Features : : A New Day for Data

Bringing Change to a Forgotten Community

Washington, DC

Writing by Serena Lei
Photography by LYDIA THOMPSON

September 6, 2016

To understand the hold that poverty has had on the Kenilworth-Parkside community, you need to start with a map. The Ward 7 neighborhoods in this roughly one-and-a-half mile slice of Washington, DC, are boxed in by the Anacostia River on the west and Route 295 on the east. A decommissioned power plant blocks off the southwest side.

Once a working-class black community, Kenilworth-Parkside began to decline after the freeway was built in the 1950s, cutting residents off from the rest of the city, as well as from jobs, resources, and economic opportunities.

“This is a one-way-in, one-way-out neighborhood,” said Ronneca Coley, 40, who has lived in Kenilworth for five years. “You pretty much have to take a bus everywhere you go around here. If you have to go grocery shopping, you have to get on a bus. . . . It’s hard. I can do it, but it’s hard.”

Passengers sit on an Orange line train as it exits the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, one of two stations serving the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Washington, DC.

There’s no supermarket in the community, which encompasses Parkside, Eastland Gardens, Kenilworth, and other neighborhoods. In the Circle Seven Express convenience store, the produce aisle is a handful of potatoes, bananas, and onions on a single plastic stand. Residents buy snacks out of a converted ice-cream truck permanently parked in the lot of Paradise Apartments.

An empty public pool sits unused in Kenilworth Park, the site of a former recreation center built on land that was once the city dump. Plans to rebuild a new center were scrapped when the National Park Service found contaminants in the soil. Children are advised not to touch the grass, but homes line the street across from the park.

Crime and unemployment rates are high. About 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, and single mothers head nearly 80 percent of families.

The Circle Seven Express is seen from a footbridge overlooking Route 295. With no grocery stores in the community, the residents of Kenilworth-Parkside often buy food and other snacks here or from an ice cream truck that has been converted into a convenience store.

Antipoverty initiatives in the community have come and gone, including an uncompleted late-1980s plan to renovate public housing in Kenilworth and turn ownership over to the tenants. For a community tired of broken promises, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) is committed to being the exception.

Started in 2008 and modeled after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, DCPNI aims to break the cycle of poverty in Kenilworth-Parkside by supporting kids from birth to college. In 2012, the initiative received a five-year, $25 million federal Promise Neighborhoods grant.

Working with the community’s schools—Educare of Washington, DC; Neval Thomas Elementary School; and the Cesar Chavez middle and high schools—and dozens of partners, DCPNI provides comprehensive services for children as well as family and community supports. In-school partners offer mentoring, college prep, and literacy instruction; after-school programs range from sports to dance to cooking; and programs for parents focus on workforce development, financial literacy, and effective parenting.

Coley’s 8-year-old twins Marquise and Marquet are in DCPNI’s Chase Your Dreams Academy basketball program, and her daughter Miprecious, 11, attends DCPNI’s summer programs.

“They love it there,” Coley said. “I’m giving my kids something I didn’t have. When I was growing up, they didn’t have after-school programs and all that. They didn’t have all this.”

Ronneca Coley, right, sits in her living room and watches her twin sons, Marquise and Marquet, play with one another. “I’m trying to look for work,” said Coley. “I’m trying to make a better life for my children. . . . The jobs that I have experience with, it’s way out. I would have to have a car or . . . reliable transportation to get to work.”

The initiative’s approach is place-based—aware of the community’s struggles but also taking full advantage of its strengths—and data-driven to guide interventions so they’re not just a shot in the dark.

Demographics DC DCPNI footprint
Population 619,371 5,703
Women 53% 67%
Children under age 18 17% 36%
African Americans 50% 97%
Families 112,278 1,357
Single-mother families 37% 77%
Civilian labor force 354,171 2,247
Unemployment rate 11% 29%
Poverty rate 15% 39%

Source: American Community Survey, 2009–13.

