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Universal gets Promise Neighborhood grant




The work of another educational entrepreneur in Philadelphia has been recognized by the federal government.

Universal Community Homes, part of music legend Kenny Gamble's South Philadelphia development empire, is one of 21 organizations nationwide awarded a $500,000 planning grant to create a Promise Neighborhood -- or a full-service, cradle-to-grave web of health and social services and schools modeled on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone.

The planning grant, however, doesn't guarantee that Universal will get implementation money -- that will be the subject of a whole new competition. And Congress has yet to approve the $210 million that President Obama has asked for in the 2011 budget to fund the initiative.

In a press release, Rahim Islam, President/CEO of Universal Companies, said the planning grant "will allow us to develop baseline data on the community, which we can monitor while we begin to implement a comprehensive plan of action – I’m ecstatic.”

Obama was taken with Canada and promised during the presidential campaign to try to duplicate his saturation approach, which includes early childhood education, "baby college" in which low-income parents learn about parenting, and charter schools. The key is focusing on a defined neighborhood so the culture changes, according to Canada.

He has had a book written about him called Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough and is a major voice in the new education documentary Waiting for Superman, which laments the lack of good educational choices for children in most impoverished neighborhoods.

"This is another affirmation of Philadelphia's leadership role in school reform," said Congressman Chaka Fattah, who announced the grant in a press release. Universal competed with more than 300 other applicants, including several from Philadelphia and Camden.

Fattah said he thought Universal won because "the District was very supportive, which was critical."

According to a summary of its application, which is posted on the Department of Education website, Universal will work in the Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods, specifically between Broad Street on the east and Grays Ferry Avenue/Schuylkill Expressway on the west, and Washington Avenue on the north and Snyder Avenue on the south.

It will target nine schools: Audenried High School, Vare Middle School, Barratt (which has only an eighth grade and is closing in June), and Girard, Alcorn, McDaniel, Smith, Childs, E.M. Stanton, and Arthur elementaries. Universal's charter school is also included.

Universal has managed E.M. Stanton as an educational management organization since 2002 and formerly managed Vare until this fall. Under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance Schools program, it was given Bluford and Daroff elementary schools to operate as charters this year. Neither of those schools is in this neighborhood.

William Penn Foundation has also given a matching grant of $250,000 to assist with the planning. Other organizations involved include the city of Philadelphia, Reinvestment Fund, Keystone Mercy Health Plan, Temple University, and Greater Philadelphia Health Associates.

"This will be a team effort," said Islam.

Details in the application abstract are fairly sketchy about how the District and Universal will work together, but there is mention that schools might be closed or consolidated. It talks about "transformative initiatives," and improving the "academic, community and physical aspects" of the neighborhood.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in announcing the awards, said that partnership was crucial.

The winning applications "all say quality public education have to be the heart of the work, and some are already in business turning around low-performing schools," he said in a conference call with reporters.

"We have to be bold and courageous in these communities."

Fattah said that it will be a fight to get Congress to approve the full $210 million Obama wants. "The White House has been unwilling to equivocate on their priorities when it comes to education," he said. "I would bet on money being there for implementation."

Updated at 2 p.m. with information from a press release.

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.