Bill Grant, director of adult education in Lewiston, and Farwell Elementary School Principal Amanda Winslow speak during a session with Harlem Children’s Zone executives in 2020. Steve Collins/Sun Journal file photo

LEWISTON — After two years of study, Lewiston’s leaders unveiled a preliminary plan Monday to tackle the poverty that has thwarted the dreams of many families for generations by focusing first on the city’s youngest residents.

In a report delivered to the School Committee on Monday, the Lewiston Subcommittee on Poverty called for a communitywide effort to begin breaking the cycle of poverty by concentrating on “ambitious but achievable targets for change.”

Counting on better education to disrupt poverty, the 15-member panel called for the Lewiston community and its school system to ensure that “children are ready to learn and have equitable, measurable outcomes” that show they have mastered what they should know.

The School Committee praised the report and unanimously endorsed both its findings and its recommendations to bolster school readiness for those entering kindergarten and ensure third-graders are reading at or above grade level.

School Committee member Elgin Physic called it “a big step in the right direction” and hailed the “sense of urgency” driving its call to see major improvements by year’s end.

“It takes a village raising a child to thrive,” said Fowsia Musse, executive director of Maine Community Integration, a member of the poverty panel created in 2019 by the Lewiston School Committee.

The hope is that boosting school readiness will lift more young children out of poverty.

“Poverty’s here,” said Joe Philippon, a Lewiston police detective who served on the panel. “We’re just responding to what’s right in front of us.”

Chart showing childhood poverty rates in Lewiston in recent years. Lewiston Subcommittee on Poverty

About a third of Lewiston children under the age of 5 are impoverished. About a fifth of the city’s residents overall are poor, but many others are on the edge, officials said.

Mayor Mark Cayer, who helped launch the effort, said there “is some urgency to the work that we’re doing” because reducing poverty in the community will improve the lives of the more than 6,000 Lewiston residents the census bureau calls poor.

Vowing to “own” the issue, Cayer said the community needs to address the “decades-long failure” to deal with poverty in Lewiston.

The panel’s recommendation arose in large part from its exploration of how the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York City nonprofit initiative, has taken on poverty with a wide-ranging package of programs to give youngsters born in impoverished neighborhoods a helping hand from birth to college.

After visiting Harlem last winter, members of the subcommittee agreed that Lewiston should focus its attention to begin with on its youngest residents, trying to ensure that children are ready to learn when they get to kindergarten.

Too many children, they said, start off well behind better-off peers and never catch up. Eliminating that gap would be a good start to produce a new generation of hope, they said.

Those involved in the effort said they hope that with the backing of the city and its school system, leaders from a range of community organizations will be able to pick up the standard and press forward.

Monique Roy, former chairwoman of the School Committee, said officials who are working on the issue are “nowhere near” creating a new system but are ready to begin delving into the nuts and bolts of putting together what’s needed.

Julia Sleeper-Whiting, co-founder and executive director of Tree Street Youth Center, said it’s going to take many partners and many perspectives.

“The work of ensuring that all children in Lewiston are successful continues,” the report said. “This work extends beyond the authority and responsibility of the School Committee alone. To be successful, this work must be shared across the schools, the city and the greater community.”

The logo for the Harlem Children’s Zone on a wall at the Promise Academy. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

It urged the School Committee and community generally to agree on the necessity of moving ahead with “important, shared community work” and “to collaborate with community partners” in four key areas: “coordinating services, equity leadership, individualized supports and basic needs.”

The committee said it also wants school officials to share data that would indicate progress toward reducing poverty and to “join key partners in an annual community review of progress.”

Without the support of school overseers, however, the process would likely falter. Nearly all of the data that would drive the work would have to come from school administrators.

“The school is going to be the pipeline” to identify young people who need special attention, Cayer said.

“We’ve got to be partners on this,” said Bill Grant, adult education director and a member of the poverty subcommittee.

State Rep. Heidi Brooks, a Lewiston Democrat, said, “Having a holistic approach is really critical.”

GOALS FOR LEWISTON

The key, as the panel learned in Harlem, is to start early.

“Kids, when they get to kindergarten, are either ready or they’re not,” said Betsy Norcross Plourde, executive director of the Promise Early Education Center, another member of the committee.

The report’s recommendations call for officials to work hand-in-hand to make that possible.

It also laid out some clear “ambitious but achievable targets for change” in the coming year or two.

