Activist Aims High With Harlem Children's Zone

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Many observers believe that the New York neighborhood of Harlem is undergoing its second renaissance. Social activist Geoffrey Canada, who is among that number, is creating a new education project that goes beyond schools, and tries to better children's lives in the community. Canada and author Paul Tough discuss the idea behind the "Harlem Children's Zone."


I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. This month, we've been acknowledging the start of a new school year by bringing you stories about education. Now, we want to tell you about an ambitious program that its founders hope will end, once and for all, the cycle of underachievement and failure plaguing so many poor inner-city kids. The program is set in Harlem, New York. Now, Harlem, of course, was once a mecca of African-American culture and achievement. Leading artists, writers, intellectuals, business people all lived there.

But that reputation changed in recent decades, and Harlem became a symbol of the deterioration of black families and neighborhoods in the post-civil rights era. But now, educator and activist Geoffrey Canada is working to make Harlem a new symbol of educational excellence in a deprived community. And his project, the Harlem Children's Zone, is already changing the lives of many young people there. The story of Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone is told in the new book, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America." Author Paul Tough and Geoffrey Canada join us now. Welcome.

Mr. PAUL TOUGH (Author, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America"): Thanks for having us.

Mr. GEOFFREY CANADA (President and CEO, Harlem Children's Zone): Absolutely thrilled to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children's Zone is so much more than a school. If you could just describe what it is that you're trying to do.

Mr. CANADA: Well, we're really trying to focus in on a community that, for the last 50 years, has had some of the worst outcomes for children in America. And we're trying to make sure that all of the children in that community really get a chance to live up to their full potential. So, it means we're organizing block associations and tenant associations, and trying to get the streets to be clean and orderly, and reduce chaos. But at the same time, we're creating a series of best-practice programs, starting at birth and going straight through until children graduate from college.

MARTIN: Geoffrey Canada, how did you come to believe that fixing the schools alone was not enough?

Mr. CANADA: Well, you know, there's a sense that, you know, schools are failing in America, and we ought to concentrate on schools. But one of the things that I believed, and I think that it comes out in Paul's writing, is that our kids start behind, literally from birth. And we expect the schools to be the sole solution. I really believe schools are a solution. They need to do a great job in educating children, and we need to insist on schools being accountable for education. But we also need to make sure that our communities are safe, that our young people have proper nutrition, that they have great healthcare, that they get the after-school and the summer supports they need, so that these young people really have an opportunity to do well in school, and out of school, and at home all at the same time.

MARTIN: Paul Tough, your book does a great job of explaining - in fact, we've actually been having this argument for quite some time, haven't we? - about whether is it what happens in school or what happens around the school that's most important in determining whether kids from poor neighborhoods achieve, right? So, tell me a little bit about that. What is this, sort of, argument that we're having?

Mr. TOUGH: Yeah, you're right. This argument's been going on for a long time. Are schools enough to help poor kids succeed, or do they need outside help? And the thing that I think is so important about the Harlem Children's Zone is that Geoff is sort of saying, let's stop having that argument because it's not really getting anywhere. Let's just do both. You know, kids enter kindergarten in Harlem behind their peers in middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods in the city. So, obviously, we need to help them early on with parental supports and pre-kindergartens. But at the same time, they continue to fall behind in school, so we need to make schools a lot better as well.

MARTIN: And it's, you know, it's horrible to ask somebody to talk about himself. So, Paul, I'm going to ask you. Why is Geoffrey Canada the guy to do this?

Mr. TOUGH: Well, he's the guy who is doing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOUGH: But what made him that person is a few things, but partly the way that he grew up. He grew up in poverty, himself, in the South Bronx, raised by a single mother, sometimes on welfare. And it's a story that you hear every once in awhile, of one kid from a really poor family in a bad neighborhood succeeding. He ends up going to a good college in Maine and going to Harvard Graduate School of Education. And usually, those stories end with that person going on and achieving great things and believing that, you know, it's possible for some kids to make it out of the ghetto. What's different, I think, about Geoff is that he didn't focus on his own story. He focused on the story of the kids around him who didn't make it, who didn't have the kind of chance that he had. So, instead of just trying to pluck a few kids out, he decided that he wanted to change things for every kid in Harlem, and create a system where every kid could succeed.

MARTIN: And in fact, I think that it is to me, one of the most difficult parts of the book to read, where you have a lottery, when you're first starting these projects what typical happens. And I think a lot of communities have these now sort of charter schools. And often the places are apportioned by lottery. And Geoffrey, one of the - it's a very hard part of the book to read, where you're sitting there watching some kids get in and some kids not get in, and it's just eating at you.

