The road to college was dark on a recent morning for Shana Burden's three sons. A neighborhood rooster crowed at 6:30 sharp, but he didn't need to. As usual, they were up.
Trudging through one of the city's toughest neighborhoods on the way to Sulphur Springs Elementary School, 9-year-old Jayqwan wished for the summer heat.
"You're going to worry about how hot it is then," his mom pointed out.
"Hot is better than cold," he insisted.
A year ago, Burden might have stopped at the gate when her kids reached school. She might have returned home while teachers at what was then an F-rated school did their best to improve the family's fortunes.
That was before the F turned to a B last spring, and their school started popping up on the front pages of newspapers and CBS' The Early Show. Before everyone started viewing them as a national success story. Before social service agencies across Tampa started working to transform their neighborhood — one square mile — into a place where no child could slip through the net.
Don't say it can't be done. More than 1,000 miles to the north, a man named Geoffrey Canada built just such a net with his Harlem Children's Zone. The initiative starts with expectant parents, guiding them and their children through the pitfalls of urban poverty, and supporting them all the way through college. With soaring test scores and scholarships to back it up, the Obama Administration is planning this week to unveil new Promise Neighborhood grants to boost similar efforts in places like Sulphur Springs.
So on this morning, 33-year-old Shana Burden didn't stop walking when she got to school. She had a job to do.
• • •
The promise seemed almost too good to be true.
Take a neighborhood laid bare by crime and the drug trade. Mold a raft of social service agencies into a well-coordinated army, and send them to raise that neighborhood's children out of poverty. Focus efforts around an education program that begins with "Baby College" for parents, and ends when their kids graduate from high school and enroll in the real thing.
Beginning in 1997, the Harlem Children's Zone followed that strategy of pouring every resource into a single, 24-block neighborhood. Within a decade, its charter school students were outscoring peers across New York State on standardized tests, and 90 percent of high schoolers in after-school programs were making it to college.
Until recently, such a plan might have seemed unrealistic for Sulphur Springs.
It's a place with more renters than owners, a median income of just $10,500, and Tampa's highest concentration of children. Foreclosed and abandoned homes mar the landscape, and police mount extra patrols. By 2008, its elementary school was on a short list of the state's most troubled schools.
But sometimes, when you slip down far enough, you get a fresh start.
• • •
The sun was just rising above the trees as parents began to arrive at the school. But Burden, wearing a bright red YMCA shirt, was ready for them.
"Good morning!" she called out, as parents streamed through the gates.
She handed each family a bag containing a little breakfast, a calendar of upcoming events, and some parenting fliers. Across the parking lot, other YMCA staff met parents coming from other directions while principal Christi Buell beamed at the front door.
This was the Parent Cafe — an effort to reach out with food and information to those who still need prodding to visit the school.
An older girl pushed through the gate and flashed a grin at Burden, who raised her eyebrows and returned the look. Just like her years ago, this was a "girl with attitude" who had given teachers problems.
"Until I talked to her mom," Burden said. "That all changed."
So much has changed.
A year ago, Burden's job was slipping away as she managed a child health problem. Doctor's appointments ate into her work schedule, and there was no money for child care. No money to keep her kids off the street.
Now, Sulphur Springs has become the focal point of their lives. By 7:30 a.m. on this day, 11-year-old Albert has scooted off to a tutoring session with the school's math specialist, while his siblings help organize the breakfast bags. They'd be busy with studies and activities until 6 p.m.
For the last year, the YMCA has run a center on the Sulphur Springs campus, with the sole aim of luring students and parents to spend more time at the school.
There are morning outreach classes for parents, after-school clubs, a full summer program, and a Saturday academy with time for studies, field trips and a hot breakfast from Second Harvest. It costs the YMCA around $730,000 a year from private donations and in-kind support.
Families pay $25 per child during the school year, and parents like Burden jumped at the chance to volunteer hours in lieu of cash payment. From just eight families enrolled in the district's after-school program in 2008 at $25 per week, around half the school's 568 students are now enrolled at the YMCA.
Across the street, the United Way is running a new resource center where adults can take GED classes, seek a job, or get help with problems like unpaid bills. Next door, the city will soon open a library branch.
All of this happened months before the Obama Administration announced plans in November to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone, starting with $10 million in planning grants.
For Burden, volunteering with the YMCA has turned into a paid, part-time job. She spends her days recruiting parents, and in the afternoon oversees a mandatory homework session before activities begin.
Ask one of the students in the after-school program where the future lies, and you'll likely get a bright answer. "I want to be a scientist with chemicals," said 10-year-old Antinique Girven.
Since Buell's arrival in 2008, Sulphur Springs students have made strong learning gains. But only 45 percent are on grade level. To catch up they need a longer school day and more parent involvement, she said.
Buell leveraged the YMCA partnership and alliances with some 40 business partners to support those goals. Kids who stayed after school for tutoring could enjoy YMCA sports and club activities. Parents who came to reading night left with donated groceries.
"We had to work with parents a lot to help them understand, 'Your kid can do it,'" Buell said. "That's half the battle."
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But make no mistake: It will be a struggle, even if the school wins one of the federal grants.
Sulphur Springs has a few advantages compared to Harlem, said Cheryl Pollock, YMCA executive director for community initiatives. It has a far smaller population, and a strong partner in the school district.
"We can do two or three projects in Hillsborough County and feel like we're conquering the world," she said.
Raising money could be the easiest challenge. It will be tougher to avoid wasting it, duplicating services, and losing precious time.
More than 30 groups and agencies recently met at the school to plan strategy, and offered at least that many suggestions. Start with parent education. Focus on early childhood. Reach out to the churches or police.
Every day, students leave their new haven at Sulphur Springs Elementary and return home through those dangerous streets, said neighborhood association leader Joseph Robinson.
"People who have been incarcerated and come out and don't have jobs, now they're living in the community with nothing to do," he said. "They have a negative mind, and the child is learning the same thing, little by little. We cannot have that."
But all agree on one thing: the safety net must be extended from Sulphur Springs Elementary into the neighborhood itself, and the critical years of adolescence.
"It's really sad for us when we hear that they go on to middle school or high school and they slip through the cracks," Buell said. "Yet we saw so much promise here."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.