Promise Zone volunteers take first steps

Promise Zone volunteers take first steps

February 20th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in News

HOW TO HELP

For more information or to get involved with the Chattanooga Promise Zone, call Elizabeth Crews at the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, 423-425-5617.

The neighborhoods surrounding Hardy Elementary School are getting a new name: the Chattanooga Promise Zone.

Promise Zone volunteers have pledged to track all of the area's children from birth through college graduation, providing them with all the resources they can. They hope to guarantee every student the best chance possible at flipping their tassels and tossing their caps.

Organizers are basing their efforts on the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit organization lauded for improving graduation rates in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.

The volunteers began planning Saturday how to target their efforts and unite already-established community groups. It's the first step in a project with an inaugural class set to graduate in 2033.

"This can't be one of those things with a lot of momentum, everybody's excited for six months and then it fizzles out," said Edna Varner, board chairwoman of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which is helping to start the program. "It would be better just to do small acts of great work, slow and steady and ongoing."

That's why the group is starting with a narrow area, focusing on Hardy and Orchard Knob elementary schools and Howard Middle School.

If the program is a success, organizers hope to expand it from the initial area, which has the highest concentration of poverty in Chattanooga, to other impoverished areas.

"You never hear a rich person say, 'I'm sending this kid to Harvard, I'm sending this kid to Yale and I'm sending this kid to hairdressing school," said Pete Cooper, president of the Community Foundation. "We need to have the highest expectations for our children."

Cedric Billingsley, a Harriet Tubman neighborhood parent, was one of about 40 volunteers to attend the Promise Zone's planning meeting Saturday. He said Chattanooga has some great after-school programs, but his area needs more.

"You only have certain kids that show up. What about the other kids? They're lost," he said. "If you've got a place you can go instead of running in the streets with your friends, that's beneficial."

Barbara Davidson, pastor of Grace Chapel, agreed that after-school programs should be a top focus for the organization.

"We're not afraid of hard work," she said. "We're looking for change, positive change."

With hard-working, dedicated volunteers, Varner said she expects great things from the project.

"We have all the resources and all the brains within our community to make this work," she said. "We have a responsibility to our kids to do something new, energetic, long-term and with long-term results."