The report vows to slice the poverty rate of children in Lewiston under the age of 6 by 12% by the end of this year. To pull that off would mean about 90 fewer children in poverty.

By year’s end, it aims to ensure that 39 third-graders who don’t read at grade level, half of them students of color, will meet or exceed the standards by Christmas.

In addition, the report says officials will make sure this year that every incoming kindergarten student will have “an identified medical home,” typically a physician, and at least 85% will have a dentist as well.

The report also calls for 85% or more of incoming kindergarten students this year will either participate or have access to “supportive, quality, early learning programming.”

By May 2022, it seeks to ensure that at least 85% of children who attend preschool with the school system or the Preschool Promise program meet or exceed development targets as measured by Teaching Strategies Gold standard, a recognized standard of quality.

The poverty committee said in its report that it “recognizes that no one entity can achieve these targets alone. This work requires partnerships, collaboration across sectors, and work both in and outside of our schools.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” School Committee member Paul Beauparlant said, “but I think it’s attainable.”

The report also noted that since the pandemic’s impacts are impossible to ascertain and might make it hard to reach the targets this year.

“If one or more targets are met, successful efforts and impacts can be expanded,” the report said. “If one or more targets are missed, partners can reflect on what happened and use that learning to create quality improvement and to revise future targets.”

The racial breakdown of poverty in Lewiston. Lewiston Subcommittee on Poverty

ORIGIN OF THE REPORT

The whole initiative began with Cayer’s growing conviction that addressing Lewiston’s poverty would help not just those trapped in low-income lives but also everyone else.

After he took the helm of the School Committee, Cayer pressed two years ago to establish the special panel to dive into the issues of poverty and figure out what if anything, the community could do to help the three in five families in Lewiston struggling in poverty.

Delegates from Lewiston posed with a banner during a 2020 visit to the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. The group explored how to tackle generational poverty in hopes of finding ideas to bring home to Maine. Steve Collins/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

They got the idea early on that perhaps the right path could be found elsewhere, which led officials to the acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone.

In January 2020, 11 community leaders, mostly in education, headed for Harlem to get a close-up view of what they might learn from a nonprofit that had been dealing with the some of the same issues for years.

They saw firsthand how the $130 million-a-year charity offers a wide range of programs that, collectively, ensure thousands of young people in Harlem are cared for and educated every day, morning to night, from birth until they graduate from college.

The Harlem program focuses on an astonishing range of issues facing youngsters, from dental care to access to sports to help with internships for older students. It seeks, in a nutshell, to envelope students for years with positive role models and support.

When they returned, officials said they recognized they couldn’t hope to match everything. There is only so much money available, after all, but they thought targeting the youngest children would likely prove the best use of Lewiston’s limited resources.

Cayer said Lewiston can’t copy what’s being done in Harlem.

“It’s not a cut-and-paste situation,” he said, but the city can certainly snatch some ideas from what is working in New York.

WHAT COMES NEXT

It’s still a little vague what happens now that the poverty panel Cayer created has completed its assigned task.

The report said members of the panel recognized “that no one agency, organization or program can achieve a shared result of this size and importance. Lewiston residents, community partners, schools and government all have a contribution to make to the success of our children.”

Monica Miller, prekindergarten coordinator for Lewiston schools and a member of the Lewiston Subcommittee on Poverty, attends a recent meeting. She will likely play a key role in pushing to ensure students are school ready. Video screenshot

What that likely means is that organizations already working with children in the community will do more to partner with one another, to meld what they’re doing to try to create a more seamless approach toward achieving the tangible goals identified in the report.

Cayer said that it will cost money.

But, he said, “we spend an incredible amount of tax dollars and staff time dealing with issues that really are just ramifications of poverty.”

Do something about poverty, officials said, and that money can be used more effectively.

Cayer said the schools can’t pay for everything that’s needed. But if educators recognize the value of what is sought, they’ll put resources into gathering necessary data and lending a hand to boost student success.

He said that grant money is likely to be available as well.

“We’re going to make a difference in this community,” Cayer said, adding that he envisions slicing the poverty rate in half in the next few years.

Cayer said officials need to be careful as they press forward.

To avoid doing nothing, Cayer said, “The next steps are so critical.”

Bobbi Avery, a member of the poverty panel and chief administrative officer for the schools, said the next major step will likely be a community meeting.

“Stay tuned,” she said.

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