November 6, 2009

Realizing the Promise of Promise Neighborhoods

The US Department of Education will soon issue an RFP for planning grants to create Promise Neighborhoods in 20 of this country's poorest communities. Inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone, Promise Neighborhoods are the Obama administration's bold bid to break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty that characterizes so many inner-city communities. If the Promise Neighborhoods succeed, they could provide compelling evidence that a new, integrated and education-centered approach to ending poverty can give poor children a real shot at economic opportunity.

By: Nan Stone, Don Howard

Bridgespan believes that the only way to ensure the success of Promise Neighborhoods is through ongoing conversation. We invite you to comment below. We also invite you to download the full version of this paper for a more thorough explanation of our perspective.

Executive Summary

The U.S. Department of Education will soon issue an RFP for planning grants to create Promise Neighborhoods in 20 of this country's poorest communities. Inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), Promise Neighborhoods are the Obama administration’s bold bid to break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty that characterizes so many inner-city communities. If the Promise Neighborhoods succeed, they could provide compelling evidence that a new, integrated and education-centered approach to ending poverty can give poor children a real shot at economic opportunity.

Can the promise of the Promise Neighborhoods be realized? We believe the answer is "yes." However we also believe that doing so will require an unusual degree of discipline and clarity: from policy makers, who will be pressured to base crucial decisions—like choosing the neighborhoods—on political considerations rather than objective criteria; and from community leaders, who will understandably be tempted, given the challenges their neighborhoods face, to spread the available resources too thinly to effect real change. The grounds for both beliefs come from Bridgespan’s experience over the past decade working with organizations—including HCZ—that are focused on dramatically improving equity and outcomes for poor children across America.

Promise Neighborhoods is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that challenges all of us to do whatever we can to help realize its potential. In that spirit, what follow are five lessons Bridgespan has learned about the tradeoffs Promise Neighborhoods leaders are destined to confront and the choices that can help to ensure those tradeoffs are made successfully—so that they really do begin to break the cycle of poverty:

  1. The Promise Neighborhoods will need to have common success measures focused on educational outcomes for young people. Other critical challenges a neighborhood faces, such as violence and unemployment, should be addressed selectively, as a means-to-the-end of educational success.
  2. Because the pressure to show results in the near-term will be enormous, evidence-based programs and approaches must be critical building blocks for the Promise Neighborhoods. Initially this will also mean focusing on points in the educational pipeline where there is the greatest opportunity for impact.
  3. Carefully selecting and defining the boundaries of each Promise Neighborhood is crucial to delivering on the goal of fundamentally breaking the cycle of inter-generational poverty. Each neighborhood must be small enough to allow the available resources to reach enough children and families to make a real difference.
  4. Bringing the Promise Neighborhoods together into a learning community can yield benefits that reach far beyond the initial participants. Creating such a community will require both a common underlying strategic framework that can be tested and refined across the sites and resources to allow the participants the breathing space to reflect on what is being learned and to adopt successful new  practices as they are identified.
  5. In selecting the Promise Neighborhoods, the capacity of the community-based organization proposing to lead each site—its leadership and management, community relationships, implementation skills and fundraising ability—is likely to be the make-or-break factor.

We hope that these lessons will prove useful for the policy makers at the Department of Education who are designing, and will ultimately select, the Promise Neighborhoods, and for the nonprofit leaders who will be launching those neighborhoods in their own communities. At the same time, we are keenly aware of how much more there is to be said and considered. We are grateful for the feedback we received from sector leaders (many with viewpoints sharply different from our own) who responded to earlier versions of this paper. We hope there will be more such debate as the Promise Neighborhoods continue to be designed, developed, and launched.


View Comments: 6

Send Us Your Comments Below!

Date: 11/8/2009
Comment #1
Daniel Cardinali

"Realizing the Promise of Promise Neighborhoods" raises a series of five critical points that should be taken into account as the Obama Administration prepares to expand the heroic and innovative work of the Harlem Children Zone (HCZ) through its Promise Neighborhood initiative. These points were gleaned from Bridgespan’s thoughtful work supporting the replication of the HCZ model in a number of cities over the last five years.

At the heart of this article is a call on the Administration and on those of us committed to collaborating in developing the Promise Neighborhoods across the country to root our work in what we have learned over many years of working in communities to build a conveyor belt of support for some of the nation’s must challenged and disenfranchised young people and their families. This work, the article suggests, will be doomed if we allow political concerns and timelines to trump community driven planning; if we are unwilling to face the difficult trade-offs; if we don’t fully support often under resourced community-based organizations that can and should play a leadership role in guiding this work; and if we don’t hold the Promise Neighborhoods accountable through a uniform set of education metrics so that the nation can learn from the work.

In the end, all of us will need to learn, compromise, and, we hope, evolve and innovate so that the Promise Neighborhoods can demonstrate that the nation does care about its most vulnerable citizens and will do whatever it takes to ensure that they have a fair chance at the American dream. We at Communities In Schools are committed to playing our part in the Promise Neighborhoods’ success.

Daniel Cardinali
Communities in Schools

Date: 11/9/2009
Comment #2 :
Blair Taylor CEO LA Urban League

With an initiative like this rolling out nationally, there are many critical success factors. Three vital ones to consider are model flexibility, regional (political) coordination of RFP responses, and the need for both local and national replication centers.

