kenilworth and Scales is hoping that the organization can stay.
In 2008, Salcido, who founded Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, convened a small group of community residents from the area to discuss ways that Chavez and its Parkside campus neighbors could partner to promote academic achievement and college access. While the two other Chavez campuses on Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights were doing well, the Parkside Middle and Upper Schools, which draw about a third of the enrollment from the community, suffered below-average test scores during their first years of operation.
More than half of the children in the four schools are not proficient in reading or math, 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and nearly 90 percent of the families are headed by single mothers.
"Data shows that by helping the moms, the entire family will succeed as she'll advocate for the children," said Sharita Slayton, 48, DCPNI director of resident engagement for the last two years and a three-term elected advisory neighborhood commissioner. The growing body of evidence shows that interventions must address the needs of both vulnerable children and their parents, particularly mothers.
Scales said the two-model approach was personal.
"I'm coming at this position from a very personal place," said Scales, a single mother of a teenager. Scales' parents divorced by the time she was seven. "My mom decided she wanted to go to college when I was four. She wanted to improve the quality of life for me and my brothers."
She saw her mother every night, after taking care of her family, pulling out the books to study.
"What a powerful image that is for a child," said Scales, adding that her mother became the first in the family to attend college. "Things were going on around us, and she was focused. She was a role model."
Scales earned a bachelor's degree from Kent State University in Ohio and is an alum of the National Urban Fellows Program where she earned a master's from Baruch College in New York. Before heading up DCPNI, Scales served as an interim executive director for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a public grant-making agency that supports cultural development in the city, and was a project manager at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
"Our goal is to increase the number of children in our community who have access to a quality education, graduate from high school, obtain college or vocational degrees and become successful in their careers and communities," Scales added. "We're thrilled to receive this pivotal funding."