What if you could take inventory of all the best programs that serve children and families in a given area, create a standard platform for measuring the outcomes those programs were producing, and increase the capacity of those programs to serve more people? This is the goal of the Charleston Promise Neighborhood, a new nonprofit seeking to replicate the model of the highly successful Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.

The Children’s Zone covers a 100-block area in Harlem that has become the model for communities across the United States wanting to better educate children and strengthen families. Using a comprehensive approach that provides a range of support services to a specific geographical area, Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada has shown that test scores can be dramatically improved and reading levels increased in the country’s poorest areas.

The Charleston Promise Neighborhood is focusing on a 5.6-square-mile area of Charleston and North Charleston, which is in need of such an approach. This area (encompassing the attendance zones of Mary Ford, Chicora, James Simons, and Sanders-Clyde elementary schools) is served by two public high schools with respective graduation rates of 41 and 56 percent. The area also has above-average rates of crime and teen pregnancy. The goal of the Promise Neighborhood is to improve school readiness, test scores, and eventually graduation rates by organizing a coordinated, interdisciplinary strategy for the children who need it most. By partnering with organizations that are already producing strong outcomes, the Promise Neighborhood will seek to seamlessly integrate high-quality, cost-effective, wrap-around prenatal-to-college services for each child in the Neighborhood.

Unlike the Children’s Zone, the Promise Neighborhood will not be creating new programs in order to achieve this goal. Instead, the Promise Neighborhood will help identify the best programs in the area and help them to build their capacity so that they can serve more children and families throughout the Neighborhood. An essential part of this capacity-building process is recording evidence-based outcomes so that successful programs can obtain sustainable funding. Part of the Promise Neighborhood’s work will be creating an inventory and database, together with the Trident United Way, so that nonprofits can report a uniform set of data in order to measure their programs’ results.

Additionally, the Promise Neighborhood will document the best practices across various nonprofit programs nationwide with the help of the College of Charleston, the Citadel, and MUSC. These institutions have each pledged to lend their considerable resources as partners in this research effort. The measuring of evidence-based outcomes is also an important aspect of capacity building which the Promise Neighborhood will be able to achieve through software developed by Blackbaud, a partner in this initiative. This will enhance the ability to warehouse the data that the organization will need to document its progress.

The Promise Neighborhood has already secured three-year financial commitments from the cites of Charleston and North Charleston, Charleston County, and the Charleston County School District. Additionally, the Promise Neighborhood is one of 335 applicants who have applied for 20 $500,000 planning grants from the U.S. Department of Education to help fund its work. Whether or not the grant is received, the organization plans to continue its goal of expanding the best services for residents within the Neighborhood.

Mayor Joe Riley, Mayor Keith Summey, Superintendent Nancy McGinley, and County Council Chair Teddie Pryor all serve on the Promise Neighborhood Board and have pledged their support to making this project succeed. With a proven model to follow and the support of strong leaders, the Charleston Promise Neighborhood will be a powerful force for change to help improve educational opportunities for the area’s poorest citizens.

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