Audacity in Harlem

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest To Change Harlem and America,
by Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $26.00

It's vintage news that poor kids, especially poor black kids, fare badly in America. Whether the measure is high school graduation, teen pregnancy, or running afoul of the law, wide gaps persist. The impact is life-long -- worse jobs and more unemployment, more years in prison, poorer health, and a shorter life expectancy.

Reformers have been trying to narrow those gaps for eons, but the track record offers only modest cause for cheer. Programs directed at adolescents, like redesigning secondary schools, or aimed at dropouts, like the Job Corps, have at best limited impact. Some, like the widely used DARE program, which sends cops into classrooms to lecture students on guns and drugs, are demonstrably worthless.

Some initiatives do pay off. Tennessee's STAR program, which radically shrunk class sizes for the first four years of school, has recorded big increases in the percent of black males graduating from high school. Programs such as Success for All bring many poor kids within hailing distance of reading at grade level. The earlier in life that children are reached, the more impressive the evidence of success. The Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends pediatric nurses to support poor first-time mothers, has shown long-lasting effects on school achievement and juvenile crime. Model pre-kindergarten programs like Perry Preschool and Chicago's Child Parent Centers boost graduation rates, raise incomes, and cut crime -- and returns on these investments run as high as 17 to one.

Toiling in Harlem during the 1980s and 1990s as CEO of the Rheedlen Center, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping kids in school, Geoffrey Canada knew all about the long odds against success for an inner-city kid. That was the context of his own life story, which he recounts in Fist Stick Knife Gun (1995), a noir bildungsroman about growing up in the war zone called the Bronx. His goal in life is to narrow those odds, to pull inner-city children from the cross fire.

Rheedlen Center has relied on what Canada calls the "superhero" model -- dedicated individuals rescue children, one by one, from life on the streets. But such heroics cannot achieve his dream of getting every Harlem kid into college. In Harlem the streets exert a powerful pull, the public schools are mostly dead ends, and many parents need support to give their children the tools for success. The entire world where these kids grow up needs to be transformed.

From this outsized vision the Harlem Children's Zone, or HCZ, has emerged. Its territory has quadrupled in less than a decade to cover 97 blocks, and its budget has mushroomed to $70 million. Canada's charisma won the confidence and opened the pocketbooks of New York's hyper-rich. And because his agenda complements the grand hopes of Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, he has received strong public backing. Well-wishers include Barack Obama, who has pledged federal support for 20 similar ventures if he is elected president.

The HCZ is developing what Canada calls a "conveyor belt" to carry children from birth to college. None of its components is new. What is new is the linkage among these good programs, the ceaseless love-bombing of the young. This hyper-ambitious venture is compellingly chronicled by Paul Tough in Whatever It Takes.

The first step on the conveyor belt is Baby College, a nine-week program that delivers child-rearing advice to expectant mothers and parents of children from birth to age 3. The Three-Year-Old Journey, which incorporates science-based explanations of what promotes brain development as well as preparation for pre-k, is open to parents of 3-year-olds. Then comes Harlem Gems, a preschool for 4-year-olds whose four-to-one pupil-teacher ratio is higher than the iconic Perry Preschool and whose cost, $13,000 per child, is twice that of Head Start.

Next is Promise Academy for children from kindergarten through high school. "We are calling our school Promise Academy because we are making a promise to all of our parents," Canada told the first generation of parents in 2004. "If your child is in school, we will guarantee that child succeeds."

Can Canada make good on his guarantee that Promise Academy, and the additional academies on HCZ's drawing boards, will rewrite the failure script for Harlem's children? For starters, will it improve the lives of the 100 kindergarteners and 100 sixth-graders who enrolled in 2004? Tough, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, tells this story with the what-happens-next pacing of a good mystery and the richness of a fine ethnography, weaving together in lapidary prose the strands of a complex narrative. He spends considerable time crouching in Promise Academy's classrooms. He talks with young parents who spend their Saturdays at Baby College (many of whom resist the "discipline, don't punish" message). And he hangs out with Canada, relating the "aha!" moments in Canada's variegated life to the philosophy that powers HCZ.

From the outset, the Harlem Children's Zone has been both the beneficiary and the victim of hype and expectations. The national media regard New York City as the center of the known universe, and so this high-voltage program has been smothered with coverage. Out-of-town delegations, looking to devise their own children's zones, descend in droves.

The pressure has been felt most acutely at the middle school. The HCZ board chairman, legendary Wall Street hedge-fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller, wanted business-like practices and quick results, the school equivalent of rising quarterly profits. Success became defined in No Child Left Behind terms as doing well on New York City's reading and math tests. From first grade onward the kids were relentlessly drilled in the basics. Relatively weak test scores prompted the firing of the middle school principal, and the prospect of another batch of disappointing scores led HCZ to postpone plans to add a ninth grade. It was a gut-wrenching disappointment to Canada that, for these eighth-graders, the "promise" went unmet.

Will Harlem Children's Zone have the impact that Canada envisions? To date, its biggest success is the screening and treatment program for asthma that's based at Harlem Hospital Center. More than 5,000 children have been screened for a disease endemic among inner-city children. Fewer than one in 10 of them have gone to the emergency room, a four-fold reduction, and fewer than 1 percent, a 10-fold reduction, have been hospitalized.

There are no published evaluations of the other initiatives, though, and a healthy skepticism is appropriate. HCZ doesn't offer the demonstrably successful Nurse-Family Partnership model, which gives new parents one-on-one intensive home visits stretching from pregnancy to toddler-hood. (While the city does fund NFP in Harlem, it reaches only a handful of these new mothers.) There's no evidence that the HCZ's Baby College strategy -- providing new mothers and fathers nine half-day parenting sessions, with a follow-up when their children are 3 years old -- will make a difference in how they raise their children. Although the pre-k program looks top-notch (Tough doesn't describe it in detail), it admits only a tiny fraction of Harlem's 4-year-olds, and its high cost makes major expansion or replication unlikely. The preschool admits only 40 4-year-olds -- for the same amount of money and a less Mercedes-expensive model, more kids could be reached or else children could start preschool at age 3. Many educators challenge the Promise Academy's fixation with testing, and Whatever It Takes shows how hard it is to run a good middle school. HCZ is now running 20 programs, among them an after-school initiative in two public elementary schools, a high school arts program, and a fitness center. These programs, which together reach 9,500 children, may be doing fine work. But as Tough points out, it was Canada's frustration with this piecemeal approach that led him to design the Harlem Children's Zone.

To get all of Harlem's kids on the "conveyor belt" would cost a boatload of money -- far more than the HCZ'S $70 million budget. An investment of that magnitude may well make policy sense. But finding the money to make Geoffrey Canada's dream come true nationwide would be a Herculean feat.

The Harlem Children's Zone is a high-stakes bet, not just for New York but for the country. Despite the caveats, the program's try-it-all approach is what makes it so exhilarating, and Whatever It Takes does it full justice.

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