Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Match Seed Money with Seed Knowledge

by guest blogger, Candice DePrang

Austin, among many other cities across the nation, will apply for the grants. The Obama administration is looking to fund Promise Neighborhoods, based on the premise (and the success) of the Harlem Children’s Zone. One concern specific to Texas’ capital, however, is that the federal government might see other larger urban areas as more in need of the money, or perhaps smaller rural areas. The city straddles an interesting line.

As mentioned in the Statesman, Austin hosts high poverty and low graduation rates associated with explicitly urban cities – like Chicago or New York, in addition to a highly transient population usually linked to rural communities.

Still, parents, teachers, and community leaders might let the thrill of the possibility excite them. Just think what injustices could be met head on with $500,000! But before we, as Austin citizens, get ahead of ourselves, we must reign in the romance and realize…the money alone won’t “fix” anything.

The high achievement of a promise neighborhood in Austin will lie in scaling up exactly what works, not the program in general. And I wonder – do we know what works? What specific strategies are used in the HCZ to invest the families and the children served? How exactly are the services organized, and what qualifications are needed for someone to fill that administrative role? What is ineffective at the HCZ, and which parts of that program are unique to New York? Who will interpret all of the tracking to ensure that knowledge emerges from the data, not just numbers? Austin will need knowledge from that quantitative research to use and then scale up if it expects the money to make an impact.

Perhaps all of these details sound overwhelming, impossible to corral. But the success of the HCZ, and any promise neighborhood, lies in the answers. Surely our elected officials, the foundations, and non-profits involved, will use the tracking and reports to uncover exactly how the Harlem Children’s Zone serves families effectively, and use the information that emerges from that evidence as seed knowledge, so Austin doesn’t just rely on seed money.

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