Promise Neighborhood aims to enrich area

Buffalo News 

Residents in the 14215 ZIP code are seeing the first visible sign that Buffalo Promise Neighborhood is committed to improving the lives of children and families in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

A building at the corner of Bailey Avenue and East Amherst Street is being demolished to make room for a new early childhood center that will be a key component of the initiative.

Project partners also have taken several other steps recently since securing a $6 million federal grant in December to implement the five-year plan:

* On May 1, M&T Bank - a major BPN partner - announced a $1.5 million grant to complement the $1 million awarded in February by the John R. Oishei Foundation to help fund construction of the 10,000-square-foot childhood center.

* Watts Architecture & Engineering of Buffalo has been selected to lead the design of the new building, which is expected to open in 2013 and will support about 150 children, from infants to 5-year-olds. The center is an integral part of the overall plan, produced by the Westminster Foundation to impact the lives of residents from cradle through college.

* And a few weeks ago, one of the group's leaders spoke at a meeting of the Bailey Business Association, a recently rekindled organization that had dissolved about four years ago. The message at the meeting was how the two organizations can work together for the good of the business district.

"BPN is right in there with us with the same energy [focused on] how are we going to move forward," said Essence Sweat, a small-business owner who also lives in the neighborhood.

"BPN is bringing a vibrant feeling that something new is happening," she added.

Even with the progress, BPN leaders stress the goal is not to have someone else rescue the community. The focus is on self-initiative.

"BPN will not come in and save the community. It is working with the community to come up with strategies to help them help themselves," said Tanya Perrin Johnson, BPN director of community affairs.

That goal will be accomplished in part by improving two low-performing schools in the neighborhood - Highgate Heights Elementary and Bennett High - through a shared management between Buffalo Public Schools and BPN, said BPN President Yvonne Minor-Ragan.

BPN will follow the example of Westminster Community Charter School, which was transformed from one of the worst-performing schools in Buffalo to one of the best, despite its low-income demographic, during the time that Minor-Ragan was principal.

Administrators and educators at Bennett have laid some groundwork already by starting a student intervention team that includes social workers, psychologists, special-education teachers, and the principal, David Mauricio.

In addition, the school started a Freshmen Academy two years ago, in which the freshman class is housed on the first floor with its own assistant principal and support team, Mauricio said.

"It's like a safe haven for the students. They can be just freshmen, and they don't have to be cool or try to compete with the [upperclassman] with a varsity letter on his jacket," he added.

Because some basic needs have been addressed, Bennett is poised to move forward, BPN partners said.

"We've laid the foundation. Now we'll build the house," Mauricio said.

BPN also has hired Johns Hopkins University to focus on attendance, behavior and academic issues among students at the three schools, as well as professional development training for teachers. Plans include hiring two "school transformation facilitators" to work with teachers and principals. One will work full time at Bennett, and the other will split time between the two grade schools. This initiative was in place before the university pulled back from a separate arrangement it had tried to work out the city school system, said David Chamberlain, BPN's executive officer and senior vice president at M&T Bank, one of the partners in the Westminster Foundation.

Approximately 15 to 20 young people from AmeriCorps also will be hired and placed in the three schools to mentor and nurture the students, but the number of mentors may increase as the BPN program evolves, Minor-Ragan said.

Another part of the BPN programming involves increasing early childhood literacy with workers from Read to Succeed Buffalo. They will provide early childhood and home care for parents and children not able to get into the early childhood center, which can support a maximum of 150 children, Chamberlain said.

BPN also is developing plans with another partner, Catholic Charities, through its Closing the Gap program, which aims to enhance learning by addressing non-academic barriers that families and children deal with, such as emotional and behavioral needs. Closing the Gap will hire a site facilitator for each school and will work with the intervention team at Bennett High.

Erie Community College's EPIC [Every Person Influences Children] program is another partner. EPIC will offer workshops for parents on challenges involving everything from the child protection system and emotional health issues to custody or criminal background issues - anything that might compromise a parent's ability to provide guidance that protects the basic needs of their children. For BPN, EPIC will focus on Women & Children's Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital in its outreach efforts.

"Sisters Hospital is where most of our families go to have babies," Minor-Ragan said.

Despite BPN's plans, some people are still taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Annette Watts, owner of AnnRhod's Tailoring at 3185 Bailey Ave., said it's a good sign that BPN is making some progress, but she's not sure how it will help small business overall in the neighborhood.

"I'm feeling confident that something is going on, but it's not bringing in money. It's not generating money" for the business district, said Watts, who also lives in the target area.

Still, BPN brings a positive energy to a community that badly needs it, Sweat said.

"We're all working together, and synergy is happening," she said. "I'm really excited about it."