The Harlem Children's Zone headquarters on 125th and Madison anchors a 97-block anti-poverty program upon which the Obama administration wants other low-income communities to model their efforts.

Photo by: Alice Proujansky

The Harlem Children’s Zone headquarters on 125th and Madison anchors a 97-block anti-poverty program upon which the Obama administration wants other low-income communities to model their efforts.

Doubts about test scores shouldn’t nullify all the optimism about the Harlem Children’s Zone schools. Lots of schools are accused of “teaching to the test” and cherry-picking the numbers they present to the world, but the Promise Academies happen to have better numbers than many. That the gains are pretty recent and largely limited to the state tests, that they contrast sharply with the same schools’ performance just a few years ago, even the serious problems with teacher turnover—these don’t invalidate the idea that something special is going on in Harlem. They might just be warning signs for those hoping to replicate the Harlem model elsewhere: There are curves in the road, slippery conditions, even sudden stops.

There also might be more than one road. What’s often overlooked in the warm glow of media attention to HCZ is the fact that other traditional public schools and charter networks achieve comparably robust test scores, with lower per-student spending and often without the extended day–extended year paradigm. Dozens of open-admission public schools and charters, in New York and the nation, demonstrate ongoing, dramatic success with high-need, high-poverty students. Some have progressive educational policies; others hew to a more traditional, structured, prescriptive style. Established national programs like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), Achievement First and the Opportunity Charter Network, as well as individual local charter schools like Boston’s Roxbury Prep and the Bedford Stuyvesant Charter School for Excellence in Brooklyn, achieve comparable results without the vast HCZ network of social supports— or the HCZ’s copious financial resources.

The success of these schools and programs does not diminish HCZ’s work. Rather, they are alternative models that often deliver similar gains for far less money, going to the heart of the challenge in designing new responses to poverty. Does urban poverty have a single cure? Or do different models, with unique approaches, have their place? And are great schools enough to tackle poverty, or do neighborhoods need a broader array of resources? The two strands of HCZ—its social programs and its schools—are supposed to work together to transform central Harlem. But while state testing data and other statistics—about attendance, poverty, spending and the like—are accessible for the Promise Academy charter schools, HCZ’s broader social programs, which were the founding purpose of the Zone, are far more difficult to assess objectively. Although some are 15 years old, the impact of these programs is obscured by immaturity: The data are not yet comprehensive or ripe enough to demonstrate conclusively that the pipeline actually works, or that the 65 percent critical mass that Canada identifies as the tipping point to positive “contamination” has been reached in any meaningful way.

While Canada says publicly, “We’ve been really successful with teen pregnancy,” independent verification is impossible. Births to teenage mothers are down slightly in the community district containing most of the Zone, but they have fallen in adjoining neighborhoods as well, and the causes cannot be discerned. Employment data show little change in the HCZ era; at least one HCZ job-training program fizzled and was shuttered when it didn’t reach its intended targets. After two years, “the young people we designed the jobs program for were not coming in. The program was a failure. We closed the program. It just simply did not work,” Canada said at the public gathering in November in Springfield. He added, “We are probably the biggest youth employer in Harlem,” but no public data exist to support—or refute—his claim. The 2010 census might provide more accurate insights about birth rate and family structures, despite concerns about data-gathering and incomplete counting in poor communities. But current hard data are lacking, says Lisbeth Schorr, of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy and a lecturer in social medicine at Harvard. “What Geoffrey Canada has accomplished is to give people a reason to believe that you can put a lot of things that have worked separately together and produce better outcomes. He doesn’t have the data to show that. It’s an inspiration,” Schorr says. “The fact that they don’t have a lot of hard results hasn’t kept people from being inspired by it. He’s been so successful at convincing people it can be done that there’s no challenge for hard data.”

