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Expanding the Promise: Will the Cradle-to-Career Model Overtake the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline?

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Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the $10 million Promise Neighborhoods initiative -- an effort that distributes up to $500,000 dollars in competitive grants for communities implementing cradle-to-career services. The career-to-cradle model is based on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone (HCZ) model and is the centerpiece of the initiative. Paul Tough, who covers HCZ in Whatever It Takes, calls the model "a conveyor belt" within a 100-block area that moves from three early childhood programs, an elementary-through-high school Promise Academy, to a college success office. If that were not enough, HCZ provides some aspect of social services to all children within the 100-block radius.

How successful is the model? According to the HCZ website, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer declares that HCZ's elementary schools have closed the black-white achievement gap. The thought of expanding the cradle-to-career model to other communities should invigorate all who care about inching America towards a more Perfect Union.

Or should it? The promise of the cradle-to-career model is chastened by the persistence of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) Cradle-to-Prison® pipeline reminds us that "nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime." It also notes that "while boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, a significant number of girls [also enter] in the juvenile justice system." After lamenting that "this rate of incarceration" endangers children "at younger and younger ages," CDF isolates the misguided fiscal policy: "states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil." The cradle-to-career model is not perfect, but in the words of PolicyLink, a key driver of the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, it represents a bold effort to "Lift Up What Works."

The cradle-to-prison pipeline trajectory describes the journey of far too many black and brown children in urban spaces across America. To riff on a Southern hip-hop metaphor, prophetic religious voices often assemble "organized noise" to highlight this lamentable labyrinth. At its best this effort spotlights what -- and who -- might otherwise languish beyond the gaze of news cycles and political agendas.

We can, however, use our "Speakerboxx" (to quote Outkast's Big Boi) in an alternative manner. We might publicly celebrate the Obama administration's attempt to expand the promise of equal opportunity to the social periphery -- to poor children who deserve an education that will them as far as their imagination, as far as Hope's horizon will carry them. Occasional public choruses of celebration for thoughtful policies, instead of progressive religious voices only congregating to criticize public policy, might influence national and local policymakers to adopt more fresh thinking and bold policy experimentation.

Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, once told me that the title of one of August Wilson's plays -- Two Trains Running -- will preach. Allow me, if you will, to bring a sermonic close to a political development. There are two trains running in urban spaces today. One train, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, leads to deferred dreams, arrested development, and misallocated public dollars. The other train, the cradle-to-career pipeline, can lead to flourishing families, job opportunities, and the judicious use of public investment.

As religious leaders, we have a message for society at large. We can remind our nation that if we train up children in the way they should go, when they grow old they shall not depart from it (Prov. 22.6). We can take our cues from CDF's Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute, embracing child advocacy not merely as political work but as a ministry of public service. We can remember to plumb the social depths of that childhood hymn:

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world/

Red, brown, and yellow, black and white/

They are precious in his sight/

Jesus loves the little children of the world

We can keep the Obama administration accountable to its campaign-issued Blueprint for Change, critique it when necessary, and still offer sober commendation when praise is due. As conductors of religious melodies of love and justice, let us take this weekend to remind our houses of worship -- to remind America -- that the itinerary of impoverishment and incarceration is not the last word for our children. There is another train running, one that holds the potential to expand the promise of equal opportunity to all of God's children. This train proposes a $210 multi-year process to accent a comprehensive educational approach in poverty reduction efforts. The cradle-to-career train will not take us to the Kingdom of God, but it may bring us to a more equitable society. Our children are at the station. There are two trains running. We -- religious leaders, people of good will, and concerned caretakers -- are the conductors. Get on board, children, get on board.