Helen Zelon, “Is the Promise Real: The Harlem Children’s Zone... City Lights

Helen Zelon, “Is the Promise Real: The Harlem Children’s Zone Becomes a Template
for National Change,” City Lights 34:1 (March 2010)
The Man Of The Hour
“We 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-andasparagus 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-lo-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
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.”
ABC’s Good Morning America, PBS’s Charlie Rose and
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien have broadcast Canada’s message; National Public Radio’s Terry
Gross and Tavis Smiley have interviewed him; Public Radio International’s This American
Life aired a lengthy profile; and articles about the Harlem Children’s Zone have appeared
in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, and other leading
publications. In 2004, the Harlem Children’s Zone’s first charter school caught the
attention of author and New York Times magazine editor Paul Tough, whose book-length
profile of the Zone, Whatever It Takes, was published in 2008.
Think tanks right, left and center have discussed and evaluated Canada’s work. President
Bill Clinton has paid homage; Britain’s Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho visited
last May. A report last spring by two Harvard scholars asserting that Canada’s charter
schools have eradicated the long-entrenched achievement gap between black and white
students cued an ongoing avalanche of praise from pundits, cheer—led by Times columnist
David Brooks’ celebratory accolade “The Harlem Miracle.”
In 2007, Canada’s lifework was singled out by Barack Obama the candidate, and it has
since been written into the President’s proposed 2010 and 2011 budgets as a template for
Promise Neighborhoods, a program that aims to reverse generations of urban poverty and
racial disparity. “We are launching Promise Neighborhoods to build on Geoffrey Canada’s
successes in Harlem with a comprehensive approach lo ending poverty,” the President has
said. Of the cost, which Obama estimates to be “a few billion a year,” the President has
vowed, “We will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to.”
The Obama administration has already dedicated $10 million for planning grants, to be
awarded competitively to 20 communities that will develop Promise Neighborhoods built
on the Harlem Children’s Zone template. That’s what drew the audience that waited for
Canada’s words at the Sheraton that afternoon in November.
Yet as Canada readily admits, his work has just begun. “We won’t have our cycle
completed until 10 years from now,” he told the crowd in November. “It’s a 20-year
cycle.” The Zone’s Promise Academy schools have posted celebrated gains on New York
State standardized tests, but the schools are themselves too new to register a full
complement of students or graduate a high school class. Many of HCZ’s social-service
programs predate the schools, but their impact has mostly eluded measurement. ‘The
White House, prominent academics and the media have anointed the Harlem Children’s
Zone the weapon of choice for attacking poverty, even though little is known about what
degree of difference HCZ has actually made, and exactly how it was achieved.
There has been some success, no doubt. Canada possesses enormous integrity; his lifelong
dedication is unquestioned. But it’s unclear whether the Harlem Children’s Zone is an
exportable, adaptable commodity that can work from Cleveland to Compton or a sui
generis, only-in New York idea. Not every neighborhood could claim the deep, dense
financial and political resources that have nurtured the Harlem Children’s Zone. Not
everyone has a homegrown Geoff Canada to lead the way.
How much does a dynamic, charismatic, visionary leader matter? Short answer: a great
The Great Escape
“If you hit 65 percent of the population, that’s the tipping point.”
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 catercorner 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 CDP’s Edelman got
Canada appointed to the board of the Robin Hood Foundation, which was created by
hedge (under 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.
Canada’s Provinces
Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone encompasses an array of programs serving
different needs and populations.
Charter Schools
Promise Academies
Admission is mainly by lottery, conducted when students are 3 years old; admission to the
school includes an invitation to enroll in Harlem Gems, HCZ’s intensive preKindergarten program. Students have an extended school day and year, with classes
running until early August. Promise Academy I, launched in 2004, will eventually cover
Kindergarten through 12 grade, but currently has students in grades K through 6, 9 and
10. The school’s elementary, middle and high school divisions operate separately, each
with its own principal. Promise Academy II, located several blocks away and operating
since 2005, currently has Kindergarten to fourth grade but will eventually have grades K
through 12.
Saturday Academy
Gives extra support in English and math to Promise Academy students.
Early Childhood Programs
The Baby College
An early intervention program for expectant parents and parents of children up to 3 years
old. The nine-week parenting workshop emphasizes early-childhood development and
reading to infants and children, while discouraging corporal punishment
The Three-Year-Old Journey
A Saturday workshop for parents whose children will enter pre-K the following year.