Even the Zone’s strongest academic supporters, Fryer and Dobbie of Harvard, caution against extrapolating too much, too quickly from the schools’ academic successes. They write, “The Harlem Children’s Zone combines reform-minded charter schools with a web of community services. … We cannot, however, disentangle whether communities coupled with high-quality schools drive our results, or whether the high-quality schools alone are enough to do the trick.” Of the more than 20 programs in the Zone, the Harvard authors say, only two lend themselves to statistical analysis.

Oddly, in an era where accountability and metrics are education reform and public policy watchwords, the lack of data about HCZ hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for replicating Canada’s model. Even those skeptical about the lack of evidence embrace the hope Canada articulates. “To date, these investments have not aggregated to improvement in neighborhood-wide well-being nor produced population-level changes in, for example, infant mortality, graduation rates, or income,” reads a recent report by a research team led by Kubisch of the Aspen Institute Roundtable for Community Change.

Yet Kubisch strongly endorses HCZ as a model for national change. “We are so desperate for any little inkling of success that as soon as we get something, we grab on to it. The Harlem Children’s Zone has more to offer than other places,” she tells City Limits. “If you’ve got to do something, it’s better than a lot of alternatives.”

Even before the bright lights of national prominence shone on Canada’s work, educators and civic leaders from across the U.S. and overseas sought out the Zone’s secrets and strategies. In response, Canada assigned his longtime colleague, confidant and fellow Bowdoin alum Rasuli Lewis the task of creating the HCZ Practitioners Institute.

More than 100 groups, from the U.S. and overseas, have since visited the HCZ to observe its techniques. Now that the White House has tapped Canada’s model as the template for tacking 21st century poverty, more people from more cities are coming to Harlem to learn.

A picture is emerging of what the new federal program will look like. At Canada’s November conference, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that “high-quality schools are at the center”—essential elements of all potential Promise Neighborhoods. According to the government’s funding guidelines, prospective Promise Neighborhoods must demonstrate at least 30 percent childhood poverty. Anchor organizations must be community-based entities and show evidence of long-term community engagement, the capacity to launch a successful initiative and the ability to build partnerships with public and private entities and community leaders.

U.S. DOE budget materials say the selected programs will be “modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone” and “designed to combat the effects of poverty and improve education and life outcomes for children, from birth through college.”

“The core idea behind the initiative is that providing both effective schools and strong systems of support to children and youth in poverty and, thus, meeting their health, social services, and educational needs, will offer them the best hope for a better life,” the DOE’s description continues. Recipients of planning funding that submit “promising plans and partnerships” will be eligible to get more money to implement their ideas in the following year.

What’s unclear is whether the federal program intends to mass-produce the HCZ model or merely use it as a loose framework of ideas. That distinction matters, because among those who attended the November “Changing the Odds” conference were representatives from areas whose similarities to Harlem begin and end with the fact that their residents are overwhelmingly poor.

In Richmond, Calif., MacArthur “genius prize” winner Dan Lau has been working to replicate HCZ programs and results since he visited Harlem in 2005. Instead of the figurehead leadership personified by Canada, however, Lau must coordinate the efforts of 25 partnering agencies. “Fundraising is our biggest challenge,” Lau said at the “Changing the Odds” conference; neighborhood jobs are a close second. Many signature HCZ elements didn’t succeed in Richmond, Lau said. “We tried Baby College, Harlem Gems, AmeriCorps—they didn’t work for us. What works for us is what you do for people and how you engage them. You can’t just pick up Harlem and put it in Richmond.”

Dr. Karen Fox, head of the Delta Health project that spans 18 bayou counties in Mississippi, told the conference of a vastly different geographic landscape: 70 percent of her area’s residents must drive 45 miles just to reach a grocery store, she said. There are few community libraries; many lack access to an emergency room or a local physician. Basic social services, omnipresent in central Harlem, are near absent. “Access is so different,” she said. “Forming collaborations is different.” Because there is little infrastructure and “terrible transportation,” the kind of intensive door-knocking outreach that HCZ program participation depends on is simply impossible. Neighborhood saturation is not feasible in an underdeveloped area “bigger than the state of Rhode Island.” Neither is the creation of a single school to anchor a potential Promise Neighborhood—a requirement of the Obama administration’s funding guidelines.

