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A ‘promise’ of support for a West Philadelphia neighborhood

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Sameer Rao

Philadelphia is one of five areas nationwide that have been selected to be designated as Promise Zones, a federal initiative announced in January by President Obama to accelerate efforts to revitalize neighborhoods suffering from high unemployment, poverty, and crime, and low educational attainment.

Philadelphia’s designation covers the Mantua neighborhood in West Philadelphia and parts of surrounding communities. According to a press release from the Mayor’s Office of Communications, the Promise Zone’s borders are the Schuylkill River on the east, Girard Avenue on the north, 48th Street to the west, and Sansom Street to the south.

Within the Promise Zone are more than a dozen schools, which could benefit as a result of the designation. These include High School of the Future, Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, Middle Years Alternative Middle School, and Morton McMichael, Blankenburg, Washington, Locke, and Powel elementary schools. A few charters and private and religious schools are also included.

“It’s a promise of support from the federal government. We will get a leg up on certain applications for federal funds and get technical assistance from a variety of federal agencies,” said Eva Gladstein, head of the mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.

“In essence, we get extra points when we submit an application for grants to cover the Promise Zone area,” Gladstein said. She added that while the designation does not guarantee funds to the areas, it does include five AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to help push community projects forward.

Philadelphia LIFT, Drexel University, and Mount Vernon Manor collaborated with the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and the Mayor’s Office of Grants to put an application together in November.

A neighborhood’s eligibility for Promise Zone designation hinges on it having already received at least one of a few federally administered grants. Some Mantua-based organizations had been granted the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Grant and Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant for ongoing neighborhood revitalization.

Lucy Kerman, vice provost for University and Community Partnerships at Drexel’s School of Education, said that previous education partnerships in the zone may have also helped the area win the designation.

“We’ve been working together for years, and I think the reason that [the Promise Zone application] was successful is that the closeness of this working team was evident in our proposal,” Kerman said.

Drexel has partnered with Morton McMichael and Powel Elementary, and is also involved in some pre-K and adult-education projects in Mantua.

“We’re committed to doing [these projects] anyway,” Kerman said. “Our belief is that being designated a Promise Zone will help us get access both to more funding and also to more partners.”

The other areas receiving Promise Zone designation are San Antonio, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Obama administration will designate 20 more communities over the next three years.

Schools within and around Philadelphia’s Promise Zone

Public: Morton McMichael Elementary
High School of the Future
Blankenburg Elementary
Middle Years Alternative Middle School
Washington Elementary
Locke Elementary
Powel Elementary
Paul Robeson High School for Human Services
Charter: Belmont Charter School
Global Leadership Academy Charter School
Private/Religious: Montessori Genesis II School
Quba Institute
Our Mother of Sorrows/ St. Ignatius School of Loyola
West Catholic Preparatory High School

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