The Great Escape

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A 10th-grade global studies class. The Children's Zone's ultimate goal is to get as many of Harlem's youth through college as possible. The Promise Academies have yet to graduate a high school class, so it's not yet known how many will accomplish that feat.

A 10th-grade global studies class. The Children's Zone's ultimate goal is to get as many of Harlem's youth through college as possible. The Promise Academies have yet to graduate a high school class, so it's not yet known how many will accomplish that feat.

Photo by: Alice Proujansky

“If You Hit 65 Percent of the Population, That's the Tipping Point.”

By: Helen Zelon

At the Sheraton conference—co-sponsored by the Harlem Children's Zone and PolicyLink, a California-based research and advocacy nonprofit with ties to the Obama administration— Canada drapes a lanky arm across the lectern as he speaks, sliding the mic from its stand, and moves downstage to confide in the audience. Two giant screens bracket the stage, placed cater-corner in the vast ballroom space. When his stories build to an emotional height, Canada takes a precisely folded milk-white hanky from his inside suit-coat pocket and dabs at his brow and the corners of his mouth, a gold bracelet gleaming on his wrist. Polished and passionate, undeniably driven but charmingly self-effacing, Canada's not shy to put himself in the punch line of an anecdote or to use the silence between his words to hit hard truths square on: He is a master of his message, and his presence—his story, his vision, his dedication and his drive—anchors the work that has made him a rock star in the universe of education reform.

Although he now lives in a Long Island suburb, Canada is a son of the South Bronx who grew up tough on Union Avenue. “We were the poorest welfare cheats there ever was,” Canada wrote in his 1995 memoir-manifesto, Fist Stick Knife Gun. One of four brothers in a single-parent household, Canada knew he was different: He was placed in honors classes in grade school, apart from the other kids on the block. Yet he hewed to the honor code of the street, fighting when challenged (and sometimes when not). Then, he got a break: a move to the suburbs to live with his grandparents. Canada escaped.

Educated at Bowdoin College in Maine, Canada earned a graduate degree in education at Harvard in 1975. In 1983, after a stint teaching at and eventually leading a school for troubled youth in Boston, he returned to New York City and began work at the Rheedlen Foundation, a nonprofit that aimed to reduce truancy in Harlem.

At Rheedlen, Canada started to form the ideas that would become the HCZ fabric. One passion was teaching a weekly tae kwon do class, where respect, discipline, order and focus were both cultivated and required. But more students wanted to take tae kwon do than could sign up; a long waitlist formed. Inevitably, some were left out. Over time, this became a motif: There were more children in need than there were programs and classes to serve them. Canada grew increasingly frustrated with Rheedlen's inability to reach a broad swath of Harlem's kids.

He came to believe that unless every child received ample support, the cycle of poverty that has long hobbled Harlem would never be broken.

Canada worked with and eventually replaced Rheedlen director Richard Murphy, who joined the Dinkins administration as commissioner of youth services. As commissioner, Murphy championed the creation of Beacon community centers, which were sited in public schools and meant to provide after-hours community resources and academic and social supports to local youth. With Murphy's authority and Canada's leadership, Rheedlen's after-school and anti-truancy programs evolved to become the city's first Beacon centers.

At about the same time, Children's Defense Fund (CDF) founder and president Marian Wright Edelman convened a new group, the Black Community Crusade for Children, and invited Canada to be part of it. The group met every year at the rural-Tennessee farm of Roots author Alex Haley. Even as Canada found solace in the gathering of likeminded leaders, his discouragement grew: The problems they all recognized as critical threats to poor, urban youth were only increasing in the wake of rising gun violence, the ready availability of crack cocaine, growing rates of incarceration and abysmally low academic achievement in America's poorest communities.

The Children's Defense Fund (whose board Canada now chairs) articulated a disturbing cradle-to-prison pipeline, by which urban youth, most often boys of color, are far more likely to spend time in prison than to enter—much less graduate from—college. Canada conceived an alternate pipeline, a cradle-to-college “conveyor belt” that would insulate Harlem's children from the ills that long plagued the community— one that would, once a child was in the pipeline, guide that child inexorably, inevitably, toward high school graduation and into college.

