Will Austin lose a fantastic opportunity to help East Austin for a completely asinine reason?

Is it possible that after three years of immersing myself in the Central Texas nonprofit community – as part of our mission to bring more Central Texans into philanthropy – that  I am still completely clueless about how the system actually works. And I don’t mean I don’t understand a process, I mean I don’t understand how things work in the real world, which means that no matter how well meaning people are, they are still, in fact, people.

So please help me understand what’s going on in East Austin right now…..

1. Monica meets Southwest Key

The latest example of my naivete started with my visit to Southwest Key. You’ve heard of this place, right? You’ve seen them on the business journal’s list of the largest nonprofits in Central Texas (Southwest Key is number four). But what exactly do they do?

SWK started as a program to keep young people in San Antonio out of jail. Kids were being arrested and incarcerated for minor infractions when they really just needed some adult support in their lives. SWK founder, Juan Sanchez, swooped in to create programs that supported the kid and his whole family, really. Kids weren’t committing new crimes, not going back to jail, and the program was a success.

Soon, other cities started to ask him to set up programs for their communitiess, and Southwest Key was born. Today there are 55 programs with more than 1,000 employees in 7 states with an operating budget of $58 million from government grants, foundations, corporations and private donations. Sanchez is, by all accounts, on a mission and a positive force in the community.

2. Clearly, Southwest Key is committed to East Austin

In fact, he’s so committed to Hispanics and the economically disadvantages and, as he calls them, “kids,” that he moved his headquarters there. In 2007, Sanchez and his board completed construction of its national headqaurters, the East Austin Community Development Center, right across the street from the now-closed Johnston High School in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood. The exact location was deliberate: This neighborhood needed an anchor, and Sanchez wanted to provide that.

At one point, people from Southwest Key went door-to-door asking residents what their neighborhood needs the most, what their children need the most. Not surprisingly, what they said was: a better education. (Obvious, right?)

3. Southwest Key’s promise to East Austin kids

This past school year, SWK opened the East Austin College Prep Academy. The open enrollment charter school will provide the first middle school class since Allen Junior High closed in the 1980s, a move that left the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood without a middle school.

The school  is small but really beautiful, with modern architecture and inspirational artwork, all in all a wonderful environment for that really awkward stage of adolescence. The “kids” are really proud of their school, and it shows. In fact, the whole headquarters is like an oasis to the blight around it.

(I keep putting “kids” in quotes because that’s how Sanchez talks about them. Not “at-risk youth” not “economically disadvantaged” not “impoverished.” In fact, he’s one of the rare nonprofit leaders I’ve met who doesn’t speak in “nonprofitese,” that politically correct, exacting language that may be polite but also keeps poor people at a safe distance.)

All this still makes sense to me, though it’s hard for me to get my head around all Southwest Key does – and why so few people realize the impact it’s having on one of the weakest links in the Austin school system. And Sanchez… why does he have such a low profile around Austin but a very high profile for his work everywhere else?

4. The Academy is modeled on a Harlem school

The middle school didn’t spring from the mind of Sanchez, who’s fiercely intelligent but also knows enough to take advantage of proven education models  to adapt to East Austin’s particular situation. In fact, the model the school’s based on is The Harlem Children’s Zone, a renowned program in New York City that operates an integrated system of education, social services and community-building programs to help children achieve their full potential. The whole system being build by Southwest Key is called the East Austin Children’s Promise.

Sanchez has been following the Harlem Children’s Zone model for years, and in fact, raised the money to build and launch the middle school East Austin so badly needs. Even more has been raised to add a high school, with plans for an elementary school, preschool and more programs that integrate community-building and education.

5. Obama’s plan to grow more Promise Neighborhoods

Southwest Key recognized a strong model in Harlem Children’s Zone – and so did the Obama administration. In fact, earlier this year, Obama signed a law to create funding for more HCZ or “Promise Neighborhoods.” The initial funds will allow for up to 20 planning grants of $500,000 each. Southwest Key is ready to apply for that funding to take its already established “Promise” neighborhood to the next level.

Great, right? I mean, Austin will have to compete with other cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and just about every other city in the county, all of which have a much bigger reputation for bad neighborhoods. After all, Austin is known for being a great place to party and listen to music, not really for the work its doing to improve its schools.

But here’s what makes me realize how complicated our little city can be.

There are two communities from Austin applying for the Promise Neighborhood planning grant. One proposal will come from Southwest Key, the other will come from a group called the Austin Promise Neighborhoods Planning Team, which focuses on the north east Austin neighborhood near Reagan High School. Think both efforts will receive a planning grant? Most likely, only one will. So the two proposals – and really neighborhoods – will, in fact, compete with each other.

