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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today, we continue our new series on an old theme: the fundamental human drive to solve problems. It's about ideas that look blindingly obvious in retrospect but, until the light bulb switches on, seem like intractable dilemmas. Why, for example, did it take decades to figure out you only need to charge tolls one way on a bridge? Some of these solutions reflect technological or scientific advances. The invention of the microscope led to the discovery of germs, which eventually convinced medical workers to wash their hands and saved countless lives.

The solutions to a lot of our problems remain invisible, but from time to time, we'll bring you somebody who's real, measureable success, and today, it's a biggie: poverty.

For many thousands of inner-city poor, many of them African-American, poverty is handed down from generation to generation. With parents unable to provide for them, children quickly fall behind their grade level, drop out of school, and too many lose hope. As the president of a non-profit for children in Harlem, Geoffrey Canada saw this pattern firsthand. So he transformed his organization into a project to attack the roots of poverty and change the lives of thousands of children. Today, the Harlem Children's Zone provides social and medical services, offers parenting workshops and runs charter schools for the children of its community.

If you know this set of issues, tell us what works. How do we help children break the cycle of poverty? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune on the significance of the scandal uncovered at Burr Oak Cemetery, but first, Geoffrey Canada joins us from our bureau in New York. He's the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, and it's so great to have you on the program today.

Mr. GEOFFREY CANADA (Chief Executive Officer, Harlem Children's Zone): Thank you. I'm really thrilled to be on the program, also.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you. Begin by establishing for us the size of the dilemma that - what did you first see when you went to Harlem?

Mr. CANADA: Well, you know, we found that it was a common experience. It was expected that children in Harlem would end up at the bottom of every important, positive indicator in New York state. So when you looked at dropping out of school, Harlem led the state. When you looked at foster care, crime, gangs, incarceration, health care, I mean, one outcome after the other, Harlem children were at the bottom. And it was just accepted, that that's the way it had been for the last 25 years, and people assumed it would just continue. So I found this really quite unsettling and thought that we had to come up with a different solution because I had been working in Harlem about 12 years, and we had been doing good programs for children, but we really weren't moving the needle, and we decided we had to do something different.

CONAN: You were doing good for a few children but not for the vast majority of the kids.

Mr. CANADA: No, that's absolutely correct, and I think that this happens in lots of communities that are similar to Harlem, that you get a program, it serves 100, 200 kids, people feel really good about it, but the need is for the thousands, and dealing with scale is one of the issues that I think we really have to tackle in this nation.

CONAN: And the other - if your program is revolutionary, I think the word that might describe the revolutionary aspect of it would be comprehensive.

Mr. CANADA: And I think it is. You know, I have been trying to assure people that what we're doing is not some kind of brilliant eureka or a kind of a moment that we had where we figured out how to do this. We had been talking about these issues, providing comprehensive, integrated services to poor children, since I was in graduate school, which was in '75.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CANADA: So we just simply did it. We just decided that the time had come to actually put together all that the social scientists and the educators had been talking about for decades in approaching this problem.

CONAN: And this problem is usually summarized in the two words: achievement gap. Do you now know how to close the achievement gap?

Mr. CANADA: Well, it is clear that the students that we have started our project with - you know, there were some young people that we started with from birth, 11 years ago, they're now going into the fifth grade. Their scores on state tests are really indistinguishable from scores of white children. So for all intents and purposes, we eliminated that achievement gap for that group of young people who are in our schools. But we also have an older group of students, who we got when they were in the sixth grade, who were behind academically, and we've closed the achievement gap in that group in math. We still haven't done it in ELA, but we have done it in math.

So it just proves that these sort of artificial indicators, the achievement gap, which is consistently found throughout America, in all communities of color, is something that those of us in this business can close if we take this comprehensive approach.

CONAN: And it begins before birth.

Mr. CANADA: It really does begin before birth, I mean, and the science on this is clear. We know poor families are less likely to have good health care. They're less likely to get the kind of good baby checks that you need during pregnancy. We know that parents should avoid people who smoke, and they shouldn't drink. They should not be under a lot of stress. So our kids are literally coming in the world behind, and it just grows each year.