Canada's connections allowed him to marry his ideas to money. The CDF's Edelman got Canada appointed to the board of the Robin Hood Foundation, which was created by hedge funder Paul Tudor Jones II to channel corporate generosity into the city's neediest schools. Through Robin Hood and via Edelman's networks, Canada met billionaire hedge-fund magnate Stanley Druckenmiller—a fellow Bowdoin alum—and other financial powerhouses. Canada was already friends with current American Express CEO Ken Chenault from their undergraduate years at Bowdoin.

The economic disparities that plagued Harlem when Canada started work at the Rheedlen Foundation were stark: According to William Julius Wilson's landmark 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged, only 38 percent of African-American men in Harlem were employed in 1984, compared with 82 percent a generation earlier, in 1965. Even the economic boom of the 1990s largely bypassed Harlem; about 40,000 residents lived below the poverty line in both 1989 and 1999. Employment remained relatively constant, 49 percent in 1989 and 51 percent a decade later.

Beyond economics and employment, academic achievement among Harlem's children consistently lagged behind that of kids growing up below, say, 96th Street. And the deficits perpetuated themselves: Parents who'd done poorly in school passed subpar verbal and reading skills on to their children. As Canada puts it, “The gap starts at Day One—and it never gets any closer,” unless children have more time to learn.

The funders soon realized Canada was unusually dedicated and extraordinarily agile in his ability to move from the boardroom to the tenement with finesse. “The more they got to know him, they realized what a uniquely talented, dedicated person he is,” Norman Fruchter, director of the community involvement program at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, says. “They pledged X million if he came up with a plan to transform Harlem. That was the origin of the Harlem Children's Zone.” Druckenmiller and others helped Canada write a business plan; Rheedlen became the HCZ.

Two succinct concepts define the Harlem Children's Zone. The first is “the pipeline,” a metaphor for the matrix of services and programs designed to usher local children from birth to college. The second, “the tipping point,” describes a milestone in the neighborhood's development where positive change becomes inevitable.

The cradle-to-college pipeline is actually designed to begin before birth: Expectant parents are recruited into Baby College, a nine-weekend workshop that teaches basic parenting skills and discipline strategies and aims to instill the importance of early-childhood enrichments like reading aloud to babies and toddlers. Children enter the pipeline in preschool, via the Three-Year-Old Journey, Get Ready for Pre-K or, for those who've won the lottery for slots in the two Promise Academy charter schools, the intensive Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten. The Promise Academies (Academy I was launched in 2004, Academy II in 2005) themselves are designed as K-12 schools, although neither has all 13 grades in place yet.

HCZ brings in older teens through its TRUCE media and fitness efforts, its Peacemakers school volunteer program, Employment and Technology workshops and the College Success program, which offers high school seniors at six area schools workshops on college admission and financial aid and helps students secure internships and community service placements.

Adults who live within the Zone's boundaries gain access to community-building resources; more than two dozen city-owned properties have become tenant-owned co-ops through HCZ-led organizing, and HCZ-supplied tax guidance has secured millions in tax credits and rebates for local residents, the organization says. Community-wide HCZ initiatives harness local hospital and social-service resources to fight asthma and obesity; provide medical, dental and mental-health services for Promise Academy students; and aim to keep struggling families intact—with their children out of foster care. They are all part of the Zone's score of programs, which employ a staff of 1,500 and involve about 8,000 local youth at a per capita cost of $5,000 a year.

According to Canada's tipping point theory, once Harlem reaches a 65 percent level of success—academic, economic, social and health—future success and academic achievement will be the natural outcome. At that point, what Canada characterizes as a positive “contamination” will take place: Everyone will begin to benefit from HCZ, whether he or she is part of the schools, the after-school and youth employment programs, the community development efforts and the myriad other projects that exist in the Zone—or not. That tipping point, and the osmosis of benefits from the few to the many, has been part of Canada's thinking for nearly 30 years. It is, however, not a fixed target.

“There's no known science to support 65 [percent],” says Anne Kubisch, director of the Aspen Institute's Roundtable on Community Change, who has studied HCZ and other place-based initiatives. “It's not like there's scientific evidence that if you hit 65 percent of the population, that's the tipping point. But that's their theory.”