Sorry? Why are there two? Wouldn’t you think they’d combine efforts to make one strong proposal from East Austin? And wouldn’t you think they’d rally behind Southwest Key because they have, in fact, already created a Promise Neighborhood?

The organization that does win the $500,000 planning grant “would then receive multiyear financing from the U.S. Department of Education to take the program to scale – if they are able to raise matching funds from private or local government sources,” according to the Statesman. Whatever neighborhood wins, it will need to funnel all the money through a single organization to administer the grants.

6. East Austin vs. East Austin?

Now, Southwest Key already administers millions of dollars in government grants. It already has programs in place modeled on the Promise Neighborhoods pilot. And it has established its commitment to the Govalle/Johnston neighborhood by locating its headquarters there. So when the other organizations in Austin decided to go after this funding, why didn’t they get behind the Southwest Key effort?

The other effort is a big one. Almost everyone in Austin is behind the Austin Promise Neighborhoods Planning Team: City of Austin, Austin ISD, University of Texas, Seton Family of Hospitals, Austin/ Travis County Health and Human Services, LifeWorks, Foundation Communities, Communities in Schools, St. John Community School Alliance, E3 Alliance, United Way of the Capital Area, Sooch Foundation, Webber Family Foundation, Capital Area Council on Governments, East Side Social Action Coalition, and many elected officials, according to the Sooch Foundation. But they do not have the foothold that Southwest Key has.

So is this really Austin versus Southwest Key? Are we really pitting one East Austin neighborhood against another? And can somebody give me a really good reason why we have two teams?

I know there was an initial contact made to go to Washington D.C. as a team. I know at some point there was a decision to not work as a team. I know both neighborhoods really need a concerted, well financed effort to overcome the terrible conditions they’re in. But both teams can’t win. Where’s the collaboration, Austin?

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3 Responses

  1. Given the economic realities and the likelihood that many budgetary retrenchments will wind up being permanent, collaboration is the only workable model for addressing such societal issues as hunger, poverty, and undereducation. Southwest Key has made a major dent by collaborating with its neighbors, and you’re right, it’s an awful shame that the big collaboration behind the other project couldn’t/didn’t encompass a proven program.

  2. No collaboration efforts from the newer “Austin Promise Neighborhoods Planning Team” with the established Southwest Key program, not only sounds a bit fishy, but sadly, the way of the land these days. The tragic thing about this “us and them” mentality is that the real losers will be the “kids”.

  3. Let me respond on behalf of The Austin Promise Neighborhood Planning Team to your question about why two teams:

    First, SWK is a great example of wonderful initiatives that are going on all over Austin. That said, our team took a slightly different approach to solving the challenges highlighted in the anticipated grant which, ultimately, SWK and ourselves decided were not compatible … a few points:
    Our group followed a very inclusive, open process to develop the project, welcome to all in Austin, including SWK.
    Starting with choosing the neighborhood, so that we would maximally satisfy the anticipated grant parameters for this project, we followed an extensive, objective selection process, including indicators such as childhood poverty, educational outcomes, school feeder patterns, limited English vulnerabilities, population size, geographic clustering, natural boundaries, neighborhood identity, existing collaborations and relationships (including public schools), current efforts to tackle related issues, etc.
    It was very important that the selected area, which St. John as well as Johnston Terrace/Govalle do, have broad-based support from within the neighborhood and was passionate about this effort, including already having efforts underway to tackle these challenges.
    It was also important that the neighborhood already have extensive collaborations developed. In the case of St. John, they have strong community-based collaborations in progress including with the schools (AISD). As evidence of this fact, St. John received the America’s Promise Alliance (Gen. Colin Powell’s organization)100 Best Communities for Youth in America award from 2006-2009, pointed at dropout prevention efforts but also recognizing the broad range of services offered for neighborhood youth and families. The Family Resource Center Project, begun at Webb MS in 2007 by the St. John community and now at six schools, including Reagan, is bringing community-based wraparound health and social services, including employment training, to 100’s of families in the St. John area, supported by 55 partner organizations.
    The long-term intention of this project is to implement initiatives first in one neighborhood, then leverage what is learned across other neighborhoods. Implementing within the local public school system and having an enthusiastic partner such as AISD (vs. utilizing a charter school system) enables the fastest scalability.
    Austin is not unique in submitting multiple neighborhood proposals … Baltimore and other cities have plans to do the same. While having one proposal might be preferable, it is difficult to tell one or another communities not to apply. There are MANY neighborhoods in Austin that need this kind of attention and we’re lucky to have so many that are passionate about helping: Dr. Sanchez in Johnston Terrace/Govalle, the St. John community, partnerships in Dove Springs and others … let’s get after making this happen for all of them!

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