A team at the University of Evansville is leading what is likely the biggest anti-poverty effort in the city’s history. Using a five-year, $30 million federal grant, plus a local match of $32.5 million, the Evansville Promise Neighborhood wants to move the needle on key issues such as early childhood health and education, including kindergarten readiness; student achievement and success; post-secondary education access and success, including workforce readiness; and neighborhood and community revitalization.
Those are immense challenges, and Derek McKillop says they require data-driven strategies, the ability to change course when necessary, and collaboration among schools, agencies, and residents.
A native of Scotland, McKillop brings a background of managing federal grant programs to his role as Evansville Promise Neighborhood director. He previously was the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation director of Community Learning Centers.
UE applied for the $30 million grant on behalf of the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership, the Evansville Promise Zone, and EVSC. The application was one of only three awarded by the U.S. Department of Education for 2023, and McKillop says the funding enables Evansville to take on generational poverty in its poorest areas.
“We’ll be using data to drive decisions, relying on continual improvement to analyze where we are, what we’re doing, how we can do things better, how we really maximize that investment to provide the best possible programs and services to, to help deliver outcomes across those key areas,” McKillop says.
The federal grant award was announced in March, and McKillop says Evansville Promise Neighborhood’s leadership team already has interacted with site-based councils at schools and neighborhood associations.
More than 20 schools and agencies and about 65 programs fall under the Evansville Promise Neighborhood umbrella, including Evans Elementary School, Delaware Elementary School, Lincoln School, Benjamin Bosse High School, Lodge Community School, and Glenwood Leadership Academy. UE’s Center for Innovation & Change will house the staff leading the Promise Neighborhood, and McKillop says progress will be monitored along the way.
“Every one of those programs will have outcomes and measures and things that we can at some level attribute success to,” he says. “I’m less inclined to look for checked boxes, because I think there are other ways we will be able to ascertain whether or not we’ve been successful … Let’s look at the number of partners that are not just offering programs and services but are actually working together. Increased collaboration, things like that.”
“I think that as we develop ways to do the work, the processes and the systems that we implement and are able to coordinate, the people that we’re able to bring together, those will be bigger markers for success, I think, than a checked box approach,” he adds.
In addition to McKillop, UE has hired four others to lead the Promise Neighborhood team. Program Coordinator Lisa Allen most recently was an employment specialist for WorkOne Southwest in Evansville. Marketing Coordinator Irais Ibarra is a 2023 UE marketing graduate who served as CEO of Embrace Marketing Agency, a student-run ChangeLab at UE. Data & Program Evaluation Manager Stephanie Doneske previously worked as a research scientist and chemical engineer and is a former schoolteacher. Grant Accountant Renee Heil was formerly finance and operations manager for Junior Achievement of Southwestern Indiana.
McKillop says facilitating the federal grant aligns with UE’s mission, and leaders of the Promise Neighborhood are excited to take on work in areas ranging from health to education to community growth.
“What I like to think that we are doing is building an infrastructure that can help increase collaboration and help organizations, the community-based organizations, community partners, work together to provide services that will span across all of those pipelines and really pull things together,” he says.