So by the time that you can begin to measure it - they've looked at some studies in terms of how children develop their language skills, and if you look at college-educated children and children on welfare, by the year three, by the time this child is three years old, there's a gap of about 800-words difference between the two groups. And that gap just increases every year after that. So the children start out behind, and they increasingly fall further and further behind each year.

CONAN: And will the cycle be broken if the children you're talking about, who are now in fifth grade, and the ones who started out - you got as sixth-graders and are now nearing the end of their high school years - if they go on, many of them to college, to get good jobs, to, well, to - so that their children don't need these programs.

Mr. CANADA: Well, this is the one thing, Neal, that me and my staff - there's a bunch of us who grew up poor in the urban centers of this country.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CANADA: And many of us were the first generation to go to college. I was the first one in my family to get a college degree, and this is what we've noticed: Not only do you benefit by getting that college degree, but then your children go on to get college degrees. And I'm old enough to have grandchildren, and there's every expectation that all of them will get college degrees. It is just now a standard in the family.

So in helping this group of young people go to college, you not only change the trajectory for that group, you really change the trajectory for the generations to follow, and we really believe that's how you end poverty in these kind of communities. You have to get these kids in college, and you have to get them through college because getting them there is not enough. Many times, they end up dropping out without a lot of support. So we want to make sure we support them throughout their college careers so that they can come out with the kind of skills necessary to get jobs and take care of themselves and, later on, their families.

CONAN: We're talking with Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO for the Harlem Children's Zone, since 1990. He's with us from our bureau in New York.

We want to talk with those of you, too, who are familiar with this set of issues. What works? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Andy(ph), Andy calling us from Richmond, Virginia.

ANDY (Caller): Hello. First, I want to say that I saw your guest address the NYU medical school graduation. I was very impressed by that. I am a substitute teacher in Richmond, Virginia, and I'm just finishing getting my teaching degree. It's my third career. What I have seen that really works is adequate care before and after school for the children.

Before-care, it's important for the kids - you know they'd had breakfast. You know, they're settled down before they get in the classroom. They really pay more attention in the classroom. After-care is very important because most of the after-care programs focus on getting the homework done and getting that sort of things done before the kids go home, when their parents may be working or may not be able to give them the amount of attention they need.

So those things, I think, immediately before and after school, are very important, and I've seen good progress on that from the children that have that compared to the children that don't have that.

CONAN: Geoffrey Canada, is he right?

Mr. CANADA: I think Andy has a really good point. We know that young people who come to school, who aren't adequately cared for - and it happens in lots of places in this country. They don't eat properly. They're not dressed properly. They're not prepared. They don't get enough sleep. This really has an impact on their academic achievement. And we know that lots of our kids are unsupervised after 3 o'clock because so many families are working. And in middle-class and upper-middle-class communities, young children have opportunity to continue their development after school.

In many poor communities, there's just a TV, video games, and there is no intellectual stimulation, which continues the growth. So these kids actually have a handicap if they are not having the kind of rich, stimulating environment that good, solid after-school programs provide.

So Andy, I really agree with you on both of those points. We should be making sure that these children come to school ready, get what they need before school and then that we support them after school.

CONAN: Thanks, Andy.

ANDY: Well, thank you very much. And Geoffrey, I really appreciate what you're doing for the kids in New York.

Mr. CANADA: Thanks a lot, Andy, appreciate it.

CONAN: Wouldn't that same kind of care be possible if you did work to make sure that there were two-parent families there and that they had jobs?

Mr. CANADA: You know, this issue of the family with young people is really one that I think a lot of educators and social scientists aren't talking about. You know, I was raised by a single mom, and it is so hard to raise children by yourself. There are so many obstacles, and yet we have this crisis in the country. There are lots of families that there's only one adult raising a child, and they're trying to work and take care of the child at the same time. And the country has not made the kind of investments to help families who really have no other support.

You know, when I grew up, my grandmother lived three or four blocks away. So we could stay with her and still be in sort of the loving confines of a structured, family environment. Many families don't have this today. And so one of the real challenges is to make sure that we encourage fathers to stay with their children, support their children, stay with their spouses and mothers to really make sure that you're forming relationships that will last for this child so that these young people come up with two parents. It doesn't matter what the family looks like. There just needs to be two adults always focused on this child to maximize the chances.

Now look, that's not going to happen for every family, maybe even for lots of families. So it's not saying one parent can't do it, but it certainly is a tougher struggle when you're by yourself.

