To understand the hold that poverty has had on the Kenilworth-Parkside community, one needs to look at a startling 2016 report from the Urban Institute titled, “A New Day for Data: Bringing Change to a Forgotten Community.”
To start with, the authors of the report said, you need to start with a map.
The Ward 7 neighborhoods in this roughly one-and-a-half-mile slice of D.C. are boxed in by the Anacostia River on the west and Route 295 on the east.
A decommissioned power plant blocks off the southwest side.
Once a working-class black community, Kenilworth-Parkside began to decline after the freeway was built in the 1950s, cutting residents off from the rest of the city, as well as from jobs, resources and economic opportunities.
“This is a one-way-in, one-way-out neighborhood,” said Ronneca Coley, 40, who has lived in Kenilworth for five years. “You pretty much have to take a bus everywhere you go around here. If you have to go grocery shopping, you have to get on a bus. … It’s hard. I can do it, but it’s hard.”
There’s no supermarket in the community, which encompasses Parkside, Eastland Gardens, Kenilworth, and other neighborhoods.
In the Circle Seven Express convenience store, the produce aisle is a handful of potatoes, bananas, and onions on a single plastic stand. Residents buy snacks out of a converted ice cream truck permanently parked in the lot of Paradise Apartments.
An empty public pool sits unused in Kenilworth Park, the site of a former recreation center built on land that was once the city dump. Plans to rebuild a new center were scrapped when the National Park Service found contaminants in the soil.
Children are advised not to touch the grass, but homes line the street across from the park.
Crime and unemployment rates are high. About 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, and single mothers head nearly 80 percent of families.
Slowly, with a huge assist from the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), things have changed.
The DCPNI began in 2008 and is modeled after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. It aims to break the cycle of poverty in Kenilworth-Parkside by supporting kids from birth to college.
In 2012, the initiative received a five-year, $25 million federal Promise Neighborhoods grant.
Working with the community’s schools —Educare of Washington, DC, Neval Thomas Elementary School and the Cesar Chavez middle and high schools — and dozens of partners, DCPNI provides comprehensive services for children as well as family and community supports.
In-school partners offer mentoring, college prep and literacy instruction. After-school programs range from sports to dance to cooking, and programs for parents focus on workforce development, financial literacy, and effective parenting.
“It’s very exciting to share what we want to do moving forward to move levers of poverty in Wards 7, 5, and 8 more broadly,” said Mary Brown, the executive director of DCPNI.
Since the initiative took effect in Kenilworth-Parkside, there’s been a 29 percent increase in the percentage of students entering kindergarten with age-appropriate functioning, from 49 percent to 78 percent; an 11 percent increase in the graduation rate for Chavez-Parkside High School, from 68 percent to 79 percent; a 23 percent increase in the percentage of parents who discuss the importance of college and career with their children, from 58 percent to 81 percent; and a 21 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism for preschool and pre-kindergarten students at Neval Thomas Elementary School, from 63 percent to 42 percent.
“Although still a young organization, DC Promise has accomplished much,” Brown said. “Not only in real results for children, families, and schools; but also in helping many partners collaborate to serve community needs more holistically and effectively.”
In 2010, officials designated Kenilworth-Parkside as a DCPNI. Signs of progress began manifesting a few years later, even though some residents had previously said the pace of change was a bit too slow.
But progress continued and residents began to see changes that included turning the abandoned Kenilworth school building into computer labs and children’s play areas and converting the gym into a boxing training facility.
Officials also began training adults on computers and they provided a Parent Resource Center at the Neval Thomas Elementary School where after-school programming started to include homework assistance, hip-hop dancing, boxing and digital media courses.
Educare became a crown jewel in the transformation of the embattled neighborhood, opening its doors with a goal to provide equality in education to children living in conditions that are starkly different from those residing in wealthier sections of the District.
Private and public partnerships, as well as stakeholders committed to educational reform, funded Educare.
A who’s who of business, education, government and civic organizations then visited the school, including then-presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Alma Powell, chair of the America’s Promise Alliance, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the late Marion S. Barry, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Susie Buffett, daughter of uber-investor and businessman Warren Buffett and chairman of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.
“The first five years lay the foundation for a successful future,” Susie Buffett said. “Education serves as an immensely powerful showroom for best practices and shows legislators a level playing field.”
Working with Kenilworth-Parkside’s indigenous leaders and organizations, along with 25 nonprofits, public and private partners, has led to the development of a universal platform for locally-driven innovation and racial equity that supports children and families in achieving heightened human development and economic freedom, Brown said.
“This vital work has broad implications for addressing issues of poverty and racial equity District-wide and potentially nationwide,” she said.
Now in its fifth and final year of the federal grant, officials are committed to sustaining and building on the achievements of Kenilworth-Parkside as they also look toward bringing their racial equity, anti-poverty platform to other marginalized communities in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
The purpose of the Promise Neighborhoods was to create an outcome-improving model that was both affordable and replicable and, Brown said, they’re confident that they have just that.
“We shared our model with the MacArthur Foundation, and while we did not advance to the semifinal round, judges’ comments and scores confirmed that our model is both meaningful and feasible,” Brown said.