Demographics DC DCPNI
Population 619,371 5,703
women 53% 67%
Children under age 18 17% 36%
African Americans 50% 97%
Families 112,278 1,357
single-mother families 37% 77%
Civilian labor force 354,171 2,247
Unemployment rate 11% 29%
Poverty rate 15% 39%

Source: American Community Survey, 2009–13.

“It’s what sets DCPNI apart from prior attempts to improve conditions,” said Nick Carrington, DCPNI’s director of data and evaluation. “A focus of our work going forward is to demystify [data] and help people understand that they’re using . . . data already in very normal ways.” One example of DCPNI’s data work came about when the initiative helped the community use travel-time data to successfully advocate for keeping a crucial bus line.

Together with residents, DCPNI aims to use data as a tool for social justice: to shape strategies, improve the life chances of children and parents, and bring economic mobility back to Kenilworth-Parkside.

Using Real-Time Data to Strengthen Community Programs

After school, inside Glenarden Community Center, 11-year-old Devin Fletcher sprints down the length of the basketball court with a parachute resistance band strapped around his waist. His younger brother Dylan, 6, dribbles a basketball between his legs as he walks backwards, crouched over and focused, diligently practicing figure eights.

When asked what his best move is, Devin says “shooting threes.” Dylan, not to be outdone, says his is “shooting fours.”

Today, it’s just the two of them working with Roger Marshall—Coach Roger to the kids. On other days, maybe seven or eight kids show up, their voices loud over the sound of basketballs hitting the gym floor. They come to Glenarden by bus, crossing into Maryland from Kenilworth-Parkside, for the Chase Your Dreams Academy program, one of DCPNI’s out-of-school partners.

Amonta’e Moody (center), a participant in the Chase Your Dreams Academy program, shoots a layup inside of the Glenarden Community Center as Coach Roger instructs the other boys in the program. After one hour of basketball drills and other exercises, the boys move to a classroom in the community center where Coach Roger helps them with character development.

In part because of DC’s strong school-choice culture, nearly half of Kenilworth-Parkside’s 2,000 or so children attend school outside the community footprint. Out-of-school partners allow the initiative to reach more students regardless of where they attend school.

Founded by Sonia Chase, a community activist and former WNBA player, Chase Your Dreams Academy teaches basketball skills, health and nutrition, fitness, and character development.

“The basketball is a hook to get them engaged,” said Chase, who also serves as the academy's executive director. “We really want to talk to them about life. . . . Basketball saved my life and that’s what I’m hoping it’ll do for these kids. It was a safe haven for me.”

Some kids come in skinny jeans because they don’t have gym clothes. Some come too tired to do push-ups because they’re hungry from a weekend without school lunches. Some refuse to run laps—not because they’re acting out, but because their hand-me-down sneakers are too small.

“The kids won’t say nothing, but I can tell. They’re too embarrassed to ask for help,” said Aaron Jackson, DCPNI’s out-of-school-time program manager. “We have to seek out their needs, dig a little deeper.”

Every practice begins with a check-in and ends with a class in which the kids learn about healthy eating and discuss the academy’s core values, such as respect, responsibility, and teamwork. If there was a fight in school that day, Coach Roger or one of the other coaches tells them how to redirect their anger and how to communicate and defuse the situation. He’s encouraging on the court and persistent when it comes to their education.

Coach Roger brings the boys into a huddle following a practice on June 1, 2016.

“How many times do I say I don’t care about basketball,” Coach Roger tells the kids. “I care about your life. . . . Work on your grades, because that’s the most important thing. Sports is temporary. Education is forever. Can’t nobody take your education away from you.”

As part of their programming, Chase Your Dreams Academy conducts pre- and postevaluations, measuring not only passing, catching, and shooting ability, but also attitude, communication, teamwork, and other character-building traits. DCPNI works with Chase’s staff to refine and analyze the academy’s metrics. The academy is one of DCPNI’s more advanced partners in terms of data collection, Carrington said, and a model for the initiative’s data goals.

