The blog of the Urban Institute
March 9, 2021

Three Federal Strategies for Driving Equity in Promise Neighborhoods

The Biden administration is concerned about the widening inequities in public education, and education secretary Miguel Cardona looks to schools and other actors to address them. In Connecticut, Cardona articulated strategies for tackling the complex out-of-school forces that can either guide or derail students. At the federal level, programs like Promise Neighborhoods can motivate and align cross-sector efforts, and with some adjustments, these programs can reduce inequities in education.

What is the Promise Neighborhoods program?

Promise Neighborhoods is a federal discretionary grant program designed to improve educational outcomes for learners of all ages by creating a continuum of school readiness, academic services, and family and community support for children from early childhood through college. Through Promise Neighborhoods, the US Department of Education provides multiyear implementation grants to community organizations and their local school partners. Promise Neighborhoods grants are designed to address inequities for children growing up in underresourced neighborhoods and in communities that have experienced oppression and exclusion.

The program has been administered for 10 years and has 15 current grantees. The fiscal year 2020 federal budget included $80 million for the Promise Neighborhoods program, and in January, the Department of Education released a new notice of funding availability. A federally funded national evaluation of Promise Neighborhoods is under way. The Urban Institute has a contract from the Department of Education to provide training and technical assistance to Promise Neighborhoods grantees.

The Promise Neighborhoods model aligns contributions of educators and service providers to achieve a set of academic and family outcomes. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods was designed to close the opportunity gap by addressing family, school, and community factors that hold many students back.

As the program nears its 10th anniversary, there is more that the Department of Education can do to enable grantees to make progress toward equity during and after their grant terms expire. We propose three strategies to improve the program’s focus on equity and ensure success.

1. Reexamine performance metrics to emphasize equity

Grantees track and report Government Performance and Results Act indicators, including kindergarten readiness, school attendance, postsecondary degrees and credentials, elements of safety in and around school, and access to computers and internet. Data are collected and reported for all children in the school or neighborhood, regardless of whether they participated in Promise Neighborhoods program initiatives.

It can be difficult to change outcomes for entire schools or communities, particularly when the populations are large and individual programs target specific student populations. As a result, metrics currently used to evaluate program success often tell us more about the academic and family trends for children in these neighborhoods—concerns that were the impetus for the program’s initiation—than the benefits of Promise Neighborhoods. To ensure metrics are used to measure and drive equity, the federal government could assess whether grants are closing gaps for targeted students, including racial and ethnic minorities, English language learners, and students with disabilities within the neighborhood or school. The federal government could also ask grantees to compare outcomes for targeted students in Promise Neighborhoods with outcomes for targeted students in neighborhoods with more resources. 

2. Reward schools that partner with grantees to improve equity

Schools with the highest-need students have the most to gain from Promise Neighborhoods, but school staff don’t always have the bandwidth to take advantage of the support. School and district goals and priorities can evolve over the course of the five-year grant period and even between the grant application submission and award. School and district staff turnover often forces grantees to spend additional time establishing new relationships to continue ongoing work. In some communities, these changes can make it difficult for external partners like Promise Neighborhoods grantees to obtain access to student-level data for performance measurement or consistently offer programs and services in schools.

Some school districts have committed to closing equity gaps, but the workload required to succeed in such pursuits can be daunting, and participating staff can’t do the work on their own. Promise Neighborhoods grantees can be critical partners for piloting innovative strategies and working with new community partners to achieve district goals.

The tools that the federal government can use to deepen school engagement are limited but could include financial incentives for participating school and district staff, as well as incentives to share data or hire additional staff to work with Promise Neighborhoods. The federal government could also offer technical assistance for districts partnering with Promise Neighborhoods grantees to support school partners who want to engage with grantees but don’t know how.

3. Ensure community needs drive Promise Neighborhoods priorities in the wake of the pandemic

In communities that have experienced oppression and exclusion, new initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods have to support community engagement and trust building (PDF). Promise Neighborhoods applications present results from an in-depth community needs assessment and propose programs and partners to address community needs with grant support. Grantees often spend the first year or more building relationships with partners and families. The coronavirus pandemic has created circumstances that grantees could not have foreseen, with implications for educational equity within and outside the neighborhood. Goals established before the pandemic may not address new or growing equity gaps. The Department of Education could offer existing grantees flexibility to engage the community, reevaluate needs, and reprogram grant funding to support the students who need it most.

Promise Neighborhoods grants offer an opportunity to align a wide array of partners for learners of all ages, but they could do more. As Congress and the Biden administration develop solutions to close the widening opportunity gap, they should ensure the Promise Neighborhoods program drives equity. With the right metrics, incentives for school partners, and flexibility, the federal government can ensure its investments reduce educational inequities and create long-term change. 

(JGI / Jamie Grill / Getty Images)

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