#1: Geoffrey Canada
“Our entire public education system needs radical and immediate improvement. We must tackle the challenge of improving traditional public schools, where the overwhelming majority of children are.”
In 2004, The New York Times Magazine called the Harlem Children’s Zone one of the great social experiments of our time. Today it can hardly be seen as an experiment anymore—it’s a success.
The program combines a multitude of resources—social, educational, medical, advisory—for more than 8,000 New York children and their parents. If students need a doctor or dentist, they see one. If they need counseling, they receive it. “They get what middle-class and upper-middle-class kids get,” Canada, president and CEO, told CBS’s 60 Minutes. “They get safety, they get structure, they get academic enrichment, they get cultural activity.”
And primarily, they get parental support when there is none at home. Adult advocates are part of students’ lives from day one—literally. The children get “adults who love them and are … prepared to do anything to keep these kids on the right track.”
Geoffrey Canada, who grew up in poverty in the South Bronx, has a good idea of what that love entails. In his 1995 memoir, Fist Stick Knife Gun, he describes a night in 1966 when an older, larger man challenged him and his friends to a fight. After a friend volunteered to spar, the man pulled a gun. Instead of fleeing, the group stepped up against the armed man, using their strength in numbers to drive him away. They “loved one another enough to be willing to die,” Canada wrote.
A scholarship got Canada to Bowdoin College. He went on to Harvard, where he graduated with a Master’s degree in education. In 1990, he became president of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. Dissatisfied, Canada gave the program an overhaul, redesigning it to track and support children from their birth until their college graduation.
David Brooks in The New York Times notes that in general, good public schools alone aren’t a cure-all; equal responsibility lies in parenting.
That’s where the Children’s Zone comes in. “Middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.”
Where many schools keep their standardized test scores acceptable by kicking out underperforming students, Canada takes the opposite route, ensuring that those who need the most attention are put through vigorous, individualized, “no excuses” schooling and tutoring. HCZ teachers go through similarly tough assessments—but when they underperform, they’re fired. The 2005–2006 school year only saw half its faculty return.
The results are simply off the charts. Case in point: HCZ’s Promise Academy has eliminated the math achievement gap between its black students and the city’s white students.
President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods program, enacted this year, will fund 21 additional “cradle-to-career” services in poverty-stricken areas. It’s clear that for all Canada’s success, the real value lies in his program’s potential in other cities.
“[Canada has done] the equivalent of curing cancer for these kids,” writes Harvard economist Roland Fryer. “It should be celebrated. But it almost doesn’t matter if we stop there.”
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