Last May, shortly after the Promise Neighborhoods planning application package was posted by the U.S. Department of Education, we interviewed Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton (bio), who oversees the office that runs Promise Neighborhoods. Quite a lot has happened since then, and we have covered much of it here on the Building Neighborhoods blog.
But, importantly, there are just as many questions facing Promise Neighborhoods in the future. Where will funding come from? How will Promise Neighborhoods interface with other Education Department programs, like the Full Service Community Schools and the Investing in Innovation (i3) programs? What about implementation practicalities such as data systems, program integration, and collaboration among partners? And what is the vision for the future beyond the the coming fiscal year?
We asked the Assistant Deputy Secretary in this, our second interview:
Building Neighborhoods: Thank you for joining us. Let’s start with what is front and center for a lot of our readers, the issue of funding. A year ago, the excitement around the country about Promise Neighborhoods was palpable. That excitement produced over 300 applications for just $10 million in planning grants. Since then, however, enthusiasm has waned a bit as Congress has failed to provide the next stage of funding.
While the funding for the current budget year has not been finally resolved, given the current political environment, it is quite possible that Promise Neighborhoods may receive another $10 million for a second round of planning grants but no additional money for implementation. If that happens, what will this year’s 21 planning grant recipients be competing for when it comes to implementation? Will there be incentives or preferences built into other programs in the Department of Education, or perhaps other programs in other departments?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Thank you for the opportunity. Let me first say that I recognize and understand the challenges presented by the current budget environment at the Federal, State and local level. Funding for Promise Neighborhoods in fiscal year 2011 will not provide the level of implementation resources we had initially hoped for and requested. So for now, this probably means fewer and smaller scale implementations, but it does present an opportunity for organizations to begin executing their plans. Our hope is that decision makers will recognize PN as an investment in multiplying the impact of the billions of tax-payer dollars that go into communities in silos today—recognizing that you can’t just cut your way to excellence.
To be proactive, we are also trying to treat this crisis as an opportunity for us—the Federal government and the local public-private partnerships that have come together as a result of the application and planning processes—to get a lot more creative. There will be incentives and preferences built into programs in other departments, building on current efforts to integrate Choice Neighborhoods at HUD and Community Health Centers at HHS. We’ve also been doing a great deal of work internally (at the Department of Education) and externally (with other Federal agencies) to break down silos, align outcomes across programs, and cut red tape providing the flexibility to use scarce resources more flexibly and against more integrated strategies. We’re excited about the progress made to date. So, while direct funding for Promise Neighborhoods will be limited in FY 11, I think we all agree that the need for this work and the promise of the approach are far too important to be diminished by the prospects of a single Federal funding cycle.
Building Neighborhoods: What are some of the other programs at ED or other federal agencies that you think local grantees should be looking at for implementation funding?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: We’ve seen districts and community-based organizations use several ED programs to support a Promise Neighborhood strategy, including 21st Century Community Learning Centers, GEAR Up, School Improvement Grants, Title 1, and others. In addition, the Promise Neighborhoods grantees are leveraging and integrating resources from a number of other Federal agencies, such as Head Start and Early Head Start from HHS, Community Development Block Grants from HUD, Weed and Seed from DOJ, and AmeriCorps from the Corporation for National and Community Service. In addition, the private sector—foundations, corporations and non-profits—continues to be an important partner to support Promise Neighborhoods and will undoubtedly be a part of any implementation plan.
Building Neighborhoods: When do you think we will see the next RFP for the Promise Neighborhoods implementation and planning grants? Will there be a comment period?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Soon. We heard quite clearly from readers of your blog and others about the need for more time to prepare the application, as well as the interest in making comment on the funding notice. We’re working hard to release a draft notice for public comment in weeks, not months, recognizing that ultimately the substance and timing of Congress’ decisions about the budget will determine the size and scope of what actually gets done.
