The Harlem Children's Zone sits in a 97-block area in central Harlem, a predominately black neighborhood that is one of the poorest in New York City. According to the Washington Post, around 73 percent of Harlem children are born into poverty. Within the boundaries of the Harlem Children's Zone, there is an integrated network of charter schools, social services, health and community-building programs, the goal of which is to provide over 10,000 children with enough quality education and support for each to one day graduate from college.
These programs begin with Baby College, an intensive workshop that educates parents of children under three about early brain development and alternatives to corporal punishment. In the Harlem Gems Pre-K program, which starts at four years old, the student-to-teacher ratio is 4:1, and children are instructed in English, Spanish and French. The HCZ programs continue with the Promise Academy charter schools that combine an extended school day and school year with after school support, and a variety of other health and social services. The aim of this comprehensive approach is to provide an entire community of children with the opportunity to break free from the generational cycle of poverty by attaining a college education.
In 1997, when the Harlem Children's Zone was founded, three-quarters of the children in the Zone scored below grade level on statewide math and reading tests. In 2009, the HCZ reported that 100 percent of the Promise Academy's third graders scored at or above grade level on the statewide math exam, and the students' scores in both math and English have outperformed state, city and district averages for both black and white students. The early successes of the HCZ in eliminating the achievement gap for poor and minority students lead the authors of an April 2009 Harvard University study to call it "arguably the most ambitious social experiment to alleviate poverty of our time," and in a speech for his presidential campaign, Barack Obama stated that "the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone model in 20 cities across the country." Obama has remained committed to this goal, allocating $210 million of the 2011 budget to the development of the Promise Neighborhoods program. This program seeks to combine federal, private and local funding to implement the HCZ model of integrated education, health and community services in impoverished neighborhoods across the country.
The initial success of the Harlem Children's Zone can be traced in large part to the vision of its founder, Geoffrey Canada, whose charismatic and determined leadership has allowed him to raise hundreds of millions of private dollars to fund the HCZ schools and programs. Canada visited the University of Washington on Feb. 9 as part of a graduate school lecture series that is sponsored by the Jesse and John Danz endowment. Prior to his public lecture, Canada spoke with Real Change about the challenges of replicating the HCZ model in other cities, and the true measure of the Zone's success.
The schools and programs of the Harlem Children's Zone work to provide increased opportunities to an entire community rather than addressing the effects of poverty at an individual level. What originally inspired you to adopt this comprehensive model?
It is, to me, really clear in certain places that everything is going against the kid. And what people have done is decided that school has to be an oasis. They say, "Look -- everything is chaotic. There's crime, there's gangs, so we've got to have a safe place, and the school is that place." The only problem with it is that it doesn't work. It's a great theory, right? But there's just no evidence that this has been powerful enough to overcome all of the other environmental barriers these young people have to face. When you're anxious, when you're depressed, when you're scared, when you're angry, saying, "For a certain part of your life, I'm going to protect you, but then for the rest, you're going to have to deal with it," for a nine-year old, it just doesn't work.
So, for us, we don't think there's anything wrong with running just great schools, but our mission was to change the environment and the community, so it went from being unhealthy to healthy. When the community is dirty, and there's trash all over, and it's chaotic, and people are selling drugs, and open illegal activities are all around, we think that kids growing up in that environment have already got two or three strikes against them. So our belief was, we've got to not only figure out how to improve schools -- and I think there are a bunch of people who do that well -- but it's really: Can we get a community that has been at the top of all the negative indicators for children to be one that looks more like the rest of the state of New York? Which is why we chose this area, and we had to choose an area that we thought was big enough so that the kids growing up would actually influence one another. If we just got a block or two, then as soon as you left that block, you'd be with kids who would be the dominant culture. So we're trying to create an area where the dominant culture is one of health and order instead of one of chaos and, in many cases, unhealthy activities.
What are the most significant barriers to replicating the Harlem Children's Zone model in other neighborhoods across the country? And what is your advice to those who may wish to do so?
I think there are a couple of barriers. One is that you've got to have an organization that is prepared to play a leadership role in demanding high-quality services for young people regardless of the disadvantages those young people bring to the table. So we call it the "no excuses culture," that in the end, if you take the money, then you say, "I understand that these kids are growing up with gangs and single moms and I'm still going to get them an education." That's a given. So that's the first thing.
