I was born in Cleveland's Central neighborhood, above the tavern my father owned. Growing up there, it was relatively easy to forecast which of my schoolmates would succeed in life and which ones would fail.
My parents believed in education and could afford books, music lessons and enriching field trips. But even the less fortunate children did OK in school, if — and this was a big if — their parents made the extra effort and demanded good grades and behavior. The kids from households devoid of books, aspirations and adults who valued education were the first to drop out of school and wind up incarcerated or dead.
Some parts of my old 'hood haven't changed much. Today, 10,000 people live in the part of Central between Euclid and Woodland avenues from East 22nd to East 55th streets — 2,000 of them are age 5 and under. Four out of five kids there live in poverty. Two out of three live in public housing.
Sonya Pryor-Jones, director of the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood, knows inner-city poverty. She grew up in Glenville and graduated from Cleveland's Martin Luther King High School. She's since earned a bachelor's from Kenyon College and a master's from Cleveland State University.
"My parents were teenagers when I was born," she says. "But they studied and learned so they could help and teach me."
Now, Pryor-Jones is in charge of an effort to help parents in Central educate their kids from birth all the way through college.
If she succeeds, it could significantly reduce or eradicate poverty in Central, cut high school dropout rates and better prepare students for post-high school education. We could break the cycle of inner-city crime and violence in one generation.
"I know how to make this work," Pryor-Jones says. "I've lived it."
Success will require a massive commitment — and not just from donors, but from parents. It'll require them to raise their expectations for their children and themselves. It'll also require trust in a community where it's hard to earn. But there is a proven model Cleveland can emulate.
The Promise Neighborhood is based on the Harlem Children's Zone, a New York City educational nonprofit that helps more than 2,000 children of struggling families every year. The Children's Zone has demonstrated that virtually all kids, no matter their birth circumstances, will achieve at similar levels throughout their lives — if they're given enriched educational environments, stability and nurturing from day-one of life.
"We have an achievement gap because we accept it," Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Children's Zone, recently argued. "We don't expect more, and we don't get more."
The Children's Zone guides individuals from birth to adulthood, starting with a nine-week parenting workshop called Baby College, which promotes reading to children and verbal discipline over corporal punishment. Children's Zone charter schools have achieved remarkable results — 93 percent of ninth-graders and every single third-grader tested at or above grade level on New York State's math exam.
Now, Promise Neighborhoods, which follow the Children's Zone model, are springing up throughout the country. The Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood was created in 2010, and more than 40 local organizations have lent it support.
Cleveland's Promise Neighborhood applied for a $25 million U.S. Education Department grant to set up programs similar to those in Harlem. In last year's grant competition, it narrowly lost to five communities that have had programs in place longer. This year, it placed farther out of the running, in part because of increased competition. Promise Neighborhood staffers say they'll keep working and learn from what the winning communities did right.
Meanwhile, the Promise Neighborhood is busily sending outreach workers to connect families with existing programs such as Help Me Grow, a statewide initiative for early health intervention, and with early learning programs, including home instruction for parents of preschool kids. As the child grows, the Promise Neighborhood's partnership with local schools makes tutoring available for students who need extra attention. Mentors later help students choose the right high school.
Yet outreach workers are key. They have to win parents' trust and assure they stay the course. Doing so is easier said than done.
"Words like, 'I'm from the government, I'm here to help,' don't always play well in this community," says Leslie Strnisha, a program director for the Sisters of Charity, the lead agency overseeing the program.
Many Central residents would say there's a good reason for that. Years of neglect, broken promises, false starts and poorly designed programs leave some residents asking if this will be any different.
Others are satisfied with things just the way they are. A friend connected me with his granddaughters, who live in the old Cedar Estates public-housing project. I visited them in one woman's small apartment, clean and furnished with fake leather furniture, a huge flat-screen TV and a video game console. (Poverty can be a relative term.) Yet, I didn't see any books. After assuring both of them — who were in their 20s, well-coiffed and manicured in that "ghetto fabulous" style — that I wouldn't divulge their identities, they opened up.
"I don't want nobody coming into my house telling me nothing about how to raise my kids," one said. Her sister soon chimed in with a similar opinion.
These women had a sense of perverse pride in their poverty. A life good enough for their mothers and aunts was damn sure good enough for them — and their children as well. To allow someone to come into their homes and help them (to "change" them is how they viewed it) would be an admission that something was wrong with them and the way they lived.
Their defense was that outsiders didn't know them and were likely insincere. They claimed the Promise programs are merely a way for recent college grads to fatten up their resumes for more lucrative careers.
Parents like the women I met will be tough nuts for any outreach workers to crack. But Pryor-Jones understands the challenge, and she's resolute.
"We know we have to meet some parents where they're at," she says. "We have to be mindful of not coming off like we're being judgmental or are attempting to tell them how to live their lives.
"But the outreach workers know the community well, and they're willing to work hard and knock on doors to get every family involved. We're here in the community to stay, until the problems are solved."
Over the last 50 years, our nation has tried various ways to help those about to fall through the cracks. Now, in one part of Cleveland, we're finally starting our efforts at the point where they've proven successful: at the very beginning of life.