Now in fourth year, Upside Allentown will focus money on education

Improving Allentown’s public schools will be a focus in the fourth year of the city’s Upside Allentown program, a neighborhood improvement initiative designed to compliment ongoing economic development in Allentown.

For the last three years, the program — a coalition of volunteers, community leaders and city officials — has awarded money donated by local businesses for initiatives designed to support residents who live in the neighborhoods around Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

The state-created NIZ allows developers to reclaim their state and local taxes to be used for development that creates jobs. The zone has spurred more than $1 billion in planned and ongoing development.

In the past, Upside Allentown, which is managed by the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, has awarded money to first-time home buyers, English as a second language classes, facade improvements and community policing.

The group’s 2017-2018 budget includes additional money to assist the city with transforming its education system. The $100,000 allocation, about 25 percent of the Upside Allentown’s year four plan, will be dedicated to education reform.

Education is routinely cited by residents as one of their top concerns about living in Allentown. In an April 2017 Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll, 18 percent of residents ranked schools and education as the most important issue facing the city, behind only crime and safety.

The cash-strapped Allentown School District has struggled in recent years. Since 2011, the district has lost 400 positions, which has led to larger classroom sizes and fewer art and music classes. Additionally, leadership at the top has not been stable, with the last two superintendents — Gerald Zahorchak and Russ Mayo — leaving before their contracts ended.

Organizers plan to use some of the money to engage key stakeholders, including neighborhood residents and city business leaders, in a discussion with Superintendent Thomas Parker on how to reform the district. Parker joined the district in July.

Earlier this year, Upside Allentown helped the district organize community engagement sessions with city residents and Parker when he arrived.

Jill Pereira, co-chair of the group’s education subcommittee, said Upside Allentown has a good network in place to help Parker continue to engage with the community.

“With Superintendent Parker coming in the mix, it has really generated a lot of interest,” she said. “We have positive leadership that wants to think about and engage the community so the Upside initiative is trying to follow that lead.”

The fourth year of Upside Allentown also includes $55,000 for the Authentically Allentown artist-in-residence program, which was implemented in year three. Last year, that program offered community theater workshops in the Jordan Heights neighborhood, sponsored an artist-in-residence in the Hamilton District and began a pilot project to design way-finding and branding signs for the Old Allentown neighborhood.

Sean King, project manager for the Cultural Coalition of Allentown and co-chair of the arts and culture sub-committee, said arts play a role in economic development.

“All of those things make Allentown a better place,” he said. “We think arts can, if not lead the way, play a role in creating that sense of community and engagement and provide and enjoyment and entertainment.”

Upside Allentown, which is ultimately a six-year program, will also continue to fund ESL classes, facade improvements and community policing in year four.

Contributors to the program include TD Bank, PPL, BB&T, Alvin H. Butz, City Center Investment Corp., Wells Fargo Bank and Lafayette Ambassador Bank.

Don Bernhard, executive director of the Downtown Allentown Community Development Initiative and an Upside Allentown steering committee co-chair, said the program has much more work to do, but city residents are seeing tangible results.

“We have concrete evidence after three years that these initiatives are touching people, changing lives, and improving quality of life in the neighborhood,” he said.

Twitter @emilyopilo


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