The West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton/Druid Heights was once the nation’s premier African-American community — a Harlem before the renaissance. It was the place where you’d see Thurgood Marshall in a trim suit walking to the train station, on his way to the courtrooms in Washington, D.C. Then came desegregation and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which sparked riots that burned the central shopping district. Vacant lots became “shooting galleries” for heroin and crack addicts, and urban renewal policies replaced neighborhoods of stately row houses with towering projects and freeways.
Today, Upton/Druid Heights is best known as the backdrop for HBO’s crime drama “The Wire.” Residents aren’t expected to live past 63 years of age, a full two decades less than someone who lives in an upscale part of town, like Roland Park. The median household income is a paltry $13,388, and unemployment hovers around 17.5 percent, pushing half of all citizens below the poverty line. For the kids, the situation is just as bleak. Only about half are considered “school ready” by the time they’re in kindergarten; by eighth grade, only 40.6 percent test proficient in reading, and one in three young adults has been arrested.
“It’s almost like a community that everyone’s forgotten and overlooked,” says Bronwyn Mayden, a West Baltimore native who’s heading up Promise Heights, a comprehensive anti-poverty initiative in one of the city’s neediest neighborhoods. Mayden, a former civil rights advocate whose mother was a lifelong public school teacher, grew up in Upton/Druid Heights. Ask her to describe her surroundings, and she’ll tell you about the community’s assets rather than its drawbacks. Dreary statistics don’t faze her, and her sense of ownership for her hometown is peppered throughout her speech. Rarely does she refer to buildings by their formal names; instead, she calls them my schools, my churches.
Spearheaded by Mayden, a faculty member at the University of Maryland-Baltimore’s (UMB) School of Social Work, Promise Heights is founded on the belief that children raised in this neighborhood need comprehensive support to have a shot at success. The initiative rallies local organizations and coordinates their services around four public schools and several Head Start programs in Upton/Druid Heights. Centralizing aid has not only made parents aware of programs they’d never heard of, but it also enables teachers to focus on their primary job — educating kids — rather than having to spend all their time trying to contain the damage caused by family issues, medical conditions and trauma.
“There’s no way that high-poverty schools can do this alone,” says Mayden. “You’re spending zillions of dollars, but we’re not dealing with families. You’re not doing it in a holistic way.”
With dozens of services — including parenting classes, prenatal care and counseling for violent trauma — extending out from one central hub, social workers from UMB are stationed in schools, meeting kids and identifying their needs. If a teacher notices that a student is nodding off in class, for instance, he can refer her to a social worker. Once the root of the problem is discovered — like an untreated medical problem, perhaps — the student can be referred to the appropriate aid organization.
“If we don’t ensure that those homes, families and communities are as healthy, productive and stable as possible, then we know that students will not only fail, but will also create chaos for those around them,” says Henriette Taylor, a social worker at one of the elementary schools. Adds Mayden, “We invite partners into this community which has been so disinvested, so that we don’t have to become the expert in everything.”
The Breathmobile, a mobile clinic that provides treatment for asthma, is just one of the 40 partnerships that constitute Promise Heights. The respiratory disease the number one reason why Baltimore students miss school: Parents worry that school will exacerbate their child’s inability to breathe, or worse, when asthma isn’t treated, a kid ends up in the emergency room. But since these families live in an underserved area, they often don’t have access to quality specialized medical care. “Just physically getting there, they don’t drive or have the money to get the transportation,” says Lisa Bell, nurse practitioner and program coordinator of the Breathmobile program. Its goal, she continues, “is to eliminate any of those barriers that exist.”
The University of Maryland Children’s Hospital’s Breathmobile, which screened and treated 49 students in Upton/Druid Heights last school year, parks right outside neighborhood schools during the day, so students only need to walk outside for preventative care. Parents receive home treatment, educational resources and an individual plan.
Information that Bell jots down inside the remodeled RV might make its way back to the central office of social workers, who can follow-up to see if a child is allergic to a parent’s secondhand smoke or if there’s rats or cockroaches (whose droppings are a common allergen) in the family’s home. From there, UMB’s social workers and nurses can make home visits, set up tenants with legal services or just check in on the treatment.
So far, the model has had enormous success. The neighborhood is reversing perceptions from “The Wire” with small improvements: One school has a new library with 4,000 books, and 300 volunteers came together to build a playground. In school, students are performing better. Almost 92 percent of toddlers are now considered “school ready,” and the chronic absenteeism rate has been cut in half, down to 10.7 percent last school year.
Promise Heights was funded through a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods, “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort” that President Barack Obama first vowed during a campaign speech in 2007. Meant to take the wraparound model pioneered by Harlem Children’s Zone — what’s known as “cradle-to-college-to-career” — across the nation, the Dept. of Education has distributed $213 million to 48 communities. Funding, however, hasn’t been renewed in Congress, and the grant backing a significant portion of Promise Heights’ $1.5 million budget recently ran dry.
Despite the fact that Mayden must now devote almost all her time to writing grant proposals and fundraising in a city of limited resources, she continues to work towards urban renewal from within. “If you ask me my end game, I’m trying to help every child in this neighborhood of extreme poverty to graduate from high school and to help as many as possible get to college and to graduate from college,” she says. “I think we have a lot of assets that we can build upon.”
WATCH: See inside the historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School.