The Coolest Village Yet To Be


By Brett Hoover

So, I thought I was onto something new. Two years ago a manufacturer that had been doing business in a six-story building in my neighborhood for 100 years announced it was moving out of the city to a neighboring town where it could have a modernized single-floor operation.

cop-cowlesWhile I was reading the story I was already daydreaming about that facility becoming “Promise Village,” a vibrant place where our young professionals could return to their hometown and live in lower-than-market studio apartments, supported by one another while launching their careers and giving back to their city.

As it turned out, I wasn’t discovering fire. Yet I was happy to see that other places found it to be a good idea.

The manufacturer was almost completely moved out when my alderman led a community tour of the massive plant in June. This fall it was purchased by a developer, who held a neighborhood meeting about his acquisition earlier this week. When it became clear that the facility was going to become housing units, some folks complained about traffic and others spoke out against affordable housing.

I decided to speak up about my idea for the facility. One of the reporters at the meeting offered that I “urged [my] neighbors to think more broadly about the issue of affordable housing.” I told them that we live in a city that has high rent and little vacancy. Our Promise scholars who graduate from college — and we have more than 500 presently enrolled — want to return to the city, but find themselves priced out of launching their career on their own in their hometown, where they’d be able to immediately influence younger members of their families. I told the developer that I’d love to see a place for them, even if the apartments were small studios.

Smaller apartments with more common space is trend. In fact, a place called Commonspace is doing just that in downtown Syracuse. Co-founder John Talarico told CityLab, “If your normal rent is $1,500, we’re coming in way under that ($700 to $900). You can spend that money elsewhere, living, not just sustaining.”

cop-bakery-squareThe notion of creating affordable housing in the name of education is not new either. The Newark Teachers’ Village in New Jersey is a national model to attract and retain teachers. Just recently, the City of San Francisco announced efforts to do the same in the Bay Area, where teacher retention is a significant problem. Even rural Hertford County in North Carolina is making space for teachers.

Companies like Google and LinkedIn have also decided that entering the real estate game is simply good for business. Unaffordable housing has a way of contributing to longer commutes and traffic congestion that is bad for the environment. And business productivity suffers.

Googlers in Pittsburgh have taken up residence in the Bakery Square neighborhood and helped change the environment. In a rather snarky portrayal in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last December, reporters Mackenzie Carpenter and Deborah M. Todd wrote this:

“Google definitely ups the coolness factor,” said Ryan Teeder, 25, who was sipping a craft beer at one of Social’s outdoor tables on a warm August evening. He had actually come to pick up his 14-year-old brother Ross, who had spent the afternoon at TechShop. “I live in White Oak, but when I come here, I feel like I’m in Brooklyn or some other really cool place where all the action is.”

Perhaps against the wishes of some of my neighbors, I want my neighborhood to be that really cool place where all the action is.

Brett Hoover — who formerly served as the Associate Director of the Ivy League — is a co-founder of Cities of Promise and serves as a digital strategist and Education Pioneers fellow at New Haven Promise.

Protecting The Promises


At its best, the Promise movement attacks the opportunity gap. But to sustain a Promise program is hardly an easy task. By design, such a program motivates students to perform well academically thus a growing number are expected to meet the requirements each year. On top of that, there is no indication that increasing college costs will level off.

So Promise programs — perhaps the best intervention in attacking the opportunity gap — struggle to keep up. Most of the recent Promise news is focused on finance. Here’s a spin around the nation:

star-denverVoters in Denver, Colo., might be asked to take on responsibility of funding the Denver Scholarship Foundation. The proposal before the Denver City Council is a sales tax increase of 0.08 percent — less than a penny for a $10 purchase — which would generate about $10 million for the scholarship organization. One councilman reported that his constituency is asking why this has become a city responsibility, but a recent study uncovered a nine-fold return on money spent by the Denver Scholarship Foundation. That in a state that has been ranked 47th in the U.S. for higher education funding.

