Homewood Children's Village: mending the fabric of the community

Five years after it was founded, the program has met with some success in helping the neighborhood's young people

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On a Wednesday evening in early April, Rochelle Sumpter marched down Hamilton Avenue in Homewood, wearing gray sweats and an iPod clipped to her waist.

She pointed a couple blocks ahead, to Homewood Avenue. When she grew up here in the 1960s, Homewood Avenue was alive -- restaurants, shops, a record store, a grocery, a theater. Now most of its storefronts are vacant, blocked by chains or wooden boards.

Ms. Sumpter moved to Wilkinsburg in the '90s to keep her son away from city gangs. She wouldn't be walking around Homewood like this back then, she said. Since she moved back, it has gotten a little better.

"If they bring more things to Homewood, they could bring it back," she said. "Not to where it was, but a better neighborhood."

She was walking with other Homewood women and their children as part of an exercise program -- Workout Wednesday -- that is run by the Homewood Children's Village, a patchwork of programs intended to repair Homewood's social fabric, returning the neighborhood to its glory days.

Five years after the children's village was created, it has found some success toward that goal. With a staff of 13 and a team of volunteers, it runs more than a dozen social service programs, including health seminars, a weekend lunch program for students, a college preparatory class and mentoring for students in the neighborhood's public schools.

It's loosely modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, a program in New York City since the '90s. Like the village, the children's zone concentrates on a low-income part of the city and offers a set of programs designed to create a "pipeline" leading children to a successful adulthood.

Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess said the Homewood Children's Village has done a good job of coming up with plans to fix Homewood's problems.

"They've been sort of a resident think tank, looking at the fabric of the community and what has to be done to rejuvenate the community," he said.

But it has experienced some setbacks. Its plan to create a charter school in the neighborhood was rejected by the Pittsburgh Public Schools board in February. On top of that, the village's goal of turning around Homewood is a daunting one. The neighborhood is marred by crime and an increasing number of vacant lots. Between 1980 and 2010, its population declined from 15,158 to 6,442, according to U.S. Census figures.

"The sheer magnitude of the work makes it hard," said John Wallace, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work who helped found the village. "This is not something you're going to solve and address in a three- or five-year period, and keeping it afloat is a challenge."

Focus on children

The village's programs reach Homewood residents of all ages, but the focus is on children.

"Essentially, it's doing for poor children what middle- and upper-class parents do for their children," said Mr. Wallace, who grew up in Homewood.

In its Bridge to College after-school program, village staff member Walter Lewis helps students prepare for the SAT, write college application essays, apply for financial aid and decide where to enroll. During the summer, the students go on college tours.

Rashay Evans, a senior at Westinghouse High School, has been going to Bridge to College since she was a sophomore. The program helped her with lots of issues, including the SAT's dreaded math section. Now, she has been accepted to the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"You feel kind of lost," Ms. Evans said of the college admissions process. "Bridge to College helps you in that way."

Most of the village's programs for children are based on education. In Faison K-5, Lincoln PreK-5 and Westinghouse High schools, village staff members and volunteers from Pitt's School of Social Work tutor and mentor students. To cut down on truancy, staff call a student's home when a student doesn't show up.

Every week, the village hands out food to low-income students in Homewood's elementary schools for them to take home over the weekend.

On Thursdays, volunteers meet in the village's headquarters in an apartment on Homewood Avenue to pack canvas bags with containers of oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, pretzels, popcorn, apple sauce, chicken noodle soup and Capri Sun. Many of them are parents and students from St. Bede Parish in nearby Point Breeze. One of the parents, Marybeth Olander, has recruited several parish members as volunteers.

"It feels great to be doing something for children who are right next to our neighborhood," she said. "It's hard to believe that it's right next door."

A pipeline approach

Before creating the village, Mr. Wallace, employees of Pittsburgh Public Schools and leaders from several local nonprofits spent three days in New York City observing the Harlem Children's Zone. They became convinced that the concept could help Homewood.

But there's a big difference between the two organizations. The village is smaller with less funding. Relying on grants for revenue, its budget went from $2.2 million in 2010 to $1 million in 2011. Mr. Wallace said the village could serve as a model for organizations trying to revitalize neighborhoods without deep pockets and he hopes the concept will spread to other neighborhoods.

Because of the village's relatively modest budget, it depends more on collaborations with other organizations, Mr. Wallace said.

"Despite the perception people have, Homewood is an asset-rich community," he said. "The point is to leverage the resources and assets we have in the community."

One of those resources is the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, or PAEYC, which runs the early childhood education portion of the village's program.

PAEYC's executive director Michelle Figlar said her organization and the village have a symbiotic relationship. PAEYC offers the village expertise about early childhood learning, while the village brings knowledge about the Homewood community.

"They've been the ultimate partner," she said.

Charter school setback

The village hopes to open a charter school that would emphasize "21st century skills" like creativity and mental agility, said Derrick Lopez, president and CEO of the village. One of the school's goals would be to prepare students for the technology-oriented economy of the future, rather than the manufacturing-oriented one of the past.

"We can't train kids to be automatons any longer, doing one job only," Mr. Lopez said. "Our kids won't be at GM for 40 years anymore."

The curriculum planned for the school is designed to spur creativity. Every trimester, students would work together on a capstone project, coming up with solutions to a problem, such as what to do with Homewood's vacant lots. One of the students would act as engineer, one as scientist and the other as designer.

The projects would give students experience in working together on complicated problems, Mr. Lopez said, as well as teaching them about science and design.

Like the rest of the village's program, the school would rely on collaborations with other organizations in Homewood, creating a "community campus" rather than a large school building.

The Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum would be used for art classes, the Afro-American Music Institute for music classes and the Carnegie Library Homewood Branch for the library. Some classrooms would be in renovated buildings on Homewood Avenue.

But the Pittsburgh Public Schools board rejected the village's proposal in February. It raised eight objections, including that its curriculum doesn't match state standards and it isn't proven to be financially viable.

Mr. Lopez seemed unfazed by the decision, pointing out that the district turns down most charter school applications. He vowed the village would work with the board to come up with an acceptable proposal.

"We're not going to stop until our children have a school that's worthy of them," he said.

Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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