The program emphasizes developmental stages and language skills.
Harlem Gems
Pre-K for 4-year-olds with a 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio. The reported expenditure per
student is $13,500, twice that of Head Start.
Targeting Youth
Harlem Peacemakers
In conjunction with AmeriCorps, this program trains college-age interns to offer inclassroom support to young children, supervise them during the school day, provide afterschool programming and coordinate outreach to parents at seven elementary schools in
Harlem as well as at the Promise Academy
A Cut Above
An after-school program for middle schoolers who do not attend the Promise Academy
Charter Schools. Academic support and high school and college prep are provided.
TRUCE (The Renaissance University for Community Education)
An arts education and media literacy program for youth ages 12 to 19 who live in the
Zone. Those in the program produce a public access TV show called The Real Deal.
Learn to Earn
An after-school program for high school juniors and seniors with a focus on academic
skills, college prep and job readiness. Students are paid weekly stipends for good grades
and good attendance at school and after-school programs.
College Success Office
College admissions support program for youth who graduate from high school and are
involved in one of six other HCA programs, such as Learn to Earn and Beacon. The
office offers support through the college search and admissions process and throughout
former students’ college careers.
Centers that offer additional afternoon, even and weekend services to students. Programs
include tutoring, drug counseling, pregnancy prevention and social events.
Neighborhood Needs
Employment and Technology Center
Provides access to computers, technology classes and employment services for community
residents of all ages.
Community Pride
The community-organizing program of HCZ organizes tenants and block associations. It
has helped tenant organizations build capacity by converting city-owned buildings to
tenant co-ops, according to HCZ reports, as well as set up community-building events
such as block parties and film festivals.
Single Stop
Offers financial and legal services to Zone residents.
Income Tax Consulting
Individualized, one-time counseling on income tax preparation has garnered millions in
gains, say Zone officials.
Health and Fitness Initiatives
TRUCE Fitness and Nutrition Center
Offers free dance, martial arts, fitness and nutrition classes as well as academic support for
students in grades 5 through 8. It began as an effort to address obesity in the community.
Asthma Initiative
A collaboration with Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem Hospital, Columbia University
and other community partners, the initiative surveys families in the Zone to determine
who suffers from asthma, then works with individual households to help them manage the
Healthy Living Initiative
Seeks to address the problem of obesity in the community and promote physically-active
lifestyles and healthy eating habits among the children of central Harlem.
Harlem Children’s Health Project
A health clinic located inside the Promise Academy I middle school provides on-the-spot
medical support and dental and mental-health services to students. The intent is to address
the immediate health needs of children who have no health insurance and to remove
possible health-related barriers to learning.
Preventive Services
The Family Development Program
Conducts family assessments and refers families to mental-health services.
The Family Support Center
Provides group sessions on parenting and anger management, crisis intervention, referrals
and advocacy.
The Midtown Family Place
Provides preventive services to 45 families in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen; also runs a food
pantry and a literacy program.
Project CLASS (Clean Living and Staying Sober)
Provides referrals for drug abuse treatment and monitors sobriety for families at risk of
foster care placement.
Truancy Prevention
Provides supportive services for 90 families in Manhattan Valley and central Harlem.
Includes domestic violence and parenting support groups.
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 readies 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
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 coops 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 55,000 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 Re 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
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 non-profits.
“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.
Shaping Success
“Failure is not permitted, because funding is tied to success, not failure”
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. The
Harlem Children’s Zone spends almost as much per child in its Harlem Gems preschool,
$13,500, as the city spends on a typical older student. Gems tykes are carefully cultivated
and groomed for school; they’re in the Promise Academy pipeline already, because
Harlem Children’s Zone planners hold kindergarten lotteries when a cohort of students is
2 or 3 years old—effectively holding seals until they are old enough to attend kindergarten.
In addition, HCZ spends $5,000 per child each year for after-school and extracurricular
programs for students who don’t attend the Promise Academies but live within the
Harlem Children’s Zone. Some of the money goes to direct payment of middle school
children, for good grades and participation in HCZ programs.
The school day begins at Promise Academy I and II at 8 a.m., even for the youngest
students. At Harlem Gems, the lottery admission pre-K program that feeds into the
Promise Academies, the day stretches from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. After-school programs, which
include 4- and 5-year-olds, run until 6 or 7 p.m. There’s Saturday school every weekend,
and some teachers and students meet as early as 7 a.m. for intensive test preparation.
