The District of Columbia has long had some of the worst educational outcomes in the country, including the lowest high school graduation rate. Now the nation’s capital owns the dubious distinction of having by far the largest achievement gap between African American and white students – as well as Hispanic and white students – among major urban school systems, according to a federal study released last month.

Students travel to and from classes at the School Without Walls. School Without Walls, located in a newly renovated building on the GWU campus.

Even those of us who have staked our careers on closing the perilously wide gap by launching charter schools and championing reforms to shake up the status quo must admit that, so far, we have produced only marginal gains for the District’s underserved children.

Piecemeal approaches to D.C.’s educational woes will continue to fall short of our goals. That’s because, as a recent Post story observed by paraphrasing Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools: “The District’s racial gap is really an income divide.” Indeed. It is about time we addressed the myriad issues caused by poverty in our city, obstacles that prevent children from reaching or even approaching their full potential — academically and in all aspects of their lives.

If the problem seems too big, consider this: There is a growing movement across the country and right here in the District committed to solving it. And it’s rapidly gaining momentum. It is the Promise Neighborhood movement based on the breakthrough work of New York City’s HarlemChildren’s Zone.

In Ward 7’s Parkside-Kenilworth community, a unique coalition of local residents, charter and traditional public school leaders, nonprofits and funders have been working tirelessly to plan and now implement D.C.’s very own Promise Neighborhood. In this community, where the residents are overwhelmingly poor and African American, there exists the opportunity to make a difference where it matters most. The community is engaged, local resources have begun to be mobilized, government agencies are signing up.

In this economy, the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative is working to build a cradle-to-career pipeline of intensive support to keep children and their families on the road to success that has for too long bypassed them. This includes evidence-based approaches such as home visitation for teen mothers and state-of-the-art mobile medical units staffed by Children’s National Medical Center to provide health care to this isolated neighborhood.

The Educare School is already under construction, bringing a proven early learning program to 175 children from birth to five. In October 2010, we were one of 21 recipients of a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education to make our mission a reality: to dramatically increase the number of children from Parkside-Kenilworth who complete college and become thriving, productive adults capable of succeeding in the global economy.

Parkside-Kenilworth may not seem a likely candidate to become the next promised land of urban educational achievement. More than half of all families here struggle below the federal poverty line. Ninety percent of families with children are headed by single mothers; teen birth rates are among the highest in the city, and consequently the country; and violent crime per capita in Kenilworth is almost double the District average. The toxic stress of living in these conditions takes a very real toll on children’s ability to succeed in school.

Children in Parkside-Kenilworth have some of the worst academic outcomes in the nation. Less than a third of children attending local elementary schools are proficient in reading by the third grade. Infants and toddlers lag behind in critical development milestones compared to their peers citywide, putting them at a disadvantage before they even reach kindergarten.

Despite the skepticism of some who believe we will never succeed against these odds, we see a much bigger risk that we cannot ignore — more generations of dependent adults and single, teenaged mothers. The DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, a collective effort in which so many are already invested, is simply Too Big To Fail.

When you come to tour the Promise Neighborhood (tours are held on the fourth Thursday of every month), you will also see our community’s assets. We have a strong sense of civic duty, committed school and resident leaders, great teachers, ample land for growth, and development already underway. It is because of these assets and the strength of our plan and partnerships that we have been recognized as one of the most promising Promise Neighborhood Initiatives in the country by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

But to succeed, we need to bring on more local partners and funders. If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will? As the nation’s capital, the stakes are even higher for the District. All eyes are on us.

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