Mr. CANADA: Well, it's, to me, the reason that this still even - even when you're talking about it, it upsets me - is that my whole life was based on an accident. My grandparents happened to move out of the South Bronx. And when I went to high school, I was able to go with them. Had that not happened, I would not be here right now today. A child's life shouldn't be based on a chance. You know, someone pulls your name out, you get an education. If they don't, you don't get an education. And that is happening, I think to, you know, literally hundreds of thousands of children in this country. They just don't get a chance. And I think, as Americans, that we owe our children at least that much. At least give them a fighting chance so that they can reach their full potential. And that's what we're trying to do at the Harlem Children's Zone.

MARTIN: Well, how's it going?

Mr. CANADA: Well, I think we're making real progress. You know, we will work with somewhere between 10 and 11,000 children this year. We'll have kids who will be going off to college, and kids coming home from college, and kids starting Baby College, and kids going into our schools. Our schools have just reached the point of having 1,000 children in them. So, the process is moving forward. We've got a lot of work to do, we're not there yet, but we're feeling like we are well on the way to making sure this community's children really have a chance.

MARTIN: Paul, how's he doing?

Mr. TOUGH: I think he's doing great.

MARTIN: Oh, he's sitting there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But how are the kids doing?

Mr. TOUGH: I think the kids are doing really well. I mean, I think the middle school that just started in 2004 had a rocky couple of years at the beginning. Now, they seem to be doing much better and on an even keel. But I think where he's had the most success, the programs that I think are, to my mind, the most important and most original, are in the early years that he's created what he calls the conveyor belt. That starts where a child will - or a child's parents will enter sometimes before they're born. Expecting mothers will go to this program called Baby College and learn some new parenting solutions.

MARTIN: Yeah, tell us more about Baby College. What is that all about?

Mr. TOUGH: So, it's a program for the last nine weeks. A hundred parents from Harlem are recruited to come and take part, and they sit around and talk about parenting. And really, what the point of it is to provide parents in Harlem with some strategies that they may not know about or that they may not believe work. Everything from different discipline strategies, alternatives to corporal punishment, to brain development strategies, just emphasizing the importance of reading, and talking, and singing, and playing with your children.

MARTIN: Things that middle-class parents probably take for granted or have absorbed without even thinking about it.

Mr. TOUGH: Exactly. What Geoff says, and as I write in book, is that over the last 20, 25 years in the United States, there's been this big revolution in what we think in middle-class communities about parenting, that there's just this emphasis on the zero-to-three years that didn't used to exist before, and that information didn't really penetrate communities like Harlem. So, that's the point of Baby College, to give parents there the same information that parents in other parts of the country have.

MARTIN: Give us an example of a story of somebody who went to Baby College where it really made a difference.

Mr. TOUGH: Well, one teenage couple, Victor and Sheryl, they started off, you know, really it was an unexpected pregnancy. Sheryl was just 17, wasn't prepared at all. Victor was a high-school dropout and had been in trouble with the law. And they really, you know, of course, they weren't prepared, right? They didn't know what they were doing, and they were, you know, in emotional trouble. They were thinking about breaking up.

And there was something about Baby College that not only gave them lots of useful information, just, you know, taught them important things about discipline, about reading to your kids that I think will really help them. But it also gave them, sort of, an emotional sense that they matter, that they actually could be good parents, that they could make a real difference in the life of their child. And in a kind of dramatic scene at Baby College graduation, Victor ended up proposing to Sheryl, and they got married the day after they graduated from Baby College. So, it had a pretty big difference in their life.

MARTIN: But there are some people who you think are going to make it and don't. Geoffrey Canada, why is that?

Mr. CANADA: Well, I think that people underestimate the kinds of challenges that our families face. You know, you can get a family, and things are going well. And suddenly, someone loses a job, and the economic pressure just blows this family apart. In upper-middle-class families, when things like that happen, you have relatives that come together, you get counseling, there's someone that's trying to help you figure out, you know, this is just a bad time you all are going through.

In poor communities, it usually just ends up where people walk away from one another, and they forget that the most important thing that they have together is that child. And they don't think about the child right then and then. It's usually a long time after the anger cools that they get back to thinking about that child. And that is a real, real challenge. And part of what we have to, I think, emphasize in our communities is that, you know, you have this child, and you are with that child for life.

And if you two aren't having a great time together, that's fine. But you have to make sure that that does not impact your child, because those scars stay with children forever. And I think that those are the kinds of issues that our families face. You know, people lose their housing, people have fires and suddenly they lost everything, and they just, you know, they have nobody to turn to in some communities and making sure that in those time that people still continue to focus on their child and make sure this child gets a good education is part of the work that we're trying to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with writer Paul Tough and educator Geoffrey Canada about Paul Tough's new book, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America." Geoffrey, one of the interesting things about you is that talking about, sort of, the politics of what you're doing, in some ways the Children's Zone incorporates the emphasis on results and personal responsibility that we have come to associate with the Republican approach to a public education. On the other hand, you talk a lot about the social support that families need, which a lot of people associate with the Democrats' sort of approach to these policies. How do you see it? How do see what you're doing?