CONAN: We're talking with Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone about what works to break the cycle of poverty. What's worked in your life or your community to improve the odds for these kids? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This is the latest installment of our series, What Works. We seek real solutions to some of the hardest problems. Today, that problem is inner-city poverty and the children who are caught up in it. Our guest is Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, and he's been working and finding solutions to break the cycle.

We want to hear from you. If you're familiar with these issues, what's worked for you to improve the lives of kids living in poverty? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Alice(ph), Alice calling from Sacramento.

ALICE (Caller): Hi, I'm a teacher over at a school that is at 98 percent poverty level. Ninety-eight percent of the families qualify for free lunch. And we've built a lot of community partnerships to provide health care and mental-health services over to our students, which is a big part of the problem that they have to deal with. We have a local non-profit that goes over and helps families with applications for MediCal. We have a core of counseling interns that come in from the local state university and work with our students.

It's almost unheard of to have counseling services at an elementary school, and my concern is that I'm not sure how replicable what we're doing - and what Mr. Canada is doing - is in general. I think they point the way to the services that are needed, but things like housing are a really big concern. Thirty percent of our students turn over in a given school year, and many of them come back at some other point during their elementary careers because the families have such instability in their housing.

So I sort of look at this as this is a larger problem, and we are doing a really good job over at my school site. Mr. Canada is doing an excellent job, but I think we need the larger government entities involved in what's going on.

CONAN: And Alice, I'll get a response from Geoffrey Canada in just a moment, but I have to ask: How might your counseling programs be impacted by the recent budget cuts there?

Mr. CANADA: The counseling, I'm not thinking quite as much, although it might if they curtail some of the programs. The MediCal sign-ups certainly, because they're talking about freezing the Healthy Children Program over here in the state of California.

CONAN: Okay, Geoffrey Canada?

Mr. CANADA: Yeah, and Alice points off, I think, one of the real challenges we face in this nation. Alice is in an elementary school. They're doing a terrific job with young people. You have sort of this comprehensive array of services, but where are those children going to go after they leave elementary school? Well, they're going to go to a middle school, and do we know that that middle school is going to be able to provide that same quality of service, that same approach? And in most cases, and I don't know Alice's particular instance, but in most cases, the answer to that is no. And so what we have are quality programs that serve kids, and then there's no place to hand the child off to, to continue leveraging all of that hard work that you've put into the child, and kids end up falling through, I think, this sort of comprehensive safety net that we need to have developed.

So ideally, if Alice's grade school was connected to a middle school that also was doing the same things, then that was connected to a high school, you - that - those children would have the best chance of being successful. So that's one issue I wanted to point out.

This other issue of the government involvement, one of the challenges in doing this work was trying to find the funding, and we did a lot of this with private dollars. But the president and the secretary of education have said that they are going to, you know, create 20 of these, and the federal government's going to pay for half. And so I think that, for the first time, puts it in range of lots of communities, that might not be able to raise the kind of private dollars we did, to be able to do a similar program. So I'm hoping that the Obama's administration's adoption of what they call Promise Neighborhoods will solve part of that problem for some communities - not enough, but at least enough to get started.

CONAN: Well, this would be at least your fourth president, the fourth administration - these policies come and go.

Mr. CANADA: The policies do come and go, but I have not seen a president who has been as clear around creating this comprehensive network of supports as President Obama. And I think that I'm very optimistic that him and his secretary of education, who knows this kind of issue really well, I'm confident that this is going to be one of the things they're going to do and do well.

CONAN: Alice, thanks very much for the call, and good luck.

ALICE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Sue(ph), Sue with us from Savannah.

SUE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Sue.

SUE: I teach English as a standard language and English as a second language in Savannah, and I've been trying to work with grownups so that they can work better with their children. I know that education, when it's deficient, leaves bunches of holes in people's awareness of their community and their world and their lives. And getting parents, particularly women, to be able to understand and speak English better so that they can read and then pass on their information and education to their children can be very, very helpful and enormously effective, but getting any support for such a program here in Savannah has been very, very difficult.

Mr. CANADA: Well, I think that you point out a really critical issue in America, which is that lots of our families come in with language issues and deficits that it makes it very difficult if the child is being educated in English, and that's not the language of the parent, they're not fluent in it, for that parent to help that child.

