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Can Harlem’s education success story work elsewhere?

Resource type: News

I remember covering poverty-stricken schools. Sitting in classrooms in which the teachers were disillusioned or killing time, meeting parent volunteers unable to read to the class and children who appeared rather hopeless.

It’s bleak.

Of course, there are always a few bright spots, and journalists love to discover them. But they tend to be the exception.

Paul Tough, editor at the New York Times Magazine, found an exception to the exception.

Tough’s recent work, “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” tells the story of a man who believed we can do better educating poor children. He sets out to show us with an audacious social experiment.

His vision is not limited to a single classroom or school. It stretches over 97 city blocks in central Harlem, which he dubbed the Harlem Children’s Zone. His idea, while labor-intensive and complicated to implement, starts with that appealing simplicity of a stroke of genius.

In the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada integrated social services and education, starting with a Baby College for expectant parents about how to discipline and teach their babies. There is a pre-preschool to give toddlers language skills lacking in their environment. A language-rich preschool, followed by charter elementary, middle and high schools in which the teachers and students work as though their lives depend on it. Which they do.

But, the audacity pays off. Despite fitful starts, failures and setbacks, the children in the Harlem Children’s Zone are high-achieving, defying their statistical baggage. Tough spent five years chronicling this story of poverty, parenting and education in urban America.

A very smart businessman in Illinois once told me, after years of intimate involement in the East St. Louis School District, that the district should simply blow up — not literally, of course, but disperse its students to higher performing schools to give them a better chance. The same seductive solution could be said about any struggling, poor school district. But, it’s incomplete and bound to fail for the majority of impoverished children.

That’s what Canada figured out. To give all poor children an honest shot at the American middle class, intervention has to start before that child is born and continue aggressively and completely until the child graduates from high school.

In a recent interview, Tough says he understands why so many Americans are disillusioned and cynical about the situation.

“They have seen so much money be spent and nothing seems to change,” he said. “That is depressing and frustrating for taxpayers.”

There are self-interested reasons for the rest of us to care about what happens in communities that seem worlds apart from ours. Despite the inherent issue of fairness, it’s far better to have a child become a productive, tax-paying citizen rather than filling neighborhoods that are a drain on public resources.

Canada’s approach focused with laser-beam intensity on results. His financial backers are successful business leaders, who demanded results. His approach is particularly suited to the Midwestern ethos of “show me.”
“Until you see it happen, you don’t believe it can happen,” Tough said.

Can this success be replicated? President Barack Obama has talked about creating 20 Promise Neighborhoods based on the Harlem Children’s Zone model. Canada’s vision is a compelling, results-based, empowering solution to the challenges of poverty. It is an optimistic treatise and action plan.

“I think it will take a lot of work to make it happen. I am really optimistic about it,” Tough said.

“There is a moral case to be made,” he said.

Anyone who has spent considerable time in a failing school knows how high the stakes are. How can we simply leave behind entire neighborhoods, entire cities, entire generations of children?

“It’s complicated. It’s complicated in a way that makes us all feel culpable,” Tough said.”

Harlem Children’s Zone is an Atlantic grantee.

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