Mr. CANADA: Well, you know, it's sort of interesting, because I have some of my Republican friends who love to tout the fact that I am about results, and I want to use data, and I'm prepared to fire teachers or principals or anyone who can't really deliver for children, right? And that's what we need in education. On the other hand, I really believe our teachers are underpaid, that if you're a great teacher and you can produce great results, then you are to be treated like a superstar. You are to be paid so much that average teachers want to be like you.

And there my Republicans friends wanted, you know, shy away and say, well, I don't know about paying those people more, and that costs more money, and I don't know if we should do that. My Republican friends are quick to say it's not about money. But at the same time, they're all the ones who have their kids in schools that cost twice what the public schools cost, and they don't see a contradiction in that. And yet, I don't think it's all about money. It is not all about money. You can give a lot of money into public schools and still have lousy schools.

So, we've tried to be very pragmatic. We've tried to say, young people, you know, if you're an American, you should not be in the third grade and try and learn to read and write and have a toothache at the same time. It's just, you know, something that we should have moved past. Having basic healthcare, having good social service supports for children should be a right for every American child. So, those are the things we provide in the Harlem Children's Zone for children, and people think it's remarkable. Oh, isn't that great? No, it's not remarkable, and it's not great. It is just a basic necessity that every child ought to get, and it's a shame in this nation that every child does not get it, so they think it's remarkable when we provide it.

On the other hand, while providing all of those supports, we understand if teachers and principals are not held accountable to high expectations for these children. We won't deliver great results in terms of our young people. So, you know, I think, half of the time, my Democratic friends love me, and half of the time they hate me, and the same with my Republican friends. And I just think that's probably where it's going to end up, I think, for us in the Zone.

MARTIN: But people, you know, it is an election year, and both candidates are talking a lot about education. And in fact, we've been talking a lot about education for the last eight years under the Bush administration. Are we really prepared to do whatever it takes to see the kids get an important - a good education in this country?

Mr. CANADA: Well, you know, I have to say...

MARTIN: And I want to point out that your school gets a lot of private foundation support, which you spend a lot of time trying to get.

Mr. CANADA: That's right. We raised - we have to raise a lot of money, and we do. Senator Obama has said that if he gets elected president, that he's going to create 20 Harlem Children's Zones across America. And it's the kind of attention, I think, that we need to pay in this country on our children. And these are not necessarily black children or white children. These are just children who live in America that we ought to invest in their future because if we do a good job, we won't end up having to pay 10 times more to keep this child incarcerated in a jail or a prison.

And I just think that even the skeptics about this issue are starting to believe that this is a wrong-headed investment we've made in our children in this country, where we put all of the money into children after they have lots of problems, and hardly any money before these kids get into problems. So, I have a bias. My - you know, Obama has said that, you know what? He's going to do Zones. And so...

MARTIN: And I also need to point out that John McCain has said that education is a civil right.

Mr. CANADA: And he has signed onto the document that said education is a civil right. And I think that, you know, he's also said that he's in support of charter schools and other kinds of things that we believe. So, I think both candidates have moved in this area because Obama has put dollars and has said that he will do Zone-like programs, which I really believe in. I feel like right now, he has the advantage in terms of that argument.

MARTIN: Paul Tough, you've been reporting on this story for, what, five years now?

Mr. TOUGH: That's right.

MARTIN: Are we prepared to do whatever it takes?

Mr. TOUGH: The conversation is definitely changing. I mean, I think the fact that, as Geoff was just saying, that Obama has specifically embraced the Harlem Children's Zone, that he's also talking not only about more accountability in schools, but also about other types of social support, before school and outside school, makes me think that, at the very least in Washington, this conversation is really starting to happen in a way that it didn't in the past. So, I don't think it's quite fair yet to say that we're sure we're going to do whatever it takes, but at the very least, we're starting to talk about it.

MARTIN: Writer Paul Tough is an editor at the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America." The book is available in bookstores now. Geoffrey Canada is the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. They both joined us from our bureau in New York. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. TOUGH: Thank you.

Mr. CANADA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And now, we want to hear from you. What do you think makes the biggest difference in making sure kids are ready and able to learn? Is it a stable home life, great teachers, just more time at the task? To share your thoughts, you can visit our blog at and click on the Tell Me More page. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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