Five years of Promise

The Springfield Promise Neighborhood has improved the south side area around Lincoln Elementary School over the last five years, but local leaders and residents say more work must be done to truly transform the neighborhood.

Lincoln Elementary School Principal Mike Wilson clearly remembers how many students received a perfect attendance award at the school’s year-end ceremony six years ago — two.

That grew to about 20 students this year. To Wilson, that’s proof that the Springfield Promise Neighborhood organization has improved a 110-block area around Lincoln.

“It’s better than it was and it’s going to keep getting better, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.

Some student test scores have improved and some crimes have dropped. But parents and Springfield leaders agree and say more work must be done to sustain the transformation effort.

The Promise Neighborhood — a local effort to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in the Lincoln Elementary School attendance zone — began with big aspirations five years ago.

It started with a few people talking with students and neighbors about replicating the New York initiative that’s gained fame for improving student performance and including parents. The Springfield Promise Neighborhood now has grown into a nonprofit with a $188,000 annual budget, 60 partner agencies and about a dozen employees, including 10 AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers.

The project has been a big success, former Springfield Superintendent David Estrop said, and will be used as a model in other parts of the community, including Perrin Woods.

“We’re building community,” Estrop said. “The impact is a very positive one on school because it’s part of the community. It just goes hand-in-glove.”

'The Right choice'

Promise Neighborhood Director Bob Welker began the program to improve the lives of children in the area around Lincoln. That goal remains true to this day, he said.

“We made the right choice with the school, I think we made the right choice with the neighborhood,” Welker said.

The neighborhood has about 4,000 residents, a median income of about $23,000 and nearly 95 percent of students qualify for subsidized school lunches.

Promise Neighborhood is funded by many different organizations, but its key partners are the city of Springfield, Clark County Department of Job and Family Services, United Way, Springfield Foundation, Turner Foundation and Wittenberg University.

Teachers and staff members at Lincoln seized on the idea of working with the Promise Neighborhood, Welker said. The climate at the school has vastly improved over the past five years.

“When you walk that hallway and you see that school … it doesn’t look like an urban school or a school with the worst scores in the city,” he said.

The organization offers more activities for students, including after-school programs and field trips year-round.

“It makes them more well-rounded individuals,” Wilson said.

At the same time, the school district made several curriculum improvements, Welker said, including a literacy focus that allows students to spend an hour-and-a-half per day on reading.
As part the Promise Neighborhood program, Lincoln students stay at school longer and some attend during the summer.

That means the program has reduced the summer lag that often happens.

In 2012, the organization and district won a $200,000 grant to expand the summer school program. This summer, 85 students enrolled in the summer program, most of them in kindergarten through third grade. The program also includes clubs, activities and field trips.

“People are now thinking that’s how you do school,” Welker said. “That’s a big deal in terms of expectations.”

Test scores improving

In 2010, Lincoln was designated as “Academic Emergency,” the lowest rating at that time. It received a 62.5 percent on its performance index.

Last year those ratings increased to a D on its most recent state report card for achievement and a 67.6 percent on its performance index.

Reading scores have ticked up as well. In 2010, about 39 percent of third-grade students passed their state reading exams. That’s up to 49 percent last year.

Math scores, though, have dropped slightly. In 2010, about 33 percent of third graders passed their state math tests. Last year about 32 percent did.

The school also received a B last year in the category that tracks the progress students make.

About 30 percent of Lincoln’s student move around to other schools, Wilson said, making it hard to see an increase in scores. Many of the students who have stayed at Lincoln have improved, he said.

The focus going forward will be on sustaining what’s there, Wilson said, making small improvements and adding more younger volunteers.

Changes to testing across the state has made it difficult to gauge improvement, Welker said.

“We don’t have any good information because we don’t have any baseline anymore,” he said.

'At the table'

A separate, resident-led neighborhood association also has started, forming its own plan for changing the area.

The neighborhood association focuses on improving safety through partnerships with local law enforcement, reducing felonies reported in the area from 47 in 2013-2014 to 27 the next year. Local law enforcement officials now attend the association’s monthly meetings.

“They’re at the table with us,” said Eric Smith, Promise neighborhood coordinator.

Before the initiative, local law enforcement officials had trouble getting help from residents, Springfield Police Division Chief Stephen P. Moody said. Now officers sit down with the neighborhood association each month, talking about problems on the streets.

