CAMDEN - It's been four years since the Center for Family Services received a $500,000 federal grant to start planning their own "Promise Neighborhood," an initiative to support children in poor neighborhoods with a goal of breaking the cycle of poverty.
Merilee Rutolo, the center's chief operating officer, said staff and community partners have worked on the initiative ever since that 2012 planning grant, even though the U.S. Department of Education hasn't released any additional grant money to support the project.
That changed Tuesday, when the department announced it was awarding $33 million to build Promise Neighborhood projects in six cities around the country.
Rutolo said the $6 million grant was promised as just the first part of a five-year, $30 million commitment from the Department of Education. The rest of the funding, however, must still get congressional approval down the road.
Now, the project that's been forging ahead without federal funding can really take hold, Rutolo said.
"It's about a birth-to-college pipeline for successful outcomes for our kids," she said of the initiative.
It's based on the model used by the Harlem Children's Zone, a project started by education advocate Geoffrey Canada that tries to get better outcomes for young people through a holistic approach.
In addition to improving education, families are supported and given access to early childhood education, health care and other items they need to give their kids the best chance to succeed and get to college.
Children also need to feel safe in their neighborhoods, Rutolo said.
"We work together with parents, public education, public safety, to work across the systems to break the cycle of poverty," she said. "What sets this apart is really the continuum across those systems."
Promise Neighborhood grants go to communities with big poverty problems. Looking at recent census data, it's hard to think of a more deserving city in New Jersey than Camden. According to the 5-year census results published this month, Camden has the highest poverty rate of any municipality in the state at 39.9 percent. That's up 1.59 percent from the pre-recession census numbers.
Excluding Walpack Township in Sussex County, which has a population of only four, census data shows Camden also has the lowest median household income in the state at $29,695.
Within Camden, the neighborhoods selected for the initiative are Cooper Plaza, Lanning Square, Bergen Square, Liberty Park, and part of Centerville.
The Center for Family Services' Promise Neighborhood team has been building a network of 22 community partners, from colleges and municipal boards to health care organizations and the Campbell Soup Company, according to its website.
The Camden schools are also a partner. Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said administrators are grateful to the Center for Family Services for leading the initiative and bringing needed resources to Camden.
"We believe close collaboration with our community partners is key to improving our schools," he said in a statement. "We're excited to work together in providing additional health, home, and academic supports that will improve educational opportunities in the neighborhood zone."
In a press release announcing the grant awards, the U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King said Promise Neighborhoods "draw on the best of communities, bringing together nonprofits, schools, and local institutions to meet the needs of their local communities."
In San Antonio, the release said, the initiative improved access for young men of color to good science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to improve job prospects. At the same time, the Promise Neighborhood team set up basketball games between boys and police officers to build trust between the communities.
The department launched the program in 2010 and has awarded over $286 million to help children at nearly 700 schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.
The other recipients in this cycle are Drexel University in Philadelphia, Berea College in Berea, Kentucky; Delta Health Alliance Inc. in Leland, Mississippi; and in California, the Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles and the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians.