Founded by a committed advocate for low-income children, nurtured by the politically powerful and Wall Street titans, and lauded by media around the world, the Harlem Children’s Zone has raised a nation’s hopes. Follow our in-depth evaluation of the program that’s inspiring the federal government’s most innovative poverty-fighting initiative in decades.
Students in the Harlem Children’s Zone achieve the results they do, Canada says, because they invest more: They invest more actual time in the classroom, with a far longer school day and a school year that begins in September and ends in early August. All Promise Academy students are in school about 60 percent longer than average public school students. Struggling students can spend twice as many hours in school as the average kid—in class and in tutoring or in small-group before- and after-school instruction. HCZ’s corporate and school leaders say they hold each child to high standards and expect teachers to do “whatever it takes” to achieve success. And the charters invest more money per child per year—nearly $19,000 in 2008—than the $14,525 the city spends on children who attend general-education programs in traditional open-enrollment public schools.The financial investment starts well before the first formal day of kindergarten.
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.
THE MAN OF THE HOURWe will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to.Geoffrey Canada strides to the lectern in the New York Sheraton’s Grand Metropolitan Ballroom amid the clatter and clink of laden plates and silver coffee urns, as 1,400 sets of eager eyes and ears–fans and acolytes, students and advocates, civic leaders, law enforcement officers, school chiefs, nonprofit staffers and a handful of funders representing 106 communities across the United States–turn their attention away from their sliced-chicken-and-asparagus entrees to the tall, lean man at the front of the room. The diners are gathered at a conference called “Changing the Odds.” They are there because they seek to glean the secrets and wisdom of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), Canada’s all-encompassing neighborhood anti-poverty program.And they are not alone in listening closely to what Canada has to say. His grand experiment, which began in 1994 as an intensely local web of cradle-to-college social services and has expanded to include two charter schools and 97 square blocks of central Harlem, is about the hottest commodity on today’s national urban-policy scene.Just a few weeks after the conference, Canada was featured in a glowing 60 Minutes portrait—the second time the premier TV newsmagazine has covered the Zone. Oprah Winfrey calls Canada “an angel from God.”
On standardized tests in 2009, the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy I fared well compared to most other schools in its upper Manhattan district (District 5), and rivaled city- and statewide averages.
The HCZ model might not work in every depressed urban center. But something else might work in those cities—or might already be working, albeit outside the media spotlight or the White House’s embrace.William Strickland, like Canada, has dedicated most of his adult life to working to counter urban poverty. He established the nonprofit Manchester Bidwell Corp. in 1968, in Pittsburgh’s toughest district, first as an arts education resource for local schoolchildren and later, when Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed, to provide vocational training for unemployed workers. Today, the corporation works with Pittsburgh public schools, placing artists in the classroom and offering a broad swath of after-school, summer and evening programs for kids and adults.An overwhelming majority of teenagers who participate in Strickland’s programs—90 percent—graduate from high school.
The Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (CCRP), which ran from 1992 through 1998, concentrated its efforts on struggling South Bronx neighborhoods along the Cross Bronx Expressway that had since the 1960s and 1970s been battling depopulation, arson, declining business activity and job loss.