“At the end of the day, we don’t know how much of a difference we’re making unless we evaluate ourselves,” Chase said. “And that’s why Nick and his staff . . . have been invaluable to us in providing their expertise.”

Guided by technical assistance from the Urban Institute, DCPNI is in the midst of a three-phase plan to use the sort of data that Chase Your Dreams Academy and other partners collect to better target interventions.

“At the end of the day, we don’t know how much of a difference we’re making unless we evaluate ourselves.”

- Sonia Chase, founder, Chase Your Dreams Academy

The first phase is collecting data from schools, community surveys, and program partners—data such as whether students are performing at grade level, how many households are food insecure, how often students are attending after-school programs, and what they’re getting out of them—and feeding this information into a central database. DCPNI also helps those program partners measure their work and improve their data collection.

The second phase is using that real-time data to help partners figure out what’s working and what’s not and adjusting their programs accordingly “to build the most effective network of partners,” as Carrington said.

In the third phase, DCPNI hopes to track the progress of children and their parents across multiple programs, evaluate their needs, and connect them to the services they’re missing.

Devin Fletcher, 11, completes push-ups as part of the Chase Your Dreams Academy program on June 9, 2016.

The goal is “to be able to say this constellation of services is a winner,” Carrington said. “We believe that if we engage parents in . . . workforce development or postsecondary education . . . and engage their children in certain pursuits, that we can really move whole families up . . . on a trajectory to escape poverty.”

DCPNI believes that working with its partners to collect data, analyze it, and respond to the results will help strengthen programs in the community.

“As we share information back to them, they’re learning and they’re growing, so I think more than building capacity directly and outright, I think it happens organically,” Carrington said. “We are creating an appetite for . . . using data in very strategic ways.”

What’s more, the initiative has recently contracted with Fair Chance, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofits build capacity. With its help, service providers can grow in areas beyond improved performance management.

DCPNI is in the middle of phase two and expects to launch phase three in 2017. It’s an ambitious undertaking: building a data and evaluation infrastructure not just for one program but across multiple partners and for individual children and families. But, Carrington said, that’s what it takes to create real change.

Fulfilling a Promise to Families

For Ronneca Coley, it’s already enough that her children have somewhere to go after school. She may not have the data, but she has seen firsthand the effects that Chase Your Dreams Academy and other programs have had on her kids.

“Their grades are higher and I get less calls from school that they are misbehaving,” Coley said. “DCPNI helps me raise my children. They help me get it into their heads that . . . you go to school to do your work and come home and then you can have fun, not the other way around.”

“We are creating an appetite for . . . using data in very strategic ways.”

- Nick Carrington, DCPNI’s director of data and evaluation

Coley’s family is an example of how DCPNI aims to reach the whole family in order to support children. Coley just finished Moms on the Move, an educational and emotional support program for mothers with young kids. There, she set goals for herself and her kids and worked on her job search skills. Coley is unemployed, but looking for work has been hard without a car. She volunteers for DCPNI whenever she can.

Marquise Coley sits on a basketball in his home on June 20, 2016. “I feel like if they are just sitting in the house or going outside, they’re getting occupied on the streets,” Ronneca Coley said. “The streets are raising them basically and I don’t want that to happen. . . . That’s why we’ve been with [DCPNI] and I go to every program.”

“When I first moved here, I was hearing stories. They said it was a good neighborhood and I kept asking, ‘What happened?’ That’s what made me want to get more involved,” she said. “These children need programs like that. They need the playgrounds and the recreation centers so they won’t be out here standing, doing nothing, and . . . end up selling drugs or doing drugs.”

“You don’t want that for these children out here. I know I don’t want it for mine. . . . If I have to come here and volunteer every day, that’s what I’ll do.”