Then, there's this leadership issue which is, I think, critical because this is about deciding a group of children are your own children, and that you're going to do for them what you would do for your own, and accepting nothing less. You've got to find a leader who is really prepared, and I don't make that statement lightly, because it involves not only a commitment of your own time -- I mean we've been going at this 11 years and we've still got another 10 years before we've done a generation, right? That's 20 years, and so you've got to have that time. But it also is a commitment in spirit because we think that you have to run an ethical organization. The money has to be spent on what you're saying. You've got to make sure you're not hiring friends and family and relatives, but you're hiring the best people who can get the job done. This is not a jobs program for adults: It's an education and youth development program for young people. As much as we care about our communities and the folk who are in them, the first priority has to be these children and doing right by them has to be critical.
And there are just two other things that I would mention: One is you have to have the resources to get the job done. This is not something that someone should enter and then three years later find out, well, they really can't raise the money so they're going to have to stop. I think these communities have had too many promises that haven't panned out and we don't need this to be another one of those. And that you have to be prepared to use data and to hold adults accountable. The use of data, we think, is absolutely critical. You've got to know how you're doing. Some things are not going to work, and in our business, unfortunately, people get very comfortable doing over and over what is not working, year in and year out. If you don't have any data, you can just feel like you're doing a good job, and the truth of the matter is you're not, so we think that this has to be data driven and then you have to hold the adults accountable.
Have you had any direct involvement with the Obama administration's proposed Promise Neighborhoods program?
We have. We hosted a conference and we had over 1400 folk who came, and quite a few folks from the Obama administration were there. We had Jim Shelton [Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement], who was part of a panel. We had Melody Barnes there, head of domestic policy. We had Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. They were there all doing different addresses at the conference, and I had spoken to the Secretary of Education, as well as to Ms. Barnes and Jim Shelton about our vision of Promise Neighborhoods and what we thought the White House had to do to make this successful. We felt like they had to go with the right leadership. They had to get communities that were already down the road on figuring out their area and working out the collaboration issues. There had to be some structure for management in place, and there had to be resources so that it wouldn't be under resourced, and a real commitment of local leadership -- for the vision of the community and not for the individual schools. We thought those were some of the must-haves in the first few of these that have come up. So we've had those kinds of conversations with the administration.
How do you measure the success of your programs?
I have four full-time evaluators who work for me, and their job is to really get the data and let me know whether or not we're moving kids in the right direction. There's only one thing we care about: kids graduating from college. That's it. That's the one outcome, and everything we do is leading to that outcome, so we have lots of interim outcomes. Our theory is that if you're failing in the fourth grade, then you're not on your way to college, so we want you to be passing in the fourth grade. But, if you are failing in the fourth grade or even in the fifth grade, that does not mean that you're not going to go to college: It just means that we've got some indicators that let us know that this is becoming more and more serious, and for us to do our job, we're going to have to really intervene and get that kid.
Part of the issue in our work is people think you can take a slice of work,-- Look at kids' reading scores in the fourth grade. People make a big deal out of it. It's totally meaningless -- well, not totally meaningless, but, reading in the fourth grade: Does that guarantee that you're going to graduate high school and go to college? Absolutely not. Eighth grade: Does that guarantee you're going to graduate college? Absolutely not. It's just a slice of life and we make it into the beginning and the end.
Our belief is that we want those indicators all going in the right direction, but in the end, you've got to get those kids graduated from high school, into college and then you've got to get them through college. And so we won't know if we're successful until that happens. So all the people who have written about us with all the data that says our schools are doing wonderful and all that -- all that's meaningless to me. It doesn't mean anything: it just means the kids are on the right trajectory. When the kids that we started with from birth, who are in the fifth grade, 10 years from now, when they're in college, when they start graduating, I'll say I had success. Up until then, we're just on the right path, but no success. I've got kids in college right now that did go to my schools, which is, to us, success. We think that's the real key, and that's what we're holding ourselves accountable to. And one of the things is, it puts responsibility on us now, right? Because I want those kids to be passing in the fourth grade, and I want them to be passing in the eighth grade, but it also means that kids who fail never fail. I've got a long time to have you be a success, so you are never a failure. You might have failed the eighth grade, but that's OK. I've got ninth grade, I've got 10th grade, and I'm going to get you through, right? And that's what we do. It's not like we declare, "Oh, this has been a failure." This is like, we've got to now do twice as much in high school because this kid had a lousy middle school experience, but we still got to get this kid to college.