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These two words are not typically seen as positive. However, as Geoffrey Canada uses them, in regards to his Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), they are quite hopeful.

The book about his work, Whatever It Takes, by Paul Tough has gotten a lot of press in a range of places. (I’ll link to some at the end of the post.) Tough spent a significant amount of time with Canada and in the various HCZ programs in the process of researching the book. He is an editor for the New York Times Magazine and has written quite a bit on education and on poverty. He knows his stuff.

The book follows the HCZ from fairly early stages through its first couple of years. You can find brief or detailed summaries in many other locations. Amazon’s page has quite a few readers’ reviews as well as brief interviews with Paul Tough and Geoffrey Canada.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an interview with both men from September of last year. It’s about half an hour long and quite powerful because Canada is passionate about his topic. At one point near the end he says, about children living in poverty, “We’re trying to save them in groups of twenty, or forty, or one hundred while we are losing them by the tens of thousands.”

He wants to save them by the tens of thousands and he has created his ‘conveyer belt’ to achieve that end. It begins with Baby College, designed for expectant parents through parents of two-year-olds. At three, there is another program for parents designed around the developmental needs of their children. At four, children will enter the Harlem Gems pre-school program followed by Promise Academy for kindergarten on. Obviously not all children will be able to benefit from all of this. However, Canada’s goal is to get children from the beginning and support them all the way through college.

He is aware that not all children in Harlem will be lucky enough to have their parents attend Baby College or they might not win the lottery to get into Promise Academy, a charter school. Canada’s expectation is that enough children and families will be participating in parts of the HCZ that it will ‘contaminate’ Harlem with its set of values. He expects to see attitudes towards learning and intelligence changing as a result of his work.

One aspect that fascinated me was Canada’s take on KIPP schools.

“If Canada’s model was one of contamination, in which positive ideas and practices spread within a family and throughout a neighborhood, the KIPP model sometimes seemed by contrast to be one of quarantine, walling off the most promising kids from a sick neighborhood’s contagion. As Canada often said, he was tired of programs that helped a few kids ‘beat the odds’ and make it out of the ghetto; his goal was to change the odds, and to do it for all of Harlem’s kids. The idea of success in the middle of Harlem’s ocean of failure – that felt entirely wrong to him.”

I think his work has many implications for schools serving students living in poverty. I have heard criticisms of him and his work in Harlem, but I have to admit, I am quite impressed. He made decisions during those first few years that I did not agree with, but typically they were decisions he did not want to make. Some decisions were made to ensure that the money kept coming in. He also puts significant weight on test scores. His reasoning is that the children in Harlem must be able to compete with middle-class children on standardized tests if they are going to get into colleges. While the focus on testing frustrates me, I am able to see his point.

Geoffrey Canada’s programs cost a lot of money. They require significant time and energy from a lot of people. However, I think that is what is necessary to create real change in the academically neediest areas. Investing in those areas is the only way those children have a fighting chance, on a grand scale. The book is definitely worth reading.

PRI’s This American Life episode narrated by Paul Tough This half hour segment gives the basics of the book and includes clips of events at the HCZ and interviews of involved individuals. The quote that most hit me referred to a young mom at Baby College, “For most middle class kids, the path that Taisha struggled to find is so straight and well paved that they barely even notice it’s there.”
Geoffrey Canada on The Colbert Report
Paul Tough’s website and blog
Harlem Children’s Zone’s website
Geoffrey Canada’s autobiography, Fist Stick Knife Gun, on Amazon

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