Some of the most alarming facts to emerge from the Community Foundation’s Regional Needs Assessment concern childhood poverty. In Broome County, for example, more than 25 percent of children live below the poverty line.
While poverty may leave children malnourished, poorly housed and poorly clothed, the harm doesn’t stop there. For low-income families, education doesn’t always work the way it should. Parents short on cash, time and/or transportation can’t provide the extras that enrich the lives of middle class kids, such as sports, music lessons or library visits. Many of those parents can’t leave work to retrieve a sick child, or find time to meet with teachers, or help with homework.
“There are a lot of good teachers doing a lot of good work in the classroom, but differences in outcomes for different kids are really about income,” says Laura Bronstein, a professor at Binghamton University and dean of its College of Community and Public Affairs.
Bronstein is one of the forces behind the Broome County Promise Zone, a program working to level the educational playing field for children in Broome County’s low-income families.
Launched in December, 2013, the Broome County Promise Zone is a collaboration among Binghamton University, Broome-Tioga BOCES, the Broome County Department of Mental Health, two BOCES sites and six school districts: Binghamton, Chenango Valley, Johnson City, Union-Endicott, Whitney Point and Windsor. It’s part of a network of five Promise Zones in New York State, all of which receive funding from the State Office of Mental Health.
In Broome County, the Promise Zone is based on a model called University-Assisted Community Schools, developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Although programs in several cities have adopted this model, Broome’s Promise Zone is the only one to encompass an entire county.
The model—which has been proven across the U.S. and around the world—relies on a partnership among schools, the university and community agencies to provide crucial academic and social supports, whether that means tutoring a child in math or securing a voucher to help a family heat its home. “If we can put these supports in place for kids that are in low-income families—and that’s a majority of kids in this country—then they have the opportunity to achieve like middle class kids and to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty,” Bronstein says.
Support from Binghamton University includes the contributions of student interns, drawn from numerous majors, who run enrichment programs, lead groups for parents and provide many other services. During the fall of 2016, about 148 interns and volunteers lent their talents to the program.
The Broome County Promise Zone takes a unique form in each school district, depending on local needs. Some themes run across the whole program, including afterschool enrichment, academic support during the day and family engagement. But districts may approach those themes differently.
Take family outreach. “In our rural districts, inviting families to the school may not be the best way, because of transportation issues and geography,” says Luann Kida, Broome County Promise Zone community schools director. Promise Zone staff and interns in those communities might instead visit parents at home.
In Whitney Point, this kind of outreach started during a precursor to the Promise Zone, when Kida visited some of the community’s impoverished neighborhoods. “She knocked on doors, talked to people and got invited in,” says Patricia Follette, superintendent of the Whitney Point Central School District.
With support from the district, Kida organized a parenting workshop that focused on topics such as how to improve school attendance and how to negotiate disagreements with school bus drivers. Members of that first group valued the experience so much, they spread the word. “They got a booth at the county fair to talk to other parents about how they could become part of this program,” Follette says.
Those first parents, none of whom graduated from high school themselves, also traveled with Kida, Bronstein and Jo-Ann Sexton, Whitney Point’s director of curriculum and instruction, to a conference at Penn State University, where they made a presentation, claiming their place as experts on parental involvement.
To make sure kids don’t lose ground in July and August, the Broome County Promise Zone includes a summer program in four of the districts, with emphasis on the “STEAM” subjects: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. These programs bring together middle school, high school and college students for fun, learning and mentorship.
The Community Foundation provided a $25,000 grant to pay the salaries of Summer Zone staff in 2016.
In Whitney Point, the Summer Zone has provided field trips to SUNY Broome, SUNY Cortland and Tompkins Cortland Community College, plus an overnight at Binghamton University. Whitney Point’s young mayor, Ryan Reynolds, has joined in, leading a walk around the village and chatting with the kids about civic engagement.
For children of parents who did not attend college, or maybe didn’t even finish high school, such adventures are big eye-openers, Sexton says. “We feel this is going to be life-changing for these kids.”
Partners expect the same will be true for the entire Broome County Promise Zone.