The cradle-to-career approach to combating generational poverty that has made the Harlem Children's Zone a national education model may be coming to Camden.
State officials and the Center for Family Services, which runs more than 40 social service programs in South Jersey, signed an agreement Tuesday to begin a yearlong planning mission aimed at implementing the program's principles in the Cooper-Lanning Square section of Camden.
The agency will receive training and technical support during the study year from the Harlem Children's Zone of New York City. The same assistance will be provided to La Casa de Don Pedro, a nonprofit social services agency in Newark, where a similar program will be planned, according to state officials. The state will pay $24,000 for each group's training, said Richard Vespucci, a state education spokesman.
The Harlem Children's Zone's involvement with Camden and Newark will be the most intensive it has undertaken, said a spokesman for the nonprofit organization, which has trained about 70 groups around the country and delegations from 24 countries.
"What we're doing with New Jersey is unique," said Marty Lipp, the spokesman. "We have not done this before."
Since the early 1990s, the Harlem Children's Zone has expanded from a one-block pilot program to nearly 100 blocks. Its approach is centered on the belief that children and families must be assisted on multiple fronts in order to thrive.
The agency, which has a $77 million annual budget, teaches parenting skills, offers preschool, operates charter schools through high school, and provides support for students who continue on to college. It also offers an array of social and health programs.
In the Camden effort, the Center for Family Services' staff will undergo the training, but it will not be on its own.
The center is a member of the Cooper Lanning Camden Promise Team, a growing partnership involving Camden Mayor Dana Redd, school district officials, neighborhood groups, Rowan University, Rutgers University, Cooper University Hospital, and other area businesses, foundations, and community institutions.
The partnership, with Rowan as lead agency, also is seeking a federal Promise Neighborhoods planning grant, an Obama administration program inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone.
As many as 20 of the 399 communities that have applied will be chosen to receive between $400,000 and $500,000 each. Grant recipients are expected to be announced in September. There is hope among some state officials that the Camden and Newark initiatives may give New Jersey communities a better shot at the money.
Funding to implement the service agencies' eventual programs in Camden has not yet been identified, said Rochelle Hendricks, assistant state education commissioner, who signed the agreement on Tuesday. One task of planners will be to identify resources along with needs and to look into leveraging those resources. She noted the partnership's substantial and credible members.
The Camden center also will prepare a 10-year strategic plan for implementing the planners' vision.
Most members of the partnership were on hand to witness the agreement's signing.
"It is time to break the cycle of poverty," Sheila Davis, a member of Lanning Square West Residents in Action, told the gathering at Lanning Square Elementary School.
Change is already stirring in the neighborhood. The aging elementary is slated to be rebuilt. Cooper and Rowan are partnering to create a health-science campus that will include a new medical school, part of a revitalization effort that officials hope will turn the city, one of the poorest in the nation, into a health-and-education hub.
But Camden is still very challenged, say even its backers. Several of Tuesday's speakers talked of the need to start small and commit long-term.
"This is a marathon," said Redd, borrowing from the sentiments of Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada. "It is not a sprint."