The fate of Project Promise, a summer program for economically disadvantaged Waco ISD students, is still unclear after representatives pleaded with the Waco City Council this week to keep providing the program with federal Community Development Block Grant money.
The city has split the grant money between several public service programs the past several years and is scaling back on the number of organizations receiving the shrinking share of block grant money going to Waco.
About 20 people spoke at Tuesday night’s city council meeting against a recommendation take away $37,000 used the past several years for tuition at Project Promise, which sends 60 low-income Waco ISD students Baylor’s University for Young People, a three-week summer program for gifted and talented students.
With at least one more opportunity to plead their case Monday, the last day for public comment on the city’s annual action plan, program officials don’t know what they will do if the city goes through with its plan to cut funding, said Susan Johnsen, Project Promise’s principal investigator for the grant.
“Project Promise stood as an example, a beacon that the underprivileged and forgotten hadn’t been forgotten,” former Project Promise student Pedro Rosas said during Tuesday’s meeting. “There was a ray of light you could look forward to over the summer.”
Rosas, who lived in the South Terrace Apartments, one of Waco’s public housing complexes, went through the program along with his four brothers.
“You hear these concepts of ‘you can be an astronaut, you can be an engineer, you can be all these things,’ but you have no context of what that means because you aren’t around those kinds of people,” Rosas said. “Every summer, we were around people who fulfilled those dreams and who were educating us on how we could start to pursue those dreams.”
“Without that context, you weren’t able to really see there was something bigger and that you could do more in life. The most important thing with this program is it just sent the right message. … You can’t tell 60 kids, ‘I know the deck’s stacked against you, but I’m sorry you’re going to have to fend on your own.’ Life’s hard enough as it is and I don’t think they should have to go through that.”
The city has slated Project Promise and two programs administered by Mission Waco to quit receiving the money in the city’s next budget cycle. The idea is part of a push to spread the city’s shrinking pool of block grant money among fewer, but higher priority services, said Melett Harrison, the city’s housing and economic development director.
The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the city can only use about 15 percent, or about $180,000 for next year, toward public services, Harrison said earlier this month.
“Everybody agrees this is a good program, and that’s not really the issue we’ve got. It’s what to do with our limited CDBG funds that have been cut this year. Cut to us, not by us,” Mayor Kyle Deaver said to Project Promise officials Tuesday night. “Have you all looked at other options in funding this program other than CDBG funds from the city of Waco?”
Johnsen and program co-director Paula Gardner said they have investigated other means of funding but have not found a solution yet.
As of Thursday evening, the program had heard from Ramiro Pena, the pastor of Christ the King Baptist Church about possibly providing support, but no one else, she said.
The average cost per child is about $875, which includes transportation, meals, course tuition and mentor support. Baylor matches the amount provided by the city, but that goes toward personnel and facilities, Johnsen said.
Simon Lerma, a father of two boys in the program, asked council members by show of hands how many of them could cook. Most laughed at the question, and one even said it wasn’t a fair question.
But Lerma said because of Project Promise, his sons can, and they now cook on their own.
“They have an opportunity that I didn’t, and it’s wonderful to watch them when I come home,” Lerma said. “I work all day, and during the summer they bake those cookies and make food. My youngest one is 12 years old and because of Project Promise, they’ve learned new recipes and they do this to show us what they’ve learned.”
For Bria Ward, who participated for several years, Project Promise gave her the opportunity to be around other gifted and talented students facing similar economic issues.
“I was able to look at poverty through the lens of others,” Ward said. “I was able to be friends with people I would’ve never met in Waco because I was in a sheltered home.”
Ward is now an educator at a Title 1 school, helping students with similar backgrounds. Title 1 schools receive federal funding to help close achievement gaps for low-income students.
The Waco City Council is expected to make a decision about the funding recommendation Aug. 1.