By the end of the year, a social service agency in Roseland will know if it has won funding to implement its Promise Neighborhood plans, part of a federal strategy to coordinate and strengthen services in the poorest communities.

SGA Youth and Family Services, which won a $500,000 planning grant in December 2011, could be on its way to getting up to $30 million in federal funding over the course of the next 5 years. If the group doesn’t win this time around, it will likely apply again in the future, says Les Inch, SGA’s vice president of resource development and planning.

As part of the initiative, SGA has already placed eight student-family liaisons and two social workers in Curtis, Smith and Bennett elementary schools and Fenger High School.

Federal dollars would help the agency increase services in two key areas: early childhood education and students’ transition from 8th grade to high school, says Erin Starkey, the initiative’s coordinator.

As part of the year of planning, SGA conducted a needs assessment survey. Committees on education, early childhood, family and community partnerships, and community building worked on different pieces of it.

At a Roseland Advisory Council meeting earlier this year, small groups discussed potential survey questions: How safe do you consider your neighborhood to be? Is gang activity a problem in Roseland? Is violence against youth a problem in this neighborhood? Do you have a place to get fresh fruits and vegetables? Are parks and playgrounds clean and safe? In the past 30 days, how would you describe your physical and mental health?

The early childhood committee also investigated the number of children with a regular place for primary health care, and the number who are homeless or living in shelters.

Early childhood a major need

One finding from the neighborhood assessment survey was the need for more early childhood services, Starkey says.

“There are far fewer spots for children to get care and preparation for kindergarten than there are children in that age range,” she says. “There are a lot of informal care-giving situations for children at that age. A child might be taken care of by an aunt or family member or in some kind of day care setting – but not necessarily in a Head Start or Early Head Start setting.”

Starkey says SGA might try to get more Head Start and Early Head Start slots in the neighborhood, or provide training for informal caregivers so they can increase children’s learning opportunities.

The agency is addressing the freshman year slump in achievement with a mentoring program in which students from Fenger High are paired with 6th-, 7th– and 8th-graders and help them adapt to high school.

One strength Roseland Children’s Initiative hopes to build on, Starkey says, is the high level of civic engagement the survey found.

“The vast majority of those who participated in the survey reported they were registered voters,” Starkey says. “The number of participants [who took] the survey showed there is an interest in the community, and people are willing to be active and involved in whatever change is to occur. We have some very active people, people who have been doing work for many years, with very limited resources, to create some positive change.”

The possible infusion of resources into the area comes as Foundations College Prep, one of two charter schools that recently received an up to $450,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, plans to potentially open its doors in the neighborhood – although it hasn’t yet received district approval. The potential new charter school is not linked to the Roseland Children’s Initiative.

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