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One on One: Irasema Salcido

Irasema Salcido, Photo by Steve BarrettWhen the U.S. Department of Education opened the competition in 2010 for the first round of Promise Neighborhood Grants, it didn't take long for Irasema Salcido, Ed.M.'89, to decide to apply. She knew it might be a long shot, but the work that was being done at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., where she serves as CEO, was already in line with the goals of the initiative: creating educational opportunities for children in distressed communities by offering "cradle-to-college" services.

The long shot paid off when Chavez Parkside, the school's campus in the Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood of D.C., was announced as a recipient.

"I actually cried when we found out. I was so overwhelmed with joy and a sense of accomplishment," Salcido says. "It was an acknowledgement of the needs in this community and a beginning to sustainable solutions to meet those needs."

As CEO, Salcido oversees the three Chavez Schools — the original campus at Capitol Hill, Chavez Prep, and Parkside — but it was only when Parkside's principal stepped down and she became acting principal that she truly began to understand the depth of the school's day-to-day issues.

"I got a firsthand look at the challenges that the students, families, teachers, and staff faced," she says, "and I started to look for solutions."

What are some of the Chavez Schools' challenges?

Our major challenges are the same as those that face many schools that serve similar populations across the country: Helping our students get to grade-level proficiency and to pass standardized tests. Parent involvement and engagement has been a challenge, as well as recruiting and retaining effective staff that can bring our students and schools to where they need to be. We have been successful in many ways and have had strong results across our three campuses, but our staff still struggles to overcome the challenges that our students face academically as well as socially.

Why did you choose Parkside-Kenilworth for a Chavez School?

I saw that there was limited opportunity for the children in Wards 7 and 8, and I wanted to change that. The reaction of the parents and residents was so positive. Parents couldn't believe that someone wanted to start a school in their community with a focus on getting their children to college. They were so excited to have Chavez come to the Parkside-Kenilworth community, and we were excited to be a part of the community.

Were you working on a plan for Parkside prior to the Promise grants?

Yes. Two and a half years ago, a small group of people and I convened and spoke about what was happening at Chavez Parkside. The low test scores and the number of students who were not prepared for high school urged us to research and connect with the two local elementary schools. We discovered that they were facing similar challenges as the students as young as three and four years old were coming to school without the basic knowledge needed to begin school. At that point, we created the foundation of an organization that would target these problems.

We concluded that academic solutions were only one part of the success of each child. Factors such as early childhood development and community safety were also important factors to guarantee that each child would reach [his/her] full potential. The group — now called the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) — evolved over the months prior to the announcement of the federal Promise Neighborhood Grant.

Your model is the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). Why?

We felt that its holistic approach to improving the education and lives of children in Harlem was something that could work for the children in Parkside-Kenilworth. Parkside-Kenilworth is an isolated community with some of the highest rates of poverty, academic failure, crime, and HIV/AIDS [in Washington, D.C.]. There is a high concentration of children, and 38 percent of [its] children live below the poverty line. The HCZ model provided a template for us to target the more unique challenges.

How will DCPNI meet its goals?

We will collaborate with community members, charter and traditional public schools, experts, service providers, government officials, and funders to ensure a continuum of services and wrap-around supports will be made available to the children and families of the Parkside-Kenilworth community.

Our academic goals include children entering kindergarten ready to learn and students graduating from high school and going on to obtain a postsecondary degree or certification. Students being healthy and feeling safe at school are among our family and community goals.

These goals will not be achieved overnight. However, we have made a commitment to this community for the long term, and we will do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.

How involved is the community now?

We cannot do this work without strong support and trust from the community. DCPNI hosts monthly community dinners … to inform residents about [our] goals, hear directly from residents what they feel are the most pressing needs in the community, and encourage residents to become actively involved with this initiative. To ensure the voice of the community informs everything we do, one-third of DCPNI's advisory board members are residents. Additionally, our 10 results-driven work groups . . . which are tasked with recommending solutions for achieving [each of our 10] goals, have at least one resident cochair as well as varying numbers of resident members. We are fortunate to have such strong support and involvement from the community.

You were honored by Oprah's Angel Network in 2001.

Being on the show gave me added motivation to continue my life's work. Receiving recognition and praise from someone who is so well-respected gave me an even greater sense of pride and determination to continue my mission. It helped to strengthen the commitment of our school's teachers and staff and lifted the aspirations and determination of our students. While I've always believed in the importance of my life's work, to [be recognized by] someone who has also dedicated herself to improving the lives of others is humbling.


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