The HCZ is careful to issue a disclaimer to all potential Practitioners Institute participants: The workshops are not guaranteed to actually prepare community representatives to go home and implement their own versions of the Harlem Children’s Zone. (HCZ even sued a Hartford, Conn., charity—the Asylum Hill Children’s Zone—for copyright infringement. The charity changed its name to settle the case.)

“None of this is easy anywhere,” Canada conceded at the November conference. “We are not going to franchise. We are not going to replicate the work ourselves.” But, he added, “we don’t want people to have to reinvent the wheel—or the science” of how to turn a troubled neighborhood around.

“We are in the process of inventing a science that will allow us to win,” he continued. “What we haven’t done is figure out the way to share. … People have the fantasy this is easy, that we had all the answers, we didn’t fall on our face. None of it was ever easy,” he added. But as he

completed the thought, he gave hope to cities that see in themselves what Canada saw in Harlem. “None of it,” he added, “is so complicated that it can’t be replicated—if done correctly.”

In his remarks, Canada never closed the door on the possibility that the rest of urban America has something to learn from him. But he didn’t mention the unique attributes that helped the Children’s Zone achieve what it has: a dense neighborhood that permitted a focused approach, the profound financial resources that reside in New York City (and, notably, on the HCZ board), the city’s long-established web of social services that the HCZ can harness and direct.

They are all factors that may not be reproduced elsewhere in America. “Is it possible to replicate?” asks Schorr, of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. “The answer to that is a clear no. Adaptations are required by new settings and new circumstances.” Plus, says Schorr, 20 Promise Neighborhoods “will require at least 20 extraordinary leaders.”

But not every struggling city or impoverished neighborhood has a Geoff Canada to tell its story. “I’m not a believer in the McDonald’s version of education—you build a franchise and sell the same hamburgers across the country,” says Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, which has opened 96 New Century schools in the Bloomberg-Klein era. “That’s why I’m resistant to the idea of replication. You can’t replicate Geoff— you’ll inevitably fail.”

Canada has, over years of work and in countless speeches, interviews, meetings and conversations, defined a new kind of reality in central Harlem, one that drinks deep from the well of hope. There’s no prescriptive process that details how to cultivate inspirational leaders, much less those with a lifelong commitment to a singular cause, impeccable social skills and street cred, and deep connections to politicians and funders.

The list of individual and corporate donors to the Harlem Children’s Zone, posted in its annual report, looks a lot like the donors wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or any other entrenched New York City icon of good works: studded with megawatt corporate and private names, the big funders who have donated multiple millions to the Zone’s projects every year since its creation. The money doesn’t walk itself in the door; it takes concerted, dogged effort, by some of the same moneyed financiers and philanthropists, to drum up the support the Zone currently enjoys.

Donors to the Harlem Children’s Zone include Druckenmiller— chairman of HCZ’s board—who ran George Soros’ investment fund and is listed as No. 85 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. Among other supporters are ex–American International Group chairman Maurice H. (Hank) Greenberg, Home Depot founder and former New York Stock Exchange director Ken Langone and Mayor Bloomberg (No. 8). A $100 million campaign is currently under way to bolster the Zone’s existing $168 million to $175 million endowment.

Canada’s ability to move between the boardroom and the street has been honed, over time, to a kind of art. It helps that some of his relationships with funders go back nearly 40 years—and that doors have continued to open, and introductions have been made, in the years since.

