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Geoffrey Canada’s Legacy And The Harlem Children’s Zone


Few education leaders enjoy international accolades from people all along the political spectrum, but Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has been touted by both President Barack Obama and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron as a guide to educational reform and was purportedly offered the position of schools chancellor of New York City in 2010 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Not only do a range of people court Canada’s wisdom, but his detractors couch their critiques in deference to the man and his work in Harlem. Canada earned his place on Fortune’s list of the world’s fifty greatest leaders both because of his longevity at the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and because of his adroit management skills and personal charisma.

HCZ  began as an anti-truancy program decades before Canada appeared, but when he put his hand to the till he cultivated a one-block experiment into an established and much-admired social program for poor, minority children. Just last year, Valerie Jarrett, an Obama senior adviser, repeated the administration’s commitment to using elements of HCZ in other communities with its Promise Zone initiatives. Nearly every year since 2006, Canada has appeared prominently on the national stage and with him a round of interest in the educational pipeline he leads. He was featured in a 60 Minutes program. Then, after Paul Tough’s book Whatever It Takes, Canada was featured in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” The federal government then announced it would attempt to replicate HCZ in twenty cities across the country. A series of academic research and a TED talk later, the verdict is still out as to whether HCZ could be transplanted to other communities.

It is mildly humorous that the federal government views itself as flexible and creative enough to create community-based schools such as HCZ. Canada’s tenure has demonstrated his willingness to bend the established boundaries of centralized schools and government to suit the needs of his community, melding the private and public sectors together into a unique entity. A pragmatic leadership approach has allowed Canada to forge ahead despite recession and political wrangling, two things that have delayed the Obama administration from allocating the amount of money it originally proposed for Promise Zones.

Discussions surrounding the federal government’s eagerness to replicate HCZ repeat these themes of locality and funding. Danielle Hanson of the Heritage Foundation concluded her discussion paper last year with this:

[There] are legitimate questions about the potential for replicating HCZ in cities across the country . . . While the Harlem Children’s Zone has been very successful at improving educational attainment and is making great strides in reweaving the social fabric of Harlem, how or whether the HCZ model could be applied in other communities is still unclear. For instance, is there a uniquely Harlem aspect and local culture that is a key to its success? [Communities] should be cautious in assuming that exactly what works in the Zone and why is sufficiently understood . . . HCZ is not just about education. Zone leaders see their strategy as fully developing each child’s social and academic health—indeed, the child’s character—and this may be crucial to obtaining similar results elsewhere.

Caution surfaces regularly that the academic and social gains seen at the HCZ may not be attainable in other locations. There are also the perennial questions of financing. Two-thirds of HCZ’s funding comes from individuals, particularly its board members, foundations and corporations. The final portion comes from taxpayers. It takes a dynamic leader to draw that amount of individual investors, to the tune of tens of millions of dollar each year. And that brings the conversation full circle back to Canada himself.

A Singular Leader
Canada has heard his share of criticism, certainly, but questions about HCZ’s effectiveness are couched in respect for him and his care for the families of Harlem. One such exchange began when Michelle Croft and Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution reported their findings that HCZ works by providing much better education to the children of Harlem that they would receive otherwise, but that it does not rise to the levels advertised. They demonstrate that the scores of students at a HCZ middle school, Promise Academy, fall mid-range when compared to other public charter schools in other boroughs of New York City. They suggest that HCZ’s schools may be effective in themselves without the health care and social system set up around them and that the money spent on social supports might be better designated for education.

They conclude, “There is no evidence that the HCZ influences student achievement through neighborhood investments. There is considerable evidence that schools can have dramatic effects on the academic skills of disadvantaged children without their providing broader social services. Improving neighborhoods and communities is a desirable goal in its own right, but let’s not confuse it with education reform.”

When Canada challenged the duo on various points, they responded a few days later, closing their response with these words:

Not only did we credit the effectiveness of the HCZ charter schools in our previous report, we here applaud Geoffrey Canada’s life work, which is to give poor minority children in Harlem a set of life experiences more like those that are available to middle class children in this country with the hope that this will fundamentally improve the trajectory of their lives.

Rather than trivializing the HCZ, we would like to see it continue, thrive, and be the subject of evaluations that will address its impact in a more thorough and long-term way than can be accomplished with the data currently available.

How refreshing to see a balance between respect and skepticism, without falling into hero-worship on one side and wholesale dismissal on the other. Jarrett Murphy of City Limits news wrote, “What we found is essentially what Canada himself said yesterday, according to the Times: That there were signs of progress but ‘the results aren’t there yet.’ One result that is in is that Canada made fighting poverty a cause compelling enough for mainstream media to cover and hedge-fund magnates to fund, which is no small accomplishment.” Even a publication that regularly questions HCZ’s claims concedes that Canada possesses a universal appeal that makes the project work.

Geoffrey Canada resigns this month as CEO of the Zone, and it will be interesting to see how much of HCZ depends upon his magnetism as an individual and how much will continue with a new president. But if the last ten years give any indication, people will continue to question and probe the results of the Harlem Children’s Zone while praising the man who nurtured it into the social network it is today.