The phrase “education reform,” in all of its broadness, triggers immediate passionate reaction as education leaders bump heads with their communities over proposed solutions to aide a crumbling public system. School closures are offered as ideal solutions, but when they become realities, like in major cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., the most vulnerable are caught in the middle – the students, as well as parents, community leaders and children's organizations.
Count the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) in that number. Housed inside of Kenilworth Elementary, a public school in D.C.'s Ward 7, DCPNI is a non-profit organization which develops a "cradle to career pipeline" for students. But when you walk inside of Kenilworth, it feels eerie. Though, from the main entrance, you can hear the low rumbling of children laughing, talking, learning, the third floor, where DCPNI is located, is a ghost town, quiet and devoid of children. It is evidence of the low enrollment that D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson used to place Kenilworth on her hit list of 15 schools to close in the fall.
Despite the messiness of reform, DCPNI is steadfast in their mission to break a vicious social cycle that affects education. Founded by Irasema Salcido, who also founded the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, and lead by Executive Director Ayris Scales, DCPNI has become an anchor of support for the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Ward 7. As one of the 57 promise neighborhoods – a program inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone and implemented by the Obama Administration to improve the academic outcomes for students – DCPNI has a unique twist that will be launched this September.
While, DCPNI’s current focus is on the students, in the fall, the non-profit will also be engaging single mothers. Some may immediately ask why not include the fathers. For DCPNI it is all in the data, and the data shows a need to help single mothers.
“When we looked at the needs of the community, we knew we had to change our focus from just the students and what’s happening in the schools to include their families. After looking at the data, it showed there is need to concentrate on households run by single mothers,” says Scales.
According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Ward 7 includes a large portion of the city’s highest poverty rate, with one in three residents living below poverty in 2010. Female-headed single parent households had risen by one-third since the start of the recession.
"I want other mothers to understand, we’re not just an organization...coming from the outside, saying we’re, or I’m, better than you. I want them to know I understand. I went through exactly what they are going through.-- Ayris Scales
For both mother and child, DCPNI’s approach is through their five promises for their participants; cultivating a safe place to learn, live and grow, aide in effective education, provide health resources for a healthier lifestyle, having a network of supportive and caring adults and providing opportunities for participants to give back to their communities.
From addressing issues in the areas of traditional and digital literacy, health, employment and more, their Parent Academy includes three programs; the Parent Foundation, which focuses on mothers with children ages 0-5, Parent Pathways, for mothers with children in grade levels K-12 and the Mother’s Cohort, an intensive program to help participants create an individual life plan with a life skills coach.
“I want to make sure I don’t lose these women to the system,” says Scales.
The unique dual-generational focus caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, which rewarded DCPNI with a $25 million grant.
“With this approach, I want other mothers to understand, we’re not just an organization...coming from the outside, saying we’re, or I’m, better than you. I want them to know I understand. I went through exactly what they are going through,” says Scales.
Growing up in Ohio, Scales's parents divorced when she was a child and she was raised by her mother. Though she initially put in little effort in school, grieving the death of her father who passed away when Scales was a teenager, a school guidance counselor helped her get on track and Scales went on to attend Clark-Atlanta University, only to become a single mother around her sophomore year. For short time she received public assistance, but found the strength to reevaluate her life. She moved back to Ohio to attend and graduate from Kent State. Determined to break a generational cycle, Scales says she has conversations with her own daughter about the importance and impact of an education. This passion and experience drives her work with DCPNI and her support of single mothers.
Though Kenilworth Elementary is closing in the fall, DCPNI has been approved to stay at least through the summer. A final decision on what will happen after has not been determined. Scales says,
“When I came into this, I didn’t have any thoughts about a possible move. I was ready to work, but if it turns out that we have to move, we’ll just change our service delivery.