Flexibility means that while outcomes should be standardized and the lessons about what has worked should be carefully considered and understood, we must allow regions the flexibility to develop/design Neighborhood models that fit the needs of their specific communities. Over-prescribing this will not only mitigate overall effectiveness for any given neighborhood, but it will also significantly impede the overall likelihood for successful regional scale and national success.

With regard to regional coordination, DOE should seriously consider making it mandatory that applications from any city are sanctioned by the Mayor for that area. Using the Mayor's Offices as a clearinghouse will help force regions to focus more deliberately on coordinating their responses to Promise Neighborhoods and also facilitate the coordination of proposals with economic and social development initiatives that are already underway or planned for a given city.

Finally, as one who has been deeply involved in the execution of this work for the past three years through our own Neighborhoods@Work model in Los Angeles, I must strongly recommend that regional and national "think tanks" - which facilitate best practice sharing, metrics tracking and scale and replication - are developed to take some of the burden off of the local entities. The execution of a holistic model is a very heavy lift. It is nearly impossible for even the most capable organizations to both "execute" and "scale" simultaneously. By recognizing and planning for this issue from the outset, the Administration can perhaps avoid the inevitable issues around scale that will ensue several years from now (even if great models have been developed).

Blair Taylor
LA Urban League

Date: 11/9/2009
Comment #3 :
Ken Bubp

As an acknowledged non-expert in this area, the discussion fascinates me - in the best sense of that word. What if even 10 of the 20 adopted similar goals, set up a network which actively compared notes and leveraged success (and failure) and emerged with a real model for change?

It strikes me that lesson one (educational outcomes as the central goal of the PN Initiative) requires one to commit to educational achievement as the fundamental building block in eliminating poverty. Again, as a layman here, is that universally agreed (not just assented to/given lip service to) as the base measure? Is it so robustly supported to the point where people attempting to establish promise neighborhoods will ignore other "distractions" that demand attention, like crime, violence, and other items mentioned in the Bridgespan piece?

I see how Don Howard and Nan Stone would want to be clear about single-minded focus. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves with just another loose collection of practices and interventions without impact.

Ken Bubp
Acknowledged non-expert on Promise Neighborhoods
COO, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

Date: 11/9/2009
Comment #4 :
Donna Coleman

It is important to remember that the Harlem Children's Zone is a local community-based nonprofit. While the successful outcomes and the public relations strategy has certainly brought HCZ into national prominence, it is not a national organization. As communities work to create Neighborhoods of Promise, the implementation should be driven at the local level. It is amazing that when publicity and money become involved just how many national organizations and national "experts" become involved. The success of Neighborhoods of Promise should be a neighborhood strategy and not an extension of any one national organization's agenda. Yes, there should be collaboration but Neighborhoods of Promise should be owned and driven at the local level.

Additionally, it should also be considered that the US is made up of all kinds of neighborhoods; and, that there exists underserved, underperforming children and youths in communities other than New York, LA, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Baltimore, Atlanta. Neighborhoods of Promise should be strategically placed throughout the US in order to fully evaluate what it takes to create these promising neighborhoods. That is, if it is about the children; and, not the organizations.

Donna Coleman

Date: 11/19/2009
Comment #5 :
Laura Horwitz

I whole-heartedly agree with Donna Coleman's comments that the success of promise neighborhoods depends on locally-driven innovation and buy-in. Attempts to replicate best practices through think tanks, research reports, and a franchise-model view of the world (all data should be standardized so that we can better measure it) focus too much on identifying the what behind social solutions, when it is often the how - the relationships between and among people and groups - that lead to an innovation's success and failure. The emphasis on learning communities described above (#4) begins to take into account the importance of local differences and the opportunities to harness creativity, self-organizing, and relationship building to replicate the effects rather than the model of HCZ. I would love to see Bridgespan incorporate some of the thinking of groups like the Plexus Institute around positive deviance and complexity theory as important components for understanding how social changes can be replicated.

Date: 11/8/2009
Comment #6 :
Marguerite W. Kondracke

“Promise Neighborhoods” is a crucially important initiative of the Obama Administration, perhaps lost to the general public amidst the clamor over health care and the economy but holding lots of promise for changing outcomes for children and breaking the cycle of poverty. The risk is that the promise of this initiative will get lost in the scramble for federal money that will be awarded to only 20 communities. 1400 people will gather in New York, making a pilgrimage to our Mecca, the Harlem Children’s Zone, and scores more are becoming neighborhoods of real promise. Communities are coming together like never before, committed to collaborate and stitch together community resources and work across old silos to really focus on changing the future for their most vulnerable children and families. We must see that this momentum accelerates.

The 350+ partners of the America’s Promise Alliance are sponsoring 100+ dropout prevention summits across the country, which have inspired communities to create their own versions of “Promise Neighborhoods” especially around the lowest performing schools. We are preparing to announce a campaign to extend the “Promise Neighborhood” model to hundreds of other communities, with education outcomes as the ultimate measure of our success. The to-be-named 20 “Promise Neighborhoods” should be only part of this historic national movement. We invite them and all others who want to see this movement succeed to join with us, for the children. (For more information, visit

Marguerite W. Kondracke
America’s Promise Alliance

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