Building Neighborhoods: This year’s crop of 21 Promise Neighborhoods planning grantees are expected to get a lot done during the planning year. One of the things they are supposed to do is plan or build a comprehensive, longitudinal data system. There have been some questions about how far along they need to be with this system by the end of the planning year. Can you elaborate on that?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Using data to make decisions should be part and parcel of every program or service that serves children and youth. The ability to look at data over a child’s life is even more powerful. We recognize adapting or developing a system that integrates data from a number of partners at the student level over time is a heavy lift, but it’s critically important. We hope that many Promise Neighborhood communities are doing some amount of implementation of their data system during the planning year. At the end of the planning year, we expect them to be ready to implement their system.
Building Neighborhoods: Late last year there was a report in Education Week that the Department was reviewing its competitive grant programs. We ended up submitting some comments to the Department for consideration. Can you tell us a little about that review process and where it stands? What have you learned in general about your competitive grants and from Promise Neighborhoods in particular?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: We appreciate the comments about the Promise Neighborhoods competition and are considering them carefully as the competitive grant review process continues. As you know, some of the areas of the review are the timing of competitions; reviewer recruitment, selection and training; overall competition design; the scoring process; and how to make sure the public and applicants understand the rules. Secretary Duncan is committed to continual improvement and this review is an important component of that effort for Promise Neighborhoods and all competitive grant programs at the Department.
Building Neighborhoods: The Department deserves kudos for the transparency it has brought to some of its grant programs, including Promise Neighborhoods. Still, we have been among those saying that there needs to be even more. Will there be any changes or increases in transparency?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Transparency is one of the areas considered as part of the review of competitive grant programs. We remain committed to transparency and are considering increases in transparency for Promise Neighborhoods, while balancing resource and privacy constraints.
Building Neighborhoods: We know that the Hill has been looking at authorizing language for Promise Neighborhoods. What can you tell us about that? What are the prospects for including Promise Neighborhoods in a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: As you know, Promise Neighborhoods is an important part of the Department’s Blueprint for reauthorization, specifically its focus on Safe, Successful, and Healthy Students. The Blueprint also proposes to give a priority to community schools in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Both of these proposals are evidence of the overall approach of reauthorizing ESEA and the important role of community-based organizations and other supports in ensuring educational success.
Building Neighborhoods: Secretary Duncan seems to be a passionate supporter of community schools. The Full Service Community Schools program is run out of your office. Can you tell us a little about how this program and Promise Neighborhoods differ? Is there any chance that they might be combined?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Promise Neighborhood and Full Service Community Schools are much, much more similar than different. Both approaches focus on results, leverage other resources and partners, and take a comprehensive approach to supporting educational success. Perhaps the primary difference is the scope—Promise Neighborhoods anticipates a complete continuum of supports, with great schools at the center, from birth through college to career. Many community schools focus on a single school, or a network of schools within a community, to become a hub of supports and opportunities for children, youth, and families. That said, we do see some community school models taking a cradle to career approach as well, which is great! There are no plans to combine the programs. In fact, we expect that most, if not all Promise Neighborhoods will have community schools within them.
Building Neighborhoods: It is often said that Promise Neighborhoods is modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone. Were there any other major influences when Promise Neighborhoods was being designed?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Promise Neighborhoods is certainly inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone. Their pipeline of comprehensive services, great schools at the center, and laser-like focus on results are some of the core elements of the Promise Neighborhoods design. There are a number of other models around the country that are aligned with this approach—community schools, the Strive Partnership, Communities of Opportunity in San Francisco, and the Making Connections program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation are a few other examples.
