In a visit to Meriden Tuesday evening, Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor pledged to support efforts to help families and improve schools and neighborhoods in the Meriden Family Zone (MFZ), a distressed area of downtown. He said he will return to the city in three or four weeks to talk about ways the state can bolster those efforts. Among them might be creation of a funding stream to serve as a matching grant challenge to funders, he said.
“I’ve never seen a commissioner visit Meriden so often,” said Superintendent Dr. Mark Benigni in introducing Pryor to the crowd gathered at the Board of Education for a 5 p.m. press conference.
“And it won’t stop here,” Pryor responded. “There is so much going on here that can serve as an example for the rest of the state.”
Marisol Estrada-Soto, chair of the board for Meriden Children First Initiative (CFI), the parent organization of the Meriden Family Zone, explained how the Zone started as a pilot program with 25 families modeled after the highly successful Harlem Children’s Zone. She described a visit by a group of community organizers from CFI to Harlem in the spring of 2009.
“We knew if we could do it anywhere else, we could do it in Meriden,” Estrada-Soto said. “We started with a small number of families, just like Harlem did, and we’ve made a major impact, just like Harlem did.”
U.S. Dept. of Ed Grant Could Bring $20 Million to Meriden
The MFZ brings together more than 40 community partners ranging from city and school officials to social service agencies to health and welfare agencies to create a cradle-to-career continuum of support for Meriden children. Under the guidance of CFI, community organizers have been working on a proposal for a Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Education that could bring in upwards of $20 million over five years to support the MFZ, according to David Radcliffe, executive director of CFI.
Meriden is “well positioned” for the grant, Pryor said when asked about the city’s chances of getting the award. “Not many communities can rally to the cause in this way.”
Even if Meriden doesn’t get the grant, Pryor continued, “The process can be the product. Bringing partners together to orchestrate collaboration is a goal fulfilled.”
About six months ago, CFI received a highly competitive Promise Neighborhood planning grant of $465,000 to create a plan to expand and enhance the Zone. Meriden was one of only 15 communities nationwide to receive the planning grants, and one of the smallest. Those organizations are now in the running for the larger implementation grant.
According to Radcliffe, Meriden won the planning grant because the city has a lot of resources and a lot of committed citizens and city leaders working collaboratively to make it happen.
At the press conference, Mayor Mike Rohde talked about the scope of revitalization efforts going on downtown—ranging from the high-speed rail coming to town to flood-control efforts.
“Meriden is on the cusp of success,” he said. “Right in the middle of this is the Meriden Family Zone.”
“I’m so impressed that this Family Zone is coming to life,” Pryor told the crowd. “It doesn’t surprise me, though,” he said, with so many resources right here in Meriden.
“I think there are signs of success,” he said as he unveiled one of the new street signs to be installed around the MFZ.
City Councilor Cathy Battista, who arranged for the production of the signs, said, “My vision is to see these signs posted around the entire city because the whole city will become the Meriden Family Zone one day.”
Celebrating Million-Word Readers
After the press conference, Pryor visited the Million-Word Reader celebration at the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center. Students in grades 1 – 8 who read more than a million words during the school year were invited to celebrate their accomplishment at the event.
The commissioner addressed the crowd of students, parents, city and school officials, pointing out that invited students read about 400 million, or almost half a billion, words this year.
“That is amazing!” he said. “I’m so proud to have a little part in it today.”
Addressing Root Causes
En route to meet one of the families in the MFZ, City Manager Lawrence Kendzior gave Pryor a summary of about $50 million in downtown revitalization projects scheduled to get underway in the next few months. Those projects include economic development to entice businesses to the area, creation of a Transportation Oriented District around the high-speed rail project, and application for a Choice Neighborhood HUD grant to renovate public housing in the area.
Kendzior pointed out that the work Radcliffe is leading in the Meriden Family Zone gets to the underlying root causes of the problems plaguing downtown Meriden. Without addressing those root causes, any improvements to the area will be temporary.
“We’re giving him the infrastructure to support that work,” Kendzior said.
Bringing Funders to the Table
Pryor’s visit ended with a meeting with MFZ funders. Bringing the funders to sit around the same table is a practice unique to Meriden, Radcliffe pointed out.
Jim Ieronimo, executive director of the Meriden-Wallingford United Way, said that getting the funders to work together helped them to decide that instead of funding a bunch of small things, they would work together to fund one larger effort that can make a big difference—the Meriden Family Zone.
Pryor praised the coordination of efforts, saying he was “really impressed,” and stressed the importance of making sure each contact with a family leads to a connection with other needed services and available resources.
“How do we ensure that happens with regularity on every block in the Zone?” he asked.
Helping Families Help Themselves
Estrada-Soto explained that Zone outreach workers are trained to make those multiple connections with families, building long-standing relationships with them. Zone work isn’t just about providing services, she said, it’s about giving families a voice—helping them work together to improve their homes and schools.
As an example, she pointed out the sidewalks now being repaired on Twiss Street. Families told their outreach workers that they couldn’t let their children play outside because the sidewalks were unsafe and unsightly. The outreach workers helped the families inform the city of the problem, and now it’s being remedied.
“If you’re up to that endeavor, then the Education Department is ready to be ever more supportive,” Pryor told the group. “I see the spirit in this room is exactly the spirit needed for real success and for durable success.”