Vt. Selects Seven “Promise Communities”

By Jerrica Davy

This past week, Vermont selected seven communities to participate in a new initiative called Promise Communities. This initiative is part of Vermont’s Early Learning Challenge – Race to the Top Grant, a $36.9 million, four-year grant funded by the federal government to improve early childhood education and care across the country.

Though this federal program, Vermont’s Promise Communities and the change this program will effect will be unique to Vermont. It is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, a successful program that has provided thousands of impoverished children and their families with free parental care and educational support.

The following Vermont communities were selected for this grant: 1. Barre City, Barre Town; 2. Bellows Falls; 3. Green Street to Canal Street in Brattleboro; 4. Franklin County Early Childhood Programs Region; 5. Rutland City; 6. St Johnsbury; 7. Winooski.

These seven communities were selected by a committee based on applications they submitted. The committee based its decisions on data regarding poverty rates, access to what they deemed “high-quality” childcare and pre-kindergarten and elementary school performance. Since the program primarily aims to help children from birth to age six, the committee looked at the number of children within this age range in the area in order to maximize the program’s impact.  The committee also considered the willingness to participate of community partners and families in each applying location.

For the next two years, these communities will receive Promise Community coaches.  In the first year of the program, these coaches will work to understand the needs of each community and to create an “action plan” that will improve the community based on its specific needs. In the second year, communities will receive grants up to $200,000 and the coaches will remain in the community to see their plans come to fruition. After the period of two years, the community will be regularly evaluated to ascertain the long-term outcomes of these plans.

The opinions towards this program has been in general quite positive. Governor Peter Shumlin is very excited to see the implementation of these seven Promise Communities across the state.

“I hope these first seven serve as models for other communities to participate down the road,” Shumlin said.

Jenne Morton  is     the director of Middlebury’s own College Street Children’s Center.  Th childcare center is celebrating 15 years of providing high-quality care. She expressed optimism for the program, though Middlebury was not selected for a grant.

“I think it’s a worthwhile thing. Supports are incredibly important considering that 80 percent of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of life. If we’re not providing great experiences for kids, we’re not helping them to be as successful as they could,” Morton said.

19 percent of Vermont’s children under age six live in poverty.  For some families, access to quality education and childcare can be difficult, despite its necessity.

“Having security is really important,” Morton said, elaborating on a specific difficulty that many modern families face and that the Promise Communities initiative plans to address.

“There’s not always extended family these days. It used to be that if you had trouble, you could just ask Grandma. Now, families are so spread out, and first time parents especially don’t always know what to do. It’s important to be there for parents and help them figure their next steps out,” Morton said.

However, Morton expressed some concern over the general set-up of the program. “In the first year they’re not giving any funding, which is a little bit difficult because they’re expecting something immediate to happen without any funding in place.”

Indeed, because the program is only starting this fall, Vermont will have to see the direction the program takes and whether it affects Vermont families as desired. Even though the funding will not come immediately, there is hope that the flexibility of the program allows it to be tailored to the specific needs of Vermont families and, like the Harlem program before it, incite change to help break the cycle of poverty plaguing families in Vermont.

“Our goal with this initiative is to help communities overcome barriers like limited transportation, inter-generational poverty, inadequate affordable housing, and the lack of local employment opportunities that inhibit success for young children. The Promise Communities initiative will leverage state and local resources and promote community-based innovations to improve school readiness for young children in our highest need, rural communities,” Vermont Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen said.

The success of this program will not be evident until its plans begin to take effect, but if successful, this may prove to be an effective model to promote early childhood education reforms around the state.