Promise Neighborhood Community Collaborative of Winston-Salem Looks to restore equality to public education

by Keith Barber

Nikki Byers (left), executive director of Imprints, and Anna Gonzalez, a parent educator, will help lead the Baby College component of the Promise Neighborhood initiative.


Dean Clifford, a community volunteer, has helped create a number of task forces composed of volunteers from nonprofits and institutions of higher learning in the ongoing process designing the Promise Neighborhood Community Collaborative of Winston-Salem.


The Rev. Laura Elliott, chaplain of the Children’s Home in Winston-Salem, leads one of more than 25 nonprofit agencies involved in the Promise Neighborhood initiative.

During his 2008 presidential run, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke about his education platform during a gathering in Washington, DC. Obama promised that if elected president, his administration would replicate the Harlem’s Children Zone in 20 cities across the country. The brainchild of education activist Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone takes a holistic approach to ending generational poverty by developing an array of comprehensive services from cradle to career to improve the lives of children in distressed areas.

“The philosophy behind the project is simple,” Obama said. “If poverty is a disease that affects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal the entire community and we have to focus on what works.”

The success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has been widely publicized in author Paul Tough’s book Whatever it Takes. The title of the book appears to have been inspired by the project’s motto: “Doing whatever it takes to educate children and strengthen the community.”

Director Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary film Waiting for Superman also featured Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone as part of Guggenheim’s much broader essay on the state of public education in America.

Lee Koch, principal of Prince Ibraham Elementary School, said it was Tough’s book that first inspired community leaders in Winston-Salem to look into the possibility of identifying one neighborhood as a potential Promise Neighborhood.

The US Department of Education states its vision of the Promise Neighborhood program as follows:  “All children and youth growing up in Promise Neighborhoods [will] have access to great schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and a career,” the mission statement reads. “The purpose of Promise Neighborhoods is to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed communities, and to transform those communities.”

Koch says he was first approached by Nikki Byers, executive director of Imprints — a Winston-Salem nonprofit that focuses on parent education and early childhood development — more than two years ago about recreating what Canada had done in Harlem in the Ibraham school district.

The project will start with just the Ibraham school district and later expand to the school zone served by Mineral Springs Middle School and Carver High School.


“Baby College” will be the entry point for parents and children in the Promise Neighborhood Community Collaborative of Winston-Salem and Imprints will provide the parent educators that will serve the Ibraham school community, Byers said.

“We haven’t started the Baby College so this is still on the table, but the parent educators are very experienced; that is what we do,” Byers said. “We work with families, and really customize the service for the family depending on what their needs are, their wishes, and where they want to go. We talk about developing family goals and helping them to achieve it.”

Byers said the program would aggressively recruit expectant mothers into the Promise Neighborhood initiative but the methodology for doing so has not yet been determined. However, all decisions on how to best implement the various components of the program will be tailored to meet the needs of families living in the Ibraham school district.

Therefore, Promise Neighborhood Community Collaborative of Winston-Salem will be an adaptation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, but the initiative will remain true to the spirit of Canada’s groundbreaking project.

“We are not trying to replicate what they did in Harlem,” said Laura Elliott, chaplain and congregation liaison for the Children’s Home of Winston-Salem. “What we’re trying to do is bring together people in our community, folks who live in the school zone that’s been designated, neighbors, families and churches, nonprofits and other organizations that can provide services and resources — a cross section of the whole community so we can help craft the best type of program for a Promise Neighborhood initiative that fits us in our community — I think that’s really important.”

Koch offered the theoretical overview of the project.

“We’re trying to reach children, and the key thing is children all the way from birth to career, so it’s a pathway, it’s a pipeline of making sure once a child is born that we have everything in place, all the agencies, everybody working together so no one’s falling out of that pipeline literally from birth all the way up to when they actually have a job, a career after high school or college,” Koch said.

One of the people charged with designing how the overall program or the “pipeline” will look in practice is community volunteer Dean Clifford.

She and other volunteers have established five task forces on program evaluation, grassroots involvement, program planning, resource development and grant writing to help get the program off the ground.

In the very first stage of the program — Baby College — parents and children will be provided with the resources they need as part of Promise Neighborhood’s holistic approach.

“A family has basic needs,” Clifford said. “Some of these families are going to be out of work or underemployed, so even as you’re working on the front end with the child, you’re also trying to say, ‘How do we foster a better position for the whole family?’ and that might include access to adult education.”

Twana Wellman-Roebuck, executive director of the Experiment in Self-Reliance, said her nonprofit agency is one of more than 25 entities that include nonprofits, governmental agencies, churches and local businesses involved in the Promise Neighborhood initiative. Experiment in Self Reliance will serve as the lead agency in applying for federal funds, she said, and will focus on empowering families living in the neighborhood.

“It’s greater than an education strategy; I think it’s building a neighborhood,” she said. Elliott said the Children’s Home is just one member of the Winston-Salem faith community that should prove crucial to the program’s overall success.

“The schools like Ibraham Elementary are the core of the program but the true concept of Promise Neighborhood is you bring a wide variety of resources around the schools, the young people and the families that are involved,” Elliott said. “So the Children’s Home is a great referral resource, and to be a support service — training, education and other activities.” The core of the program Koch said Ibraham was an excellent choice as the school component for the Promise Neighborhood initiative. Based on Geoffrey Canada’s experiences with the Harlem Children’s Zone, it’s clear that early childhood education is perhaps the most critical phase of the Promise Neighborhood pathway for children, Koch said. And Ibraham is an excellent example of a school that deals with issues of poverty and its adverse impact on student achievement. “We have 92 percent of our kids on free and reduced lunch so our parents are struggling,” Koch said. “You go to another school that has 15 percent free and reduced lunch, their children are ahead of where they should be entering kindergarten.”

