Embracing the old proverb that it takes a village to raise a child the U.S. Department of Education awarded Meriden Children First a $460,000 planning grant to develop a community approach to educating neighborhood blocks of children.

The organization celebrated the announcement of the Promise Neighborhood grant Tuesday in a parking lot outside the public library on Miller and Twiss Streets. It was one of 20 organizations from around the country to receive the funding.

According to the U.S. Department of Education more than 200 organizations from 45 states, as well as American Samoa and Puerto Rico, applied for 2011 Promise Neighborhoods planning and implementation grants.

“We are the only community in New England that received a grant,” U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy bragged Tuesday. “What we know is that this is going to make a difference for Meriden.”

Many of the grants were awarded to organizations in much larger cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York.

The program fashioned after the Harlem Children’s Zone takes families with young children from specific neighborhood blocks and helps them create a community and get more involved in their children’s education.

Meriden Children First Executive Director David Radcliffe said the Meriden Family Zone pilot program has already started with 25 families and will attempt to build “cradle to career” supports for the children in these families.

Dolores Martinez, one of the mothers in the pilot program, said the program has been a great opportunity for her and her family and gave her the chance to be more involved in the school.

“I have learned more the importance of being active in the education of my children,” Martinez said in Spanish. “Also I have learned through our leadership how to advocate on important issues to improve our community. My son has improved in reading through additional support and my daughter has improved in her speech.”

The children of the families in the pilot program “are more engaged in school and the family is more engaged with their child’s education,” Radcliffe said.

But the program is about more than education. It‘s about building communities.

“One of the biggest outcomes we didn’t anticipate is the community building,“ Radcliffe said. “A lot of families in this neighborhood are isolated, disconnected they don’t know other people, and as a result of this work we intentionally brought them together.”

There are a lot of reasons why community doesn’t exist in some of the neighborhoods the program seeks to target, Radcliffe said.

There’s a lot of multi-family homes, poverty, language barriers, and documentation issues, Radcliffe said.

“Perhaps there’s a lot of reasons why people sometimes just keep to themselves. The neighborhoods where that happens—those are fragile neighborhoods,” he added.

Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, said this type of approach to educating children and building stronger communities was included in the state’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant application the state failed to receive. She said she’s hoping the Meriden Family Zone created by the Promise Neighborhood’s planning grant will be looked at as a model by the state.

Radcliffe said he believes the grant will open up other philanthropic doors because “this is a major league project and I believe others will want to be involved in it.”

In time, the Meriden Family Zone will grow to provide a comprehensive, “cradle to college” continuum of child and family supports to improve the educational and developmental outcomes within a targeted and distressed Meriden neighborhood.

Intended outcomes

•  More children in the Zone with health insurance.
•  More mothers receiving adequate prenatal care.
•  More children ‘ready’ for kindergarten.
•  Improved literacy skills for children in the early grades.
•  More children involved with quality preschool programs.
•  More parents with high-school diplomas and thus more ‘job ready’.
•  Children will feel safer at school and traveling to and from school.
•  Decreased student mobility.
•  Community building by connecting families, raising hope.