Known locally as UIC, the University of Illinois-Chicago recently stepped up to sweeten the pot for recipients of the Chicago Star Scholarship, which gives free community college tuition to high-performing city students. UIC has offered guaranteed admission and up to $5,000 in support for those who earn an associate’s degree through the program. And outspoken Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised to be knocking on the doors of others to talk about their “responsibility to the kids of Chicago.” Emanuel made it clear that he wants higher ed support and he wants it soon, saying, “It would be easy to step back, observe the problem, study the problem, have a couple papers written on the problem, have a symposium on the problem, discuss what people should do about the problem and then go for a break and have a cup of coffee.”

Down in Greensboro, N.C., where more than $25 million has been raised toward an endowment for a Say Yes To Education program, city officials were hardly unanimous in their support of the initiative. At issue? The leaders of the campaign did not reach out to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners until “the ninth inning,” according to the board chair. That county board is also displeased that the early discussion did not include the county’s charter school students, which is “significantly different than where [the Say Yes to Education] board thought we were headed,” according to Gene Chasin of Say Yes.

Two faculty members of the University of Pittsburgh penned an op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette that asked for a focus on state funding for higher education, instead of hand-wringing about recent changes to the Pittsburgh Promise. Lindsay Page and Jennifer Iriti wrote that the purchasing power of the Promise will decline in the face of a lack of support of higher education in the state. “As a community, we should celebrate and grow the gift of The Promise, but we also should seek to protect that gift by pushing Harrisburg to reinvest in public higher education,” the piece concluded. “Without such reinvestment, continued increases in the costs of higher education faced by families will do more to hinder access to the promise and opportunity of higher education than the recent scaling back of The Pittsburgh Promise.”

Building Bridges To Success


Perhaps the biggest challenge to the success of a Promise-type program is data. Before Promise programs are established, there is typically little information to be found for future comparison. But once a program has begun, no matter how complete its systems, it takes years to have enough measurable information to be conclusive. It then takes additional time to react and implement plans to address the issues.

So it was disheartening to see the Pittsburgh Courier recently take a break from its typical entertainment fare to publish the screaming headline “Is The Pittsburgh Promise Failing In Its Promise To Blacks?”

The story came just days after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured the efforts of ‘We Promise,’ a $200,000 Heinz Endowment program designed to assist black males in the school district to focus on confidence, motivation and time management. That initiative — established in 2013 — stated that boosting the number of black males eligible for Pittsburgh Promise was its primary goal.

Additionally — late last June — the Pittsburgh Promise partnered with the Community College of Allegheny County to provide post-secondary funds in certain career and technical fields while students are still in high school. Next fall the offerings will expand into energy, advanced manufacturing and welding and computer technology.

The Courier’s sensationalized headline and the extensive quoting of Joseph J. Kennedy, IV, didn’t match the facts.

“Two thirds of the kids in the district are at least as African American as President Obama, but two-thirds of the money goes to White students,” said Kennedy, the founder and CEO of Riverbends, Inc., a nonprofit, independent and online organization which promotes African-American genealogy and history.

The district website shows that 53 percent of the students in the public schools are African-American. And Pittsburgh Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril reports that 48 percent of the Promise funds — $23 million — that have been disbursed have gone to black students. Even in pointing out the inaccuracy of Kennedy’s claims, Ghubril did concede that Pittsburgh Promise’s distribution of funds is “not where we want it to be yet.” This is not just a Pittsburgh problem, it is a national crisis. It isn’t something that can be remedied by a Promise program or a district or a genealogy researcher. It is something that requires the collective will of an army of people.

Pittsburgh is using data-driven analysis to implement programming to addresses its needs. From its outset, the initiative was focused on raising funds — nearly $200 million to date — to support an enormous number of students. Like most programs do, Pittsburgh had to make some adjustments, including the creation of academic supports and additional student options.

Raising large philanthropic gifts has opened the Pittsburgh Promise to a variety of criticisms, notably from others wishing for a larger slice of the non-profit pie. But no such place-based program is immune to attack. Remarkably, there has even been public criticism of programs from other programs in recent years.

But the measure of the Promise cannot be fully understood in just five or 10 years. Given time to grow, evolve and mature, cities will find what works specifically for them. When they do, cities will change and schools will transform. And that will even happen sooner than later when met with constructive and collaborative support.

UPDATE: Pittsburgh Promise board chair Franco Harris has penned a response to the original piece in the Courier.