Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Harlem Children's Zone

The evidence is now overwhelming that children who acquire a large speaking vocabulary when they are young and are encouraged to raise questions and to talk at length with their parents and other significant others about what concerns or interests them during their early years stand an especially good chance of being successful in school and going on to a stable and productive career as adults. Ensuring that children enjoy such an advantage, the kind that most middle class parents take for granted, is why the innovative social reformer Geoffrey Canada created the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) in 1997.

Yet, Canada’s vision for the HCZ hardly stops there. He wants to do more than just help individual children gain advantages they have never had before; he has set out to re-create a culture in a 97-block zone of Harlem, containing about 10,000 mostly poor children, where a commitment to learning is everywhere in evidence, where you can't escape the fact that the kids and the adults in this section of Harlem are engaged, curious explorers who are actively involved in acquiring new knowledge. Canada theorizes that the more children and their families are infected with this love of learning the greater the benefit for the whole community. Building on the pioneering work of James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, Canada seeks to provide what Harlem parents and children have always lacked: The resources, the training, and the continuous support that at last will grant Harlem’s young people "access to the same kind of nurturing, stimulating, language-rich early home life as every other American child."

Part of the challenge of this work is that there has been an entrenched cycle of violence in places like Harlem, a legacy of slavery and oppression, in which many adults, often the victims of punitive parenting themselves, have come to regard harsh physical punishment as a legitimate, even desirable way to discipline children. Working closely with Dr. T. Berry Brazleton, one of the country's leading experts on early childhood development, Canada and his team developed what became known in the Harlem Children's Zone as "Baby College," a series of intense, demanding but non-threatening classes to teach young parents both how to converse with their children more openly and flexibly, and how to discipline their children less punitively and more positively.

As Canada has envisioned it, Baby College is only the beginning. It leads directly to HCZ’s Pre-Kindergarten Gems Program for 3 and 4 year olds, then to HCZ's painstakingly designed Kindergarten that, in turn, introduces young children to the Promise Academy, their state of the art elementary and middle school, all strategically sequenced to consolidate and make the most of the advantages gained at each level. The lesson learned from Heckman’s research and many others is to start early and to continue to introduce new programs that build on and enhance the results from earlier efforts. As Paul Tough says in his new book about Geoffrey Canada and the HCZ, referring to Heckman’s findings, “If you intervene in a child’s life early, later interventions will have more to build upon, which means that they will pay off more as well.” Or as Heckman himself says in a 2007 paper written with Dimitry Masterov, “Skill begets skill; learning begets learning. Early disadvantage, if left untreated, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years. Advantages accumulate; so do disadvantages.”

The achievement outcomes for children who experience these HCZ programs, what Canada has called "the conveyor belt," have been exceptional. There is consequently more reason to believe than ever that the future for the very young residents of the Harlem Children’s Zone is especially bright. They are increasingly guaranteed the advantages that so many middle class children have viewed as their birthright. President Obama has praised the HCZ and has said that something like it should be replicated in 20 other cities. Similarly, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed his strong support for such comprehensive, early intervention, community-wide models.

In the meantime, the HCZ’s greatest current challenge, explored in some detail in the second half of Paul Tough’s Whatever it takes, is how to best help the Harlem older children, now in the Promise Academy middle school, who never got the chance to benefit from Baby College, Gems Pre-K, or the kindergarten, and are struggling academically. Ultimately, how this challenge is addressed is a telling part of Geoffrey Canada’s story. Canada is a man who takes every misstep and every failure to progress personally, and who goes all out to reach his goals. His total commitment obliges him to search out every possible strategy to help lagging kids catch up. He regularly rallies the staff at the Promise Academy to do more, and he eventually replaces some competent, well meaning people who, despite their abilities, seem to lack the fire in the belly persistence that Canada believes must accompany their shared quest for educational renewal. True, it’s also a story about overreliance on test scores as a measure of progress and success, and one that may ultimately focus too much on teaching to the test to pull those scores up. But skeptics beware. For Geoffrey Canada everything is at stake, nothing less than the very lives and livelihoods of the children who so dutifully attend Harlem Promise Academy, often for 9, 10, and 11 hours each day. And like any man on a mission, he will do whatever it takes for these children to thrive in school and to look forward with confidence to a happier and more productive future.


  1. Try to imagine a society that puts the interests of children first and treats parenthood as a job that requires training, skill and time. In such a society, no child would be hungry, abused, or homeless. No parent would have to choose between their job and their family. I think it would look like the HCZ with a social safety net that would prevent poverty from robbing children of the chance to succeed. This guy is on to something.

  2. Yeah. I like that kind of imagining. too. It's what leads to the hcz's of the world, not that there are all that many of them.