Housing, Education Departments Put Schools at Center of Choice Neighborhoods

In Chicago yesterday, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced that five cities would receive the first-ever Choice Neighborhoods implementation grants. Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle will be the focus of the new strategy to support local leaders in transforming high-poverty, distressed neighborhoods into neighborhoods of opportunity.

Only hours before the Chicago announcement, the Chicago Tribune reported that four teenagers were wounded in a drive-by shooting in the same community that will be subject to the Choice transformation. Persistent gang violence, vacant homes and lots, high unemployment, and lack of access to needed services and amenities are common challenges in neighborhoods like Woodlawn. In addition, most of Woodlawn’s neighboring schools are underperforming with math and reading scores trailing city averages.

To meet this challenge, Choice Neighborhoods includes an unprecedented focus on ensuring access to quality educational opportunities. HUD worked closely with the U.S. Department of Education to develop the program, requiring Choice applicants to have an education strategy that “expands access to high-quality early learning programs, schools, and education programs that will improve key outcomes for children and youth in the neighborhoods.”

The Chicago Choice proposal responded with plans to work closely with the University of Chicago, which is making a number of major investments in the neighborhood including opening the doors of its high performing Laboratory High School to neighborhood residents. The plan also invests in the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community (WCPC), an education collaborative focused on turning around poor performing schools and enriching children’s academic experience.

Secretary Duncan praised the Choice Neighborhoods approach, noting that it is part of an interagency effort to “combat poverty by ensuring there are great schools and systems of support at the center of every community.”

Choice Neighborhoods is linked closely to the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods program, which supports cradle-to-career services designed to improve educational outcomes for students in distressed neighborhoods (More background about the intersection of Promise and Choice Neighborhoods below).

Both programs are central components of the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, which seeks to align federal housing, education, justice, financial asset building and health programs with the overarching goal of transforming neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into communities with the affordable housing, safe streets and good schools.

As Secretary Donovan concluded his remarks in Chicago, announcing the Choice grants in the context of another tragic shooting, he quoted President Obama’s 2007 speech about this new approach to expanding opportunity in distressed neighborhoods—“If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.”

Larkin Tackett is the Director of Place-Based Initiatives in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement

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