And so we need more support for programs that help parents and help children who are struggling with these issues of being bilingual and learning a language, and it's not being your language that's spoken to at your home. And I agree with you, Sue, that the government ought to be really supporting these programs. One of my fears is that, with the economic crisis we face today, that these are the kinds of programs that might be even cut back even further, which I think is going to hurt and not help this problem.

SUE: Well, it's not only people who come from a different language background. It's for people who come from an inadequate English background, because people who I deal with as adults, who have had poor educations as children, don't know the boiling temperature of water. They don't know how to square a number to get a measurement for square feet. They don't know so many things because they can't really read well. Therefore, they don't have any ability to acquire new knowledge.

Mr. CANADA: Yeah, I - certainly, that's - a lot of the population that we work with in Harlem are families who have had inadequate educations, and it's one of the reasons that you get these sort of, you know, cycles of poverty that go from grandparent to parent to child - is this sort of lack of, I think, educational background for so many of our families.

So we get this issue, and I will tell you that it is a tough issue. One of the things that we have done is that we have really started working with parents -very, very young, - in Baby College, to try and make sure that they at least begin to understand some of the science around brain development, so that they can begin to change some of their child-rearing practices. And we try and give our parents the kinds of useful information about where they can find free museums and the free children's museums, the free art museums so that they - even if they don't speak the language, they can allow their child to have a richer experience when they are out of school, than lots of poor families provide for their child.

SUE: I remember one of my students telling me that he never had a pencil put into his hand until he started kindergarten. So that there was no exposure to reading or writing at all until he started school, which is really very late.

Mr. CANADA: Well, you're right on this point. And one of things, I think, that we have to recognize is that even parents who are illiterate can still do things to help their child develop some educational skills, and we've got to reach those parents and really let them know look, even if you can't read to your child, here are some places that you can go - to the library, where they do reading and other things - just so that we begin to make sure that parents understand there are supports out there for them and their child's development.

CONAN: Sue, thanks very much.

SUE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye, and the next question from Arnold(ph) in Denver.

ARNOLD (Caller): Hi, thank you, Neal. This is a terrific program, and Mr. Canada, I have very high respect for what you're doing. I really appreciate it.

I work in public health, and we are kind of approaching the problem you're describing from a different vantage point but reaching the same location, which is we're now talking about social determinants of health. We don't want to go in and put Band-Aid-type solutions on some of these health problems. We want to focus on the environment and the culture and the social structures that keep these kids down.

I have several questions for you. One is: How are we going to - and this is - I'm a little despairing on this - how are we going to afford to do this for the millions, and I do mean millions, of kids who you're talking about supporting in some way for virtually 25 years, from the year of conception until they get out of college?

A second question is: If we're all working on kind of the same page, should we approach it most effectively from education, from health, from neighborhood, or what's the organizing principle that you think works best? And then the third…

CONAN: Why don't we just hold on to those two, okay?

ARNOLD: Okay. All right.

CONAN: …okay?

ARNOLD: Yup.

Mr. CANADA: Now, these are big questions, Arnold. So, let me just say this first one about affordability. And this is, I think, one of the problems in the country. We are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these same families. We're spending it when they end up in the emergency rooms. We're spending it when they end up in jails and prisons. We're spending it on special education. We're just spending dollars on welfare and all kinds of other back-end treatments that we believe if we did the initial investment right, that we would save these dollars in - on the long haul. When you realize so many of these poor kids, particularly African-Americans, end up in jails and prisons at rates, you know, it's 35, $37,000 a year. Kids are doing 10, 15 years - huge amounts of money. So I think it's a little complicated to say we can't afford it.

We have to do an initial investment, it's true, to get the payoff - when the payoff is not going to come for 10 or 15 years from now. But we've done those kinds of initial investments in this country before. We wanted to get a person in outer space. We launched, you know, the space programs to do it.

CONAN: Apollo, yeah.

Mr. CANADA: So, we can do these kinds of investments. I think what people have…

CONAN: Let me just ask, how much per kid per year?