At Ibraham, poverty is the overlying issue that adversely impacts student achievement, Koch said.

“With children coming to kindergarten, we do lots of assessments on all our children; we have kids coming to kindergarten that a year and a half behind on average,” Koch said. “After that, we’re playing catch up. Even if a child makes tremendous growth in kindergarten and first grade, they’re still a half-year behind going into second grade and that’s if they make a year and a half growth for two consecutive years, which is difficult to do.”

Anna Gonzalez works as a parent educator for Imprints and has worked in the More At Four classroom at Ibraham Elementary for the past two years. Gonzalez and her colleague, Amy Freeman, will serve as parent education coordinators for the Promise Neighborhood initiative.  Promise Neighborhood will build upon the work that Imprints has already done with children and parents in the Ibraham school district.

“We’ve really connected it to the grassroots, and they have a very good handle on what the needs are,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not something we’re constructing because it’s what we think they need.”

The philosophy of Harlem Children’s Zone is identical to the philosophy of Imprints and will be reflected in the Promise Neighborhood initiative, Byers added.

“We’ve developed all these skills for family-centered practices, that we keep the family at the center so it’s propelled by what they want, not by what we want,” she said. “And we’ve done extensive training, years and years of training to develop that skill.”

The Promise Neighborhood model is based on the “Circles” model implemented by Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone that empowers families to make decisions about what is best for their children, which is one of the primary reasons for its success, Elliott said. Circles is a national model for bringing resources around families living in poverty.

“It’s designed for the families themselves to the leaders of the circle, and resources from the community, people, volunteers and agencies that come around them as resources; they’re the leaders for those other entities and people,” Elliott said. “So the families themselves are empowered to be the leaders of their circles and determine what resources they may need.” The lead agency Since 1964, Experiment in Self-Reliance, or ESR, has been helping empower Winston-Salem residents, Wellman-Roebuck said, so it’s only appropriate the agency would take the lead in helping administer the Promise Neighborhood initiative. Wellman-Roebuck said the Ibraham school district is racially diverse neighborhood with parents of limited education, and that’s where ESR steps in.

“In our engagement in the process, what we see as critical needs in that area center around economic literacy and empowerment financially,” Wellman-Roebuck said. “We want to make sure they’re linked to resources in the community outside of the educational community that could really serve them such as mainstream services, like the health department and social services.”

I really see this as a holistic experience that is greater than the children but could empower the entire family unit,” she continued. “When a family is empowered, the children in the household are empowered.”

The Circles concept is powerful because of its comprehensive nature and its “cradle to college” approach to helping children at the most important transition moments in their lives. “In addition to it being comprehensive, it engages all aspects of the community,” Elliott said. “Conceptually, it says the community is responsible for the success of kids in their education.” The word “community” is extremely broad in the context of Promise Neighborhood. It includes the faith-based community, the nonprofit community and the business community.  “It’s everyone working together to ensure the next generation has the support it needs to succeed,” Elliott said.

The Promise Neighborhood Community Collaborative of Winston-Salem has already garnered support from a vast array of public and private entities including the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, Smart Start of Forsyth County, United Way of Forsyth County, Work Family Resource Center, UNC-Greensboro, Winston-Salem State University, Habitat for Humanity, the city of Winston-Salem, and elected officials like state Rep. Larry Womble, county Commissioner Everette Witherspoon and school board member Vic Johnson. The list of supporters continues to grow, and that’s good news for the program’s proponents. Despite the impressive amount of support Promise Neighborhood enjoys in the Winston-Salem community, Byers believes more agencies will need to come on board for the project to achieve its mission of giving all children “access to effective schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and career.”

Byers said the collaborative has a strong core contingency, but as the program develops, it will face the challenge of figuring out how to support children and families from Baby College to kindergarten to first grade, and so forth.

“All the way there are going to be gaps and we’re going to pull in people,” Byers said. An overarching vision of equality The Promise Neighborhood Community Collaborative all starts with Baby College, which will be located at Ibraham Elementary School. Byers pointed out the importance of Ibraham’s role in the success of the project by citing Geoffrey Canada’s statement that Baby College is the most important piece in the project “because it’s the beginning and you’re really informing the parents of what they can do.

“[Parents] don’t know what they don’t know,” Byers said. “Sometimes they have had very poor role models, so we provide that parenting education.”

Based on her experiences as a parent educator at Ibraham, Gonzalez has witnessed firsthand the power of early interventions with children and parents.

“Children see their world [based on] their own experience,” Gonzalez said. “If their families can’t give them what they need, they see the world very, very flat, so their lives are what they are according to where they are born.”

One of the goals of the Promise Neighborhood initiative is to cultivate a culture of success so that a child’s success in life is not determined by the neighborhood in which they were born. Promise Neighborhood’s goal of serving an entire neighborhood comprehensively meets the desire of parents to see their children succeed. A native of Colombia, Gonzalez said parents from all backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances share the same dreams for their children.

“I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Let me see how bad I can do for my kids today,’” she said. “You talk about the American Dream, well my dream is Colombian and it’s still here even though I belong to this place, my dream is Colombian. And I know this family coming from another place has their dreams and they look pretty much like yours and mine.”

Byers said the grant writing task force will soon be at work applying for federal funds. But even if the grant funds don’t come through, the collaborative is committed to moving forward with the Promise Neighborhood initiative. Elliott concurred with Byers, stating the Children’s Home has made a commitment to the Promise Neighborhood mission.

“We’ve made a commitment to pursue this type of initiative in our community with whatever funding we can acquire,” Elliott said. “We’re hopeful and feel confident that we can do a good proposal and receive federal funding, but even if we don’t, we’re committed to proceeding.”