Homewood 'children's zone' vision advocated

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John Wallace, a professor who's spent more than two years planning the Homewood Children's Village, said his proposal to provide comprehensive social services to neighborhood children could be operational within 18 months.

"I think we have to. I don't think we have a choice," Dr. Wallace said, when asked whether he was certain that the Children's Village would come to be.

He said the much-touted Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program will mean little to Homewood unless children there rise above the violence, poverty, health issues and other problems that keep them from succeeding academically.

Dr. Wallace, a Homewood native and associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, last night presented his plans to the city school board and sought support for the Children's Village, which would be modeled on the acclaimed "Harlem Children's Zone" in New York.

The zone provides educational, medical and social services to children and adults in a 100-block area. A recent column in The New York Times lauded student achievement rates in the zone's charter schools, and the initiative also has been credited with increasing parental involvement in school work, helping preschool children get ready for kindergarten and even producing champion chess players.

Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem initiative, met with Dr. Wallace and other organizers during a visit to Pittsburgh in February. Before that, local organizers visited Harlem to see Mr. Canada's work.

When he's asked which services he'd like to provide in Homewood, Dr. Wallace's pet reply is, "Everything."

"It's doing for poor children what middle-class and upper-class parents do for their children," Dr. Wallace said.

He raised the possibility of putting a dental office in Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School so children have easy, inexpensive access to care their parents might not be able to provide. He envisions Westinghouse becoming a community center, but that the overall program would cover much of Homewood.

He said the program also could offer mental health services, spearhead a beautification campaign and work to provide amenities, such as a grocery, that more affluent neighborhoods take for granted.

"You can't buy a grape in Homewood," he said.

Dr. Wallace said program costs could be $3,500 per child annually. He said he is seeking private and government grant money to fund the program and noted that President Barack Obama has called for replicating the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities.

"Pittsburgh needs to be one of those," he said.

He said the Children's Village may be able to provide its first services in 18 to 24 months.

Dr. Wallace is a key planner and the public face of the initiative. He said his partners include residents, city police, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and civic groups.

Dr. Wallace said the program might start small and grow as money and other resources permit. He said it might incorporate social-service programs already provided in Homewood in a scattershot manner.

And, like the Harlem Children's Zone does, he would attempt to provide services to "as many children as possible" from early childhood through the high school years. Parents and other residents would be eligible for services, too.

"To me, the sooner, the better," school board member Bill Isler said.

Member Floyd "Skip" McCrea called the concept "phenomenal."

Dr. Wallace's proposal comes as the Pittsburgh Public Schools continues its own improvement efforts, including a possible overhaul of Westinghouse and its feeder schools.

Westinghouse's enrollment has dropped from about 560 student in 2005-06 to about 335 this school year, in part because students are enrolling in better-performing schools in other neighborhoods. The school's performance has improved the past couple of years, but that hasn't stopped enrollment decline.

Dr. Wallace said his proposal dovetails with the school district's efforts to prepare all students to graduate high school and take advantage of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, established in 2006.

Board member Randall Taylor questioned the organizers' ability to finance the Children's Village long term, and he said the district should spend more time analyzing recent academic successes at Westinghouse and trying to build on them.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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