published Sunday, February 20th, 2011

A promise from Harlem

Geoffrey Canada didn’t come to Chattanooga last week to mince words. He’s spent 14 hard years on the immense challenge and hope of getting 11,000 children from impoverished families in a 100-square-block area of New York City’s notorious Harlem area through college. He knows all the hard obstacles to academic achievement that must be overcome: gangs, drugs, abuse, violence, single young mothers, fatherless homes and a dearth of concern for school work.

So he’s accustomed to getting straight to the point about education: “Failure isn’t acceptable,” he asserts. “Every child can succeed.” You “do what it takes” to make it happen. “Every community can do it.”

He says the formula for his celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone initiative isn’t magic. Perhaps not, but it is extraordinarily rigorous. Perhaps every community “can” do it. But the question is, how many actually will do it?

The odds on failure

Canada clearly knows the odds.

“There’s an absolute science about why these kids can’t learn” he says, nodding agreement to the litany of ills described above.

But he doesn’t accept those excuses and this phony science. It doesn’t make any difference to him if the parents aren’t involved in the child’s education — if he can have the child long enough in his school.

He describes the Harlem initiative — an epic effort that’s prompted presidents, secretaries of education and educators across the country to seek his counsel— this way:

Families are coached in how to help children learn. Teachers need to get to the kids before they start pre-kindergarten classes. Every teacher is held accountable at every grade level for the child’s progress, from pre-K until they’re enrolled in college. Teachers who succeed get to keep their jobs; those that don’t are fired. And regular school hours aren’t long enough.

‘Baby college’ to college

Canada works on two tracks. One places kids, through a lottery, in his charter school, which now has an enrollment of 1,400 over all grades. There, the teachers get the new kids, from infants to three-year-olds, before they’re old enough for pre-kindergarten classes.

“Baby college,” he calls it. The charter school day runs from a 8 a.m. to 5:45 in the evening. It’s in session 11 months a year. Teachers work closely with every student they have. Otherwise, there’s not enough time to build up everything the child needs for success: the skill sets, the academic framework, and the “moral and spiritual and ethical” standards that children need to succeed through college.

“They need it all,” Canada asserts. And if you give them all that, with an absolute focus on student outcome, “kids learn. You stay with a kid, they learn; you don’t stay with them, they don’t.”

For the other 8,500 students in the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada’s program puts trained teachers as aides in every classroom to keep the learning ethic strong. But, he says, the program gets its best results in the after-school programs, where lessons are reinforced with close personal attention, and the progress of every child is tracked.

Canada described his work and his goals in a rapid half-hour interview last Tuesday before addressing neighborhood parents, teachers and guests at Hardy Elementary School. The afternoon gig was sandwiched between other appearances in town and his lecture Tuesday night at UTC’s annual George Hunter lecture series, funded by Benwood Foundation.

Where failure is accepted

His ride to Hardy Elementary, a few blocks past the Harriet Tubman homes, must have reminded him of the bleak sameness of inner city neighborhoods everywhere. “It all looks the same,” he remarked. “Everywhere it’s the same.”

“Failure is accepted because its been accepted so long that no one believes it can be different. So no one tries. We keep failing, and there’s no accountability.”

It’s the outcome that counts

He described the goals of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “It’s the outcome we care about: the standard is for college, get into college, graduate from college.”

In the age of vanishing hard-labor jobs in post-industrial America, he noted, “it’s the only way to be in competition” for jobs. “We still talk about getting kids to graduate from high school, but college is the key.”

Canada says his program supports most of what is known about “the physics of education.”

“Most schools where kids get ahead have longer school days and great teachers.” By contrast, kids from impoverished circumstances usually need more help and more time in school because they start behind. Without the extra effort, they’ll stay behind, and never quite catch up.

Starting behind, risk factors

He correlates their achievement with other risk factors. It’s important to him that teachers know whether their students drink, smoke, use drugs, have sex, or are involved with gangs. They have to focus not just on their students’ academic achievement, but also on their social and emotional well being.

Teachers at his charter school earn 10 percent higher salaries than teachers in the Harlem zone’s New York public schools. But they work 30 percent longer for the school year, and have smaller pension benefits.

Continuity counts

Canada also believes that continuity of a program, and its teachers and leaders, are keys to their sustained success. Too often, he notes, a program that starts well and works well falls apart when key people leave.

He would encourage school and civic leaders here who are eyeing a grant for a Chattanooga Promise Zone program similar to his. He believes the basic principles are replicable, but he offers some advice: Start with and stay with the same kids. Stick with them all the way through it. Have accountability, from teacher to teacher. Know the families. And put in the time, because it takes a lot of time.

A need for ‘outrage’

As for schools that aren’t producing good results, he says, “we need to be outraged.”

“Put kids who aren’t doing well in a better environment, and they’ll do better.”

His prescription, to be sure, depends on the commitment of school and civic leaders’ to support the resources and effort that it would take to nurture a successful Chattanooga Promise Zone. Given the human potential that such a program could nurture in individuals, and the broader benefit to the community, it would seem well worth the effort.

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