How to Invest in Children, From Cradle to Career


What's Working: How to Invest in Children, From Cradle to Career

Lisa Early

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

Let’s start in 2009, with a college essay excerpt from a young man named DeMarcus Womack:

When you grow up in a neighborhood as poverty-stricken as mine, all your life you hear about people who make it ‘out’—and the much bigger number who end up back in the neighborhood unsuccessful and committing crimes.



My biggest fear is failure. I have witnessed it so many times walking to high school, bums laying on park benches running up to kids of all ages asking for money, teenagers, pants sagging to the floor, jaws full of paraphernalia, trying to make a quick buck. I don’t have to be a product of my environment.







By pursuing my education I’m disproving the statistics. I’m showing every young man behind me that there are other choices coming out of our neighborhood. I want to make it out so I’m able to give back and be a positive role model.

Fast forward. It’s 2015. In a video aired by PBS on American Graduate Day, Shaquille O’Neal interviews DeMarcus about the obstacles he faced in his struggle to “make it out.”

This is the story of a young man who grew up with a program called Parramore Kidz Zone (PKZ), but it’s also the story of Parramore Kidz Zone itself. When we started the program in 2006, Parramore was Orlando’s highest poverty, highest crime, highest teen pregnancy neighborhood. The high school was graded “F”.

Determined to change that, we adopted strategies developed by Harlem Children’s Zone, based on the premise that if you invest in good things for children, from cradle to career, the needle will move on juvenile crime, teen pregnancies, and academic performance.

Since 2006, we’ve invested in good things in Parramore. We created a fund for child care subsidies and emergency economic assistance, replicated Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College, scaled up free after school programs, and began feeding suppers to kids every day after school and lunches throughout the summer.

We created youth basketball and football teams, and built five computer labs in the neighborhood.  We took busloads of kids to theatrical performances, behind-the-scenes tours of Kennedy Space Center, weeklong camping trips, zip-lining, college tours, historical sites like the Harry T. Moore Museum and the Kingsley Plantation.

We even took 50 kids to President Obama’s inauguration.

Parramore Kidz Zone youth celebrate their decision to go to college at a local PKZ event. Photo credit: City of Orlando.
Parramore Kidz Zone youth celebrate their decision to go to college at a local PKZ event. Photo credit: City of Orlando.

We created a digital media program for Parramore kids to tell their stories, including this one they created in 2009. We established a youth employment program and college savings accounts where every dollar the kids save is matched with two dollars from donors.

We hired Student Advocates to keep Parramore kids on track in school, starting in kindergarten and all the way through college. When Parramore kids are overwhelmed by the financial ordeal of college, we pay for books, food, toiletries, transportation, whatever it takes so they persist.

All of this has made a difference. There were 41 teen births in Parramore when we started in 2006. Last year, there were 11. In 2006, there were 673 juvenile arrests in Parramore; last year there were 230. There were 87 verified child maltreatments in Parramore when we started; last year there were 45. Ninety-eight percent of Parramore youth who were helped by our student advocates moved up a grade level last year, and 100 percent of high school seniors graduated. Today, at least 85 PKZ youth are in college. Ten have graduated.

General Colin and Mrs. Alma Powell present Parramore Kidz Zone with the Powell Legacy Award at the Recommit to Kids Summit
General Colin and Mrs. Alma Powell present Parramore Kidz Zone with the Powell Legacy Award at the Recommit to Kids Summit, an event that marked the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and called the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth. Photo credit: ©2017

Fast forward again, this time to 2017. It’s been an uphill climb, but DeMarcus will graduate from college in December, making another excerpt from a different essay he wrote all the more powerful:

God gives his hardest battle to his toughest ‘souljas,’ and behind every soulja is an amazing story. The God’s honest truth, I was piss poor, didn’t have anything, nothing at all. I would've thrown in the towel but I stayed mentally strong and made my way through all the adversity.



It can be done, I'm a living witness. With all I’ve endured over the years, it's shocking I'm still alive. I do this for my mama, I do it for my childhood homies, I do it for my brothers Lil Nate and Gino who didn’t make it to see their 24th birthdays. I do it and I’m proud.

This is the story of what happens when you invest in children, and it’s a story that never ends. Parramore Kidz Zone will continue to be there for the thousands of kids like DeMarcus, from cradle to career.

Lisa Early is the founder of Parramore Kidz Zone and currently serves as Orlando’s Director of Families, Parks and Recreation.

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Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative
The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  


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