Mr. CANADA: We spend - on a child, we spend an additional $5,000 per child per year. But because we serve families, if you look at the cost per participant, it's about $3,500. So that when you do the number of kids we're doing - we're doing 10,000 children - you know, you're talking about a program that's running into the tens of millions of dollars. But I will tell you that it is probably the best investment that you can make in making sure these young people get on the right track. And they end up getting jobs and paying taxes versus the other way, where they actually drain the resources of the nation.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Okay. Then…

Mr. CANADA: So let - and the second question on, you know, what's the lens that you get into this problem? We think one of the challenges for the field, and one of the mistakes we've made, is that we've tried to do this through a program or a sort of a category. So the people who are concerned about health, try and figure out what to do about health. The education people try and figure out education. Community-building people try and figure out community.

We think in some communities like Harlem, you have to do them all. So that's how we're designed. We have a huge asthma program going with Harlem Hospital. We've got a big obesity program going that we're creating and working on children. So we've got the health piece. We run our own schools, but we've also worked with the public schools. We have block associations and tenant associations we've created. We have partnerships with the pediatrics so that we have a great school-based health clinic.

So we think you've got to do it all in these communities for young people to really have a level playing field. So we don't think you have to choose an area. The whole idea is to do this comprehensive approach.

CONAN: And, Arnold, I know you've got other issues, but I want to give some other people a chance, okay?

ARNOLD: Of course. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. What Works, with Geoffrey Canada. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to get back to that affordability issue there. And obviously, you're saying it costs more to teach poor kids successfully. How do you convince middle-class parents to subsidize that?

Mr. CANADA: Well, I think that, you know, one of the challenges that we face is that it's not just poor children who are not going to be competitive anymore. I have been arguing, to middle-class and upper middle-class Americans, that it is all of our children who are being impacted by the current education system. We have a school day that shorter than our competitors, a school year that's shorter than our competitors. And this is a global economy. And we've got to make substantial investments in our children if we expect to maintain our place as a leader, I think, in the world. And we just simply aren't doing it.

You've mentioned California. I mean, you just look at the disinvestment they're doing in education. That comes with a price, and the price is going to be lots of Americans not prepared to compete.

On the other hand, you know, the news led with the issue with, you know, China getting so much of our dollars and then loaning them back to us. But the Chinese are also making huge investments in their infrastructure and in their education for their children, knowing that that's where the next battles will be fought. It is going to be about intellectual capital as much as any other capital.

And so, the country needs to make this investment. And so, I've argued that for all children. Poor children need more investments. But it's not suggesting that we should do for poor children and simply leave the other American children with a mediocre education. I think that's a mistake that the nation has made.

CONAN: And you mentioned the current economic situation, and certainly the cutbacks we've seen in places like California. Here's an email from Steve(ph) in Leech Lake, Minnesota: What role, positive or negative, does the current welfare system have on the issue of poverty?

Mr. CANADA: Well, you know, it's a very interesting set of dynamics. In the one case, the decision to have people work, I think, is a right decision on - at face value. You want people to understand in our country, you have to work, you have to work hard. That's part of what it means to be an American.

A couple of problems: One was that we haven't thought, well, if parents are working - and we're talking mostly women. If they're working, who's watching the children? And so, while we've really pushed this group of folk who are on welfare to get jobs - and it has worked. They have gotten jobs. We haven't thought, so what are doing to make sure their children are getting the kinds of support so that they won't end up in the same situation that their mother is in? So that's one issue. The second issue is, which the people don't really recognize, by insisting that these women - and they're mostly women - get jobs so they can receive any kind of support - we have not thought about what we're going to do for men. So we've got a whole group of men who are not working right now, and we are insisting that the mothers work and no one's paying any attention that the fathers ought to be working also, and this ought to be done equally.

So that, I think, has added to a problem of, you know, a lot of the jobs, which are there that are being filled by these folks - these guys are not being trained, prepared or encouraged to enter into the labor market. And so, in many cases, you know, it's on balance, I think, been as much of a problem as it's been a success.

CONAN: Geoffrey Canada, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. CANADA: I really enjoyed it. Thanks a lot. Appreciate being on, Neal.

CONAN: Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO for Harlem Children's Zone since 1990, joined us from our bureau in New York as part of our series What Works.

Coming up next, we're going to be talking with Dawn Turner Trice, the columnist for the Chicago Tribune, about the cemetery, which has been, well, filled with corruption. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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