Building Neighborhoods: I mentioned the Harlem Children’s Zone and its obvious influence on Promise Neighborhoods. Still, there are also some significant differences. One is the idea of collaboration among local partners and schools. For the most part, HCZ is a self-contained organization. They run their own charter schools and they run their own social service programs. Collaboration is not a major part of their model. This self-contained approach has advantages, particularly when it comes to data and accountability. Geoff Canada is not shy about saying that if people do not get the job done, they will get fired. But if you are working in collaborative arrangements, as is the case for the 21 Promise Neighborhoods grantees, achieving this level of accountability may be a lot harder. How do you expect the Promise Neighborhoods grantees to hold their partners, particularly the schools, accountable for results?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Folks at the Harlem Children’s Zone may disagree with your characterization about the role of collaboration in their work. They have deep relationships with the traditional public schools in the zone, which requires a great deal of collaboration. That said, HCZ’s efforts to raise private resources likely give it more flexibility in selecting partners and providing services directly. You referenced an important part of accountability in your question—focusing on results. One of the first steps of partnership accountability is developing a clear set of results, which all partners agree upon and support. These understandings should be reflected in clear performance expectations detailed in the agreements between partners. Then there are likely a series of questions that a Promise Neighborhood, as a collective, should ask itself—Do we have the trust of the community to achieve these results? Do we have the relationships with our partners, including school leaders, to make difficult decisions? What partners are achieving results? Do we need new partners? The process to answer these questions creates a results-based accountability system. The Promise Neighborhoods Institute has done some great work on partnership accountability and I’d encourage your readers to check out some of the webinars that are posted on their website.
Building Neighborhoods: Another program run out of your office is the Investing in Innovation (i3) program. What have you learned from this program that would be valuable to Promise Neighborhoods grantees and aspirants? How do the two programs connect, if at all?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Promise Neighborhoods is certainly an important innovation and there are several common elements of both programs, including a focus on evidence; the need to consider sustainability and scale from the outset; and an overall emphasis on identifying new products, practices, and processes to improve education. There are several high-scoring i3 applicants that include Promise Neighborhoods strategies, such as Oakland Unified School District, a partnership with Harlem Children’s Zone and the Children’s Aid Society, or the C4 application (Caring Communities to College & Careers) from the University of Iowa. i3’s competitive priorities for early learning and college access combined with the absolute priorities focused on enabling high performing schools should reinforce the connections between the programs. Therefore, we hope the i3 program and other Department initiatives will provide innovations useful to groups preparing Promise Neighborhoods plans.
Building Neighborhoods: Let’s look into the future. And let’s be optimistic and assume that Promise Neighborhoods is authorized and funded appropriately by Congress. What is the administration’s long-term vision? Where does it see Promise Neighborhoods going? What is the vision for the broader neighborhood agenda?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Communities across the country are already taking a place-based, neighborhood-focused approach to improving education. Whether it is HCZ, Strive, or high-performing community schools, much of this work has happened without any direct support from Washington, D.C. Over the long-term, the Administration’s broader vision is for the Federal government to serve as a catalyst and a supporter of these approaches by providing targeting funding; sharing and lifting up best practices; and breaking down silos through waivers, if necessary in the short term, and regulation and policy changes over the longer term. We see Promise Neighborhoods as an important path to better government, smarter resource allocation, and greater impact.
Building Neighborhoods: President Obama deserves great credit for the Promise Neighborhood program, and of course so do you and Secretary Duncan. However, I’d like to take the risk of embarrassing some good people by saying that I have always been very impressed with the work of the relatively small Promise Neighborhoods team. Can you tell me a little about the work they do?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Thanks for asking, the Promise team is fantastic. They epitomize in many ways the adage about “a small group of committed people” being the way big things actually get done. They manage the day-to-day activities of the program, such as organizing the funding competition, supporting grantees, sharing what is working across communities, coordinating efforts within the Department and with other agencies, and responding to questions from the public. This is important work and they do it with gusto because the entire Promise Neighborhoods team is inspired by the efforts of communities across the country. Building longitudinal data systems, engaging deeply with the community, braiding complex funding sources, and owning results for the entire cradle-to-career continuum, all within a challenging budget situation, is a challenging effort to say the least. Organizations committed to a Promise Neighborhoods approach are truly blazing the path to improving the lives and life outcomes of children and youth in distressed communities throughout our country. We are here to try to help those people do their best work.
Building Neighborhoods: Do you have any final thoughts or comments?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Thank you again for the opportunity.