Canada began putting the theory into practice in 1994 with community centers and a blocked-off weekday “play street” that revived a drug-steeped, bullet-scarred block of West 144th Street. Today, that same block houses the Countee Cullen Community Center, a teen center, and a nursery school, all under HCZ auspices. Since 1994, the Zone has grown from 24 to 97 square blocks of central Harlem, in a rough rectangle from 116th Street up to 143rd Street, bounded by Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Madison Avenue. In 2000, the area was home to around 70,000 people.

Physical expansion was supported by exponential financial growth: The annual budget has grown from $6 million in 1994 to $74 million in 2008. In fiscal 2007, HCZ paid $7.2 million in salaries and wages. Canada earned $494,000. George Khadoun, the chief operating officer, earned $217,600; development director Mindy Miller was paid $266,000, or slightly more than both Promise Academy principals combined. Consultants billed for more than $1.4 million. The chess tutor received $66,000 to $75,000 a year; $105,000 went to Wyzant Tutoring, a national tutor-placement service; and the organization spent $175,000 on travel. The Zone's in-kind support for the Promise Academy I (which leases its space, unlike Promise Academy II, which is located in a public school building) slashes the school's rental costs from an estimated $35 per square foot in 2003 to $2.70 per square foot.

HCZ's physical presence is easy to see. Take the intersection of Madison and 125th. On one corner, an empty shell of a building languishes. On another, there's a row of shops—some vacant, others full—topped by the derelict Mason and Trowel ballroom. But directly across the street, dominating the block and the local skyline with six spanking new stories of steel, glass and brick, sits the Harlem Children's Zone headquarters, a $44 million structure that exudes both permanence and wealth.

HCZ reports that its programs serve more than 17,000 local residents. Its schools enroll about 1,200 students— a fraction of the number of children in the neighborhood but still substantial for an aspect of the HCZ that, at the outset, was an afterthought. While the Promise Academies and the early-childhood programs that feed them now command the greatest public attention, the Harlem Children's Zone didn't originally envision running its own schools.

Instead, back in 1994, the weight was squarely on social services; schools were out of the picture. “We had committed ourselves to not going into that business in the early '90s,” says longtime treasurer Mitch Kurz. “We didn't want to have to deal with the old [Board of Education] bureaucracy.” Schools meant risk: If the program quality suffered, Kurz says, “the brand would be attached to something mediocre, and that would hurt the brand and hurt our ability to make money” to support the programs.

Working with the local schools in the 1990s meant wrangling with local school boards, which were variously indebted to, or controlled by, local politicians. “Geoff Canada was very soured on the inability of the public school system to educate Harlem children, or children of color, period,” says Annenberg's Fruchter. “There were two villains: the UFT [United Federation of Teachers], which Geoff held responsible for what teachers didn't do and for being embedded in local politics, and the local politicians,” who controlled school boards, as had long been the case in Harlem's District 5.

During its first decade, the HCZ pipeline grew more robust, but the results Canada and his team sought, in terms of academic achievement and progress out of poverty, did not materialize. “We realized this hole in our service provision, particularly in District 5, and the hole was in the schools,” says Kurz.

Too few children were succeeding—Canada felt there had to be a way to scale up the effort and save all the kids, instead of a handful. Canada's frustration with the city's public schools continued undimmed. By January 2002, when Bloomberg began his first term, Canada had worked with five schools chancellors. But in the summer of 2002, for the first time since the Boss Tweed era, the mayor secured control of the city's schools. With Bloomberg's blessing, new schools chancellor Joel Klein cultivated vigorous private support for public schools from corporations and nonprofits.

“The charter school movement changed the landscape,” says Kurz, a multimillionaire who, after a career in advertising, now serves as HCZ treasurer and works with the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, a small high school where he teaches math and serves as a college adviser. “The mayor and the chancellor were both pro-change, and [an HCZ] board with pre-existing relationships, particularly with the mayor, enabled us to get in front of the chancellor.”

Klein met with Canada early in his tenure as chancellor and suggested that Canada bypass the traditional open-enrollment public schools and open his own charter school, which would become central to the Harlem Children's Zone pipeline of cradle-to- college programs. Canada and his team wrote a proposal, recruited teachers and administrators, and organized an admissions lottery that meant door-knocking across the Zone's 24 blocks. In 2004, the Promise Academy elementary and middle schools opened their doors.