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Tackling poverty: DC community tries new approach

Sunday - 5/25/2014, 5:16am  ET

This photo taken Feb. 27, 2014 shows children getting off a bus in front of what was formerly Kenilworth Elementary School and now the headquarters for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), which provides after-school programming, in the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood of Washington. Backed by a multi-year, $28 million Education Department grant, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) vows to tackle generational poverty with a fresh approach -- if a parent’s level of education improves, so does a child’s prospects. In Kenilworth-Parkside, helping the children get a good education is a primary focus, but it’s the adults they must first engage. And many of them are skeptical. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The corner Safeway is long gone, closed after looting following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Some residents have no choice but to buy groceries from an old ice-cream truck. Others rely on men known as "riders" who transport shoppers for a few bucks.

Occasional gunshots ring out even as the days of out-of-state drivers lining the streets to buy drugs are largely over. Young children are everywhere except during school hours, when many are scattered far from home at 150 schools around the nation's capital because of a long history of subpar education in the neighborhood.

This is the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood, where residents such as Taryn Tymus, a mother of four who sells homemade jewelry, have heard lots of promises about a better life to come. The promise of a new recreation center after theirs was torn down. The promise of owning their public housing units. Promises of better schools.

Promises all unfulfilled.

Then, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative put down a stake with a new promise: to tackle generational poverty with a fresh approach.

Backed by a multiyear, $28 million Education Department Promised Neighborhood grant and support from people such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, the initiative tries to offer services to two generations -- parents and children. It stems from research that shows that as a parent's level of education improves, so does a child's prospects.

Modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, "promised neighborhoods" are being planned or underway in at least 20 states.

In the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood, helping the children get a good education is a primary focus, but it's the adults who must be engaged first. Many are skeptical.


Tymus, 38, is proud to call this predominantly African-American neighborhood home. But she doesn't hesitate to point out the downsides: the six-lane highway families must cross to get to a subway station; the high-priced Kenilworth Market, robbed so many times that cinderblocks now cover the backdoor; teenagers having babies; the violence.

Tymus says she warns young men to stay out of trouble. "It hurt, when they really go down like that," says Tymus, who greets neighbors by name as she strolls Quarles Street not far from where one of her boyfriends was found dead in a church lot a decade ago, 22 bullets in him.

Here, single mothers run nearly 90 percent of the households with children. The dads are mostly missing.

The isolationism only makes things harder. The neighborhood not far from the Capitol is bordered by I-295, the Anacostia River and an aging power plant.

Things haven't always felt so bleak.

Within Kenilworth-Parkside is Eastland Gardens, where residents since the 1950s have maintained a flower club. In addition to hundreds of public housing units, brick single-family homes line the streets, some of them designed and built by black architects and builders.

"We were poor but we didn't know we were poor because we always had something to eat and some place to stay," says Claudette Brown, one of eight siblings who were among the first residents of Kenilworth Courts when it opened in 1959. It was one of the city's first integrated public housing complexes. Now a grandmother, she still calls Kenilworth home.

Brown recalls the strife, too. After King's assassination, mobs threw rocks at her school bus on her way home because the driver was white. "People were acting real crazy," she says.

Violence and drugs in later years rocked the neighborhood, sending residents to prison and leaving others dead. In the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood's problems attracted the interest of Jack Kemp, the New York congressman and later U.S. housing secretary.

Working with resident Kimi Gray, he helped orchestrate a federal effort to turn public housing in Kenilworth over to residents to manage and eventually own. The personal ownership plans never fully materialized and while residents still manage a section of the housing, the District of Columbia Housing Authority had to step in and bail it out.

Kenya McKeever, 44, a mother of four, says one day she stepped outside to dump the garbage and two dead bodies were in a car. "It affected me in a way that I never want to see that again," McKeever says.

Two different fathers of longtime resident Latissa Tate's 10 children died violent deaths. One of the men was standing in a store buying cigarettes in 2006 when he was killed in a drive-by shooting, she says.

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