Chenault, American Express CEO and Canada college buddy, says conversations that began in dorm rooms continue today, in Amex boardrooms and uptown at HCZ headquarters. Chenault is adamant in his support of the Zone; a representative of Amex consistently holds a seat on the HCZ board. Bloomberg has long been one of the HCZ’s most outspoken public champions. He has privately donated $600,000 to the project, and in public life oversees numerous city agencies, including the Department of Education, that funnel many tens of millions annually into the HCZ’s schools and programs. Canada is an equally staunch devotee of the mayor, headlining the mayor’s anti-poverty commission, co-chairing the Learn NY effort to renew mayoral control of the city’s schools and even reaching out to the Obama White House, though trusted adviser Valerie Jarrett, to ask that the President limit his campaign appearances and potential endorsement on behalf of the mayor’s recent challenger, city comptroller Bill Thompson.

“Geoff Canada has a lot of social capital. He moves in and among politicians and philanthropists. That allows him to do things that most people wouldn’t be able to do,” says Columbia University Teacher’s College Dean Aaron Pallas, who has studied the Zone.

As important as Canada’s connections to the worlds of politics and finance have been to the expansion of HCZ, they sometimes trigger unflattering coverage. He earned scorn last year for failing to disclose the mayor’s financial support for HCZ during his testimony to the City Council in favor of extending term limits. And 2009 was a tough year for many of the financiers in Canada’s close circle, and the money they manage.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the HCZ endowment suffered Madoff-linked losses in the multiple millions. In addition to the private-sector board members and donors, private money managers shepherd HCZ investments—including more than $10 million invested with Bernard Madoff protégé J. Ezra Merkin’s now collapsed Ariel Group, and upwards of $50 million managed by the ultra-private investment fund DCM Investments. HCZ treasurer Kurz would not comment on DCM’s owners—”It’s not a big deal, but I would prefer not to answer”—but allowed that “they provide great service, and they have been doing very, very well for us.” Regarding Madoff-linked investments and investors, Kurz admits, “we’ve had mixed results from some of our investments,” but would not detail particulars. The late Madoff associate Jeffry Picower regularly made million-dollar donations to the HCZ.

In October 2009, HCZ board member Raj Rajaratnam, founder of the Galleon hedge fund, was arrested and charged with leading an elaborate, long-lived $20 million insider-trading scheme. Rajaratnam did double duty with the HCZ as both a board member and financial service provider: The Harlem Children’s Zone has had about $10 million a year invested with Galleon, at least since the mid-2000s. Rajaratnam was on the board for “not an insignificant amount of time,” according to Kurz, and his arrest took Kurz, and the board, by surprise.

Two weeks after Rajaratnam’s arrest, The New York Times reported that five individuals, including Canada, vouched for Rajaratnam’s $100 million bail, providing personal assurances that he would not flee the New York jurisdiction. “Mr. Canada appeared in court and volunteered to be one of five co-signers of Mr. Rajaratnam’s $100 million bail,” according to the Times, citing the prosecutor’s concerns that Rajaratnam could be a flight risk.

Canada’s pledge, which he acknowledged in the Times, risked his home, pension and life savings. Even so, he expressed total confidence in the hedge funder. “I have not had a moment’s doubt,” Canada told the Times. “I’m not worried about it at all.” The dramatic public act raised whispered questions at the November conference as to where Canada had resources sufficient to assure a fifth, or $20 million, of the hedge funder’s bail. Were the funds his own?

Was he placing Harlem Children’s Zone moneys on the line? Treasurer Kurz says he did not know of the plan before Canada offered his support to Rajaratnam. “I learned when you did,” he tells City Limits, “when I read The New York Times. I said to my wife, ‘Where’d Geoff get that kind of money?’ ” In fact, Kurz says, the board was not consulted by Canada on the decision to publicly support Rajaratnam. The question did, Kurz admits, “come up” in the board. “We decided to refer questions to Geoff. It was his volition. It was not something that the trustees had to be asked about, because he elected to do that on his own.” The investments HCZ had with Galleon will or have been “liquidated,” says Kurz, and Rajaratnam’s case awaits legal proceedings. Rajaratnam has resigned from the HCZ board.