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$500,000 federal grant for improving 2 Camden neighborhoods

Two Camden neighborhoods that surround Cooper University Hospital and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University could see significant transformation in the next decade.

Two Camden neighborhoods that surround Cooper University Hospital and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University could see significant transformation in the next decade.

After two years spent learning how the Harlem Children's Zone was able to improve dozens of impoverished blocks, the Center for Family Services received a $500,000 federal grant to design a plan to duplicate the efforts in Camden's Cooper Lanning neighborhood.

The center, in partnership with some of the city's anchor institutions, was one of 10 organizations throughout the country last week to be awarded a Promise Neighborhood Planning Grant. The one-year U.S. Department of Education award will be used to build a framework for the improvement of the Cooper Lanning neighborhood in the next 10 years, with a focus on cradle-to-career.

"The intended impact of the Camden Cooper Lanning Promise Neighborhood is to keep children from becoming victims of the problems and challenges that prevent them from graduating college," said Merilee Rutolo, vice president of the Center for Family Services. "To do that, we must focus on the child and family in a holistic way."

The Obama administration's Promise Neighborhoods program, launched in 2010, is a community-focused program to improve high-poverty neighborhoods through educational opportunities, and comprehensive health, safety, and support services. It is designed after the Harlem Children's Zone, which since the early 1990s has expanded from a one-block pilot to nearly 100 blocks, with the approach that, to thrive, children and families must be assisted on multiple fronts.

In 2010, the New Jersey Department of Education provided $24,000 each for the Camden Cooper Lanning Promise Neighborhood team, led by Center for Family Services, and a Newark nonprofit group to receive training and technical support from staff at the Harlem organization.

The idea was that the training would help two of New Jersey's most struggling cities receive the competitive Promise Neighborhood federal grants. It worked. The Newark Fairmount Promise Neighborhood also was one of those awarded a planning grant last week.

The Center for Family Services chose as the focal area Cooper Lanning, which encompasses the Cooper Plaza and Lanning Square neighborhoods, because of the growing health-science campus and the city's assessment of the neighborhood's needs in a 2008 Cooper Lanning Human Capital Plan.

During the last two years, the Cooper Lanning Promise Neighborhood team "built a lot of relationships with schools and the community," Rutolo said. But one relationship with which it had to switch gears was the Lanning Square Family School.

A lot of the center's application was based on the rebuilding of the Lanning Square Elementary School, which was demolished in 2005 and was to be replaced and opened by this year.

Once it became evident this summer, Rutolo said, that the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy renaissance-school campus would be going in in place of the traditional public school, the center started talking with KIPP about the Promise Neighborhood plans.

Rutolo said KIPP, which partnered with Cooper for its charter-school-like project, has been receptive to the Promise Neighborhood plan. Cooper University Hospital has been part of the Cooper Lanning Promise Neighborhood team since its inception.

The Center for Family Services was awarded a Head Start grant in 2011 and opened an early-learning center on Pine Street, on the south end of the Cooper Lanning neighborhood. The Head Start center will eventually be part of a larger early-learning network that will be at the core of the Promise Neighborhood plan.

The center also opened a Promise Neighborhood Success Center on Benson Street, where community dinners are hosted and adults can take financial-literacy classes.

Adult learning will be a main component of the Promise Neighborhood because of the impact a parent's education has on a child's educational development, Rutolo said.

"We'll try to bring awareness to the neighborhood, such as healthy eating, education . . . prenatal care, teaching families how to budget," said Sheila Davis, president of Lanning Square West Residents in Action, which was involved in the initial planning.

The focus for the year will be on getting everyone in the neighborhood on board with the holistic plan.

Part of the grant money will go toward hiring a community organizer to get neighborhood residents engaged in the planning.

Another part of the planning process will be to assess the various social services and educational programs serving the Cooper Lanning neighborhood and determining the gaps that could be filled through the Promise Neighborhood, Rutolo said.

Once the planning-grant year is over, the Camden team will compete for a five-year implementation grant to execute a community-designed model.