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The Transformer

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

by LINDA PERLSTEIN WHATEVER IT TAKES Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America By Paul Tough Illustrated. 296 pp. Houghton Mifflin. $26 When assessing the state of America’s children, people speak of the achievement gap between the middle class and the poor. But really there’s an everything gap: a health gap, a safety gap, a technology gap, a conversational gap, a ”turning off the TV and going to the library” gap. Schools can help make up for some of these deficits, but they can’t make up all the difference. This is where Geoffrey Canada comes in. Canada, if you haven’t heard of him already, is the man behind the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a hugely ambitious effort to improve lives in a 97-block swath of New York City. Others, like Marian Wright Edelman or Wendy Kopp, have worked as tirelessly on behalf of America’s children. But the Harlem Children’s Zone, founded in 1997, is perhaps the most intensive set of youth programs of our time. As Paul Tough explains in ”Whatever It Takes,” Canada ”believed that he could find the ideal intervention for each age of a child’s life, and then connect those interventions into an unbroken chain of support.” Its ”conveyor belt” begins when expectant parents learn about safety gates and mothers of toddlers learn to turn supermarkets into learning labs. Prekindergartners were enrolled for 10 hours a day, with an intensive focus on language, including French vocabulary. Canada’s high school, middle school and two elementary schools — all charters — can’t educate all the children in the zone; those left out can still attend computer workshops, fitness classes or college prep. Canada isn’t satisfied with propelling selected children to a better life; his goal is to ”contaminate”the entire culture of Harlem with aspirational values, disciplined self-improvement and the cognitive tools to do better than those who came before. That depends on offering services to as many people as possible. Employees approach teenagers with strollers and stake out Laundromats. ”Whatever It Takes” is engaged throughout, nowhere more so than in a vivid section on Baby College. Tough’s account of this parenting class illustrates the challenges Canada and his staff face. Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton have sung Canada’s praises, Barack Obama has promised to replicate the zone in 20 cities, Wall Street backers have helped boost its budget to more than $40 million a year. But superstar fans go only so far when it comes to teaching the value of time-outs to an expectant father whose discipline philosophy is based on pinching.Poor people typically don’t view their children as improvement projects the way middle-class parents do, and Tough presents the social science that shows how this can leave their children at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. Telling poor people how to raise their children is sometimes denounced as racism or ”cultural imperialism,” but Canada sees attentive, careful parenting — of the type middle-class parents read about in baby books — as the first step toward overcoming poverty. As he puts it, ”We want our parents to have the same information the rest of America has.” Canada, 56, has lived the arc he would like to see his charges travel. He grew up poor, with an absent father. Through a combination of pluck, luck, strong relatives and affirmative action, Canada got himself out of the South Bronx and through elite colleges. He was rarely around for his first son, born while he was a sophomore at Bowdoin; when the second arrived, much later, he talked to him in the womb and played him Mozart. At Baby College, ”graduation” is celebrated with balloons, a processional and speeches. The other graduation Tough describes, from a middle school called Promise Academy, is bittersweet, since disappointing test scores and behavior problems have caused Canada to retreat from plans to start a high school with these rising ninth graders. Tough, an editor at The New York Times Magazine who spent five years following Canada’s project, shows the pressures facing administrators. Most of the sixth graders arrived reading at a third-grade level or worse and thinking that 53 was 15; meanwhile, backers were ready to clean house when they didn’t see big improvements in test scores after just one year. While scores did eventually go up, Tough doesn’t give much of an idea of what the students were learning or how they were taught, beyond the test-prep they were given morning, noon and night. At a time when social service organizations struggle to show quantifiable results, it’s never clear, beyond the force of Canada’s personality, how he managed to attract so much support without the evidence funders typically demand. Still, when it comes to an introduction to the debate about poverty and parenting in urban America, you could hardly do better than Tough’s book. The children of the uneducated and impoverished too often bear a gloomy inheritance, their futures set in stone from an early age. Within Canada’s 97 blocks, Tough finds a different kind of legacy — one shaped by parents who have learned to pay attention to their children’s developmental needs. With a support network unlike anything else in America, the children of Harlem can envision a future so many others expect as a matter of course. Linda Perlstein, the public editor of the National Education Writers Association, is the author of ”Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.”

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Harlem Children’s Zone