While crime and drugs are still in the neighborhood, Moody said, residents are stepping up more. Last month, the police executed a drug search warrant on East Rose Street based on information from anonymous hot spot cards.

While it’s still a distressed neighborhood, it’s grown for the better, Clark County Prosecutor Andrew Wilson said.

“Change is always slow, but it’s changing,” Wilson said. “The key to positive change in this community is at the block level. That’s what the Promise Neighborhood grasps, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. We need to make this a city people are proud to live in, people feel safe and secure in and that people want to live in.”

Government officials working in the trenches with residents has fostered stronger lines of communication, Wilson said. The prosecutor’s office began working with the neighbors to eradicate graffiti and fix broken street lights within 72 hours.

“These guys know that they can pick up the phone and give me a call and we’ll get it taken care of,” Wilson said. “Even if we’re not able to give them the answer they want on any situation, at least we’re able to talk to them and explain.”

The neighborhood has been transient, Moody said, but he’s noticing more people choosing to stay. The anchors are the schools and churches, the chief said, which are growing a sense of community through the Promise Neighborhood movement.

“People talk to each other, they’re working in their yards, they’re interacting,” Moody said. “It’s not just people inside their homes anymore.”

While positive things are taking place in the neighborhood, especially at the schools, resident Monica Lasiter has noticed more drug activity and violence. So she coordinated a peace march last week from four different areas of the city to the National Night Out event at City Hall Plaza. With more help from the community, she said those problems can be solved.

“It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of help, a lot of community support,” Lasiter said.

'It speaks volumes'

The Springfield Promise Neighborhood Association has transformed one of the area’s most visible problems — vacant lots — by planting eight school and community gardens. It’s also provides fresh fruit andvegetables for the neighbors.

Since the program began, residents have led more than 100 neighborhood events, such as festivals, community service days, talent shows and movie nights.

“It speaks volumes,” Smith said.

The project is slowly making connections with residents, said Brian Keith, a resident who now leads the organization’s VISTA program. He also maintains the Auburn J. Tolliver Community Peace Garden on the corner of South Limestone Street and Prairie Avenue.

A lot of progress has been made inside the school, but Keith said some residents have been slow to buy into the project.

“People are kind of busy taking care of their own families and things like that,” he said, “but I think it can be a more collective effort of how we volunteer our time.”

Promise has laid the groundwork to build up the neighborhood, he said, rather than tear it down. Several new homes also have been built in the area recently through the city of Springfield’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program and the Clark County Fuller Center for Housing.

A 2013 neighborhood survey performed by the Wittenberg University Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement showed 59 percent of residents believe the neighborhood will improve by 2016.

Until more residents get involved, however, Keith said safety is going to remain an issue. About 44 percent of people surveyed said they didn’t feel comfortable walking in the community at night.

“We’re going to have to band together for our kids safety,” he said.

'Watching out for each other'

Gloria Holloway lives in the Promise Neighborhood and has been with the organization since it began five years ago, volunteering her time to raise money and accept donations for the organization.

“It’s become a safer neighborhood because people are watching out for each other,” Holloway said.

Linden Holloway, Gloria Holloway’s son and a Lincoln student, has been a part of the Promise Neighborhood’s programming since the beginning. The mentoring and after-school programs are invaluable and give the children something to look forward, she said, including field trips to the Columbus Zoo and COSI.

“They’ve gotten to go places they’ve never been before,” Gloria Holloway said.

The organization can grow by bringing more people along to volunteer, she said.

“We’ve got to make it a community affair,” Gloria Holloway said.

Increased parent participation leads to better performance at school, Smith said.

The program wants to begin involving parents in their children’s education at an earlier age, creating a pipeline into the school and leading to their future involvement in the after-school programming. That includes an early childhood in-home literacy program and summer kindergarten preparation sessions.

“We’ve got a lot of components of that in place now we didn’t have five years ago,” Welker said.

The organization ultimately wants to make the neighborhood a place people choose to live, rather than a place people simply stay for the time being. About 69 percent of homes are renter-occupied, according to a Promise Neighborhood study.

“We want to get a point where people say, ‘I want to plant my roots here because this is where I want to raise my kids,’” Smith said.

Kali Lawrence, Executive Administrator for the Springfield Promise Neighborhood, talks about her experience working for the organization.