A Chat With Geoffrey Canada:
Every now and then Geoffrey Canada's 12-year-old son will come home with a homework problem that stumps both the New York City education innovator and his wife.
Canada, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Harlem Children's Zone, and his spouse have worked out a system when this happens:
“I say to my wife, ‘You stall him, I'll go to the computer and look up photosynthesis!'”
But what if you are a parent without access to the Internet? What if you are a poor or minority parent without the confidence, information, access and/or resources that middle and upper-middle class Americans count on to help their children succeed – including the assumption that your child can and will go to college?
The answer to that, Canada says, is simple: If you are one of these, your child is likely be behind in school, less likely to graduate high school, less likely to thrive and succeed in life.
“What happens when you don't graduate from high school? Fifty-four percent of those who don't graduate from high school are unemployed – and for African-Americans that number is 69 percent,” says Canada. “Let's just think about what it means to be pumping out all those people who are uneducated and unemployed. For African-Americans we know what happens: one in four is in jail. The number of people who are in jail should be a national disgrace.”
The solution to the “what if” is equally simple, says Canada. If we want poor or otherwise disenfranchised children to thrive, we've got to give whole families and whole communities information, access and resources to solve the myriad social problems that impede academic success. And, you've got to set the expectation among parents, kids and the broader community that every child can and will go to college.
“It's not rocket science,” Canada said during his recent guest appearance in the Jessie and John Danz endowed lecture series at the University of Washington. “If you are about saving kids for real, you have to address all the things that impact learning – mental health, dental health, social issues. It's not just education; it's how you build a comprehensive system of support around children so they can learn. This is not new; it's just that we DID it.”
Indeed, Canada and his colleagues in “the Zone,” are doing it. In what the New York Times Magazine called "one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time," the Zone's goal is no less than seeing all 10,000 children within a 97-block swath of Harlem go to college. They are making huge inroads toward the goal with superb charter schools and by connecting parents and kids to information and social support from cradle to college-age. Parents of kids born in the Zone are invited to attend Baby College, where they learn about infant brain development and how they can enhance it.
“You've got to have parents as partners,” stresses Canada.
At age 4, kids in the Zone are enrolled in programs that run from 8:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. The preschool program and its staff, says Canada, do “whatever it takes” to ensure that children are ready to enter kindergarten at grade level rather than a year or two behind – the standard gap for impoverished or minority children in poor regions outside the Zone.
Children then take their seats in top-notch elementary, middle and high school classrooms – learning in three languages. In every school and setting, teachers are held accountable for keeping every child at grade level, an achievement that must be proven with hard data. If children fail, teachers are fired.
“I believe that the adults who get paid ought to be held responsible for the learning,” stressed Canada. “I believe in total accountability. I stood in front of my board and I said, ‘If I don't have higher functioning schools than the other schools in Harlem, I'm going to fire myself.' And I told my teachers, ‘But I'm going to be the last one leaving.' And they know that's true.
“You just can't take money and then not educate kids,” says Canada, who manages more than $78 million a year in private dollars to run programs in the Zone.
At the same time, Canada says, we need to treat teachers like professionals – and pay them like professionals.
“We pay teachers as if they are part-time factory workers and they act like it,” Canada says. “I think teachers ought to work as long and as hard as they need to get the job done, and if that means staying until 5 or working on Saturday that's what it means. But you pay them for it.”
Every step of the way in Harlem Children's Zone, kids and families have access to mental, medical and social support to address the environmental barriers that are part and parcel to poverty.
“If your community interferes with the healthy development of children, you've got to change your community,” says Canada. “Kids are pulled toward the gravity of their community and so you've got to create environments where families can thrive and flourish.”
The data shows that the achievement gap is closing fast within the Harlem Children's Zone – the vast majority of kids who entered kindergarten the year Canada took the helm are in fifth grade now and all of them, except one, are on grade level and on track for college preparedness.
As for data collection and evaluation, Canada says the critical difference between Harlem Children's Zone and other comprehensive education projects around the country is that teachers in the Zone use the tests to improve teaching.
“We need to use tests as a tool to figure out what our kids don't know so we can teach them,” he says. “We need to be testing kids to figure out how to help them while they are there, not at the end of the year as they go away for summer.”
Can the successes of Harlem Children's Zone, which is privately funded, be replicated in large school systems? Canada says he hears quite often that it's apples and oranges. Closing the achievement gap in Seattle is possible, he stresses.
Saying it can't happen here “is a cop-out,” he says. “The work is hard and complicated but mostly what people don't have is the confidence they can do it. People are making excuses that this can only happen in Harlem. I'll tell you it wasn't easy in Harlem and it still isn't.”
Cheryl Murfin is a Seattle-based freelance writer and mother of two.