“Every single child has to make it,” says Shana Brodnax, senior manager of earlychildhood programs at the HCZ. “It’s an entirely no-excuses-accepted policy that takes an
almost incomprehensible amount of resources and support.” “Failure is not permitted,”
vowed Canada, speaking to a public gathering in Springfield, Mass., in November. “No
excuses. Failure is not permitted, because funding is tied to success, not failure” In the
world of education, success has many definitions. But the HCZ schools are simply too
new to be able to measure success in the vocabulary of graduation or college enrollment—
no students have yet graduated from the Promise Academy’s high school, so there’s no
graduation rate to discuss. Regents scores from 2009 are encouraging but preliminary, as
only one cohort of students has taken the exams. Nearly 500 young adults who
participated in nonschool HCZ programs are now in college, but not much is known
about that group.
Instead, at the Promise Academies, success has an explicit benchmark: “We are judged by
the New York State tests,” says HCZ spokesperson Marty Lipp. “We literally live or die
by that test.”
Like all other public school students, those at the Promise Academies take statewide
assessments every year. The Promise Academy schools have recently posted strong results
in math: In 2009, 87 percent of Promise Academy eighth-graders scored at or above grade
level, compared with 61 percent overall in District 5. On the state math test, 91 percent of
Asian students and 86 percent of white students citywide scored at or above grade level, as
did a mere 62 percent of black students in the city’s schools. Since the Promise Academy
is 91 percent black, its high scores suggest a far narrower racial achievement gap than
might otherwise be expected.
On the 2009 English-language arts (ELA) test, 57 percent of Promise Academy eighthgraders met or exceeded grade-level standards, compared with 46 percent in District 5 at
large and 50 percent of black students in New York City. While HCZ students’ scores
exceed city averages for black students, a substantial and significant race gap persists:
Citywide, 76 percent of both white and Asian eighth-graders scored at or above grade
level. (Promise Academy eighth-graders bested their District 5 counterparts in 2007 and
2008 on math and English, as well.)
In April 2009, Harvard economists Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie released a study
asserting that “the Harlem Children’s Zone is enormously effective at increasing the
achievement of the poorest minority children,” based on their analysis of 2007 state test
score data. In middle school, they documented gains that “reverse the black-white
achievement gap in mathematics.” Grade school results are even stronger. Fryer and
Dobbie say, and “close the racial achievement gap in both subjects [math and Englishlanguage arts].”
Test scores are the single most powerful measure In the city’s annual progress reports
about each school. Yet both the city’s Department ol Education and New York State
Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch recognize that the Level 3 score—widely translated as
“at grade level” or “proficient,” which is where most HCZ students scored—does not
actually predict academic success. In fact, students who score Level 3 in eighth grade have
only a 52 percent chance of graduating from high school in four years, according to Tisch
and analysts at the city Department of Education.
Fryer and Dobbie based their conclusions on gains made by a single class on a single test in
a single year. In other years, and for other grades, state-exam scores at the Promise
Academy have not always been impressive. The fifth-graders scored lower than the district
average on the 2009 math test. Only a third of the schools eighth-graders were at grade
level on the 2008 English test.
On nonstate exams, the results are even more mixed. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills
(ITBS), the eighth-graders’ average score was 41, well below the HCZ-set target of 50
and a score that correlates to an achievement ranking on the 33rd percentile nationally.
(ITBS scores since 2007 have risen but still do not meet HCZ-set goals.) On the
TerraNova English assessment, HCZ’s goal was for 65 percent—the tipping point—of
students to score 80 percent or above, a goal that the school has not yet been able to
achieve. A similar target was set for math; again, the organization’s testing goals were
unmet, despite three-month delays in testing that should have translated into extra gains.
The fact is, any test one looks at, whatever result is shown, is of limited use in judging
whether the Promise Academy model works or not. Each Promise Academy test cohort
comprised fewer than 100 students a fairly small pool from which to conclude that the
project is brilliant or a bust.
And comparing the student populations at Promise Academy with those in the nearby
regular public schools is an apples-to-oranges matchup: The HCZ schools serve
significantly fewer high-need learners, like special education students or kids who are
learning English. For instance, only 6 percent of the third graders who look the 2007-08
English test at the Promise Academy had disabilities, while disabled kids made up 30, 40,
even 60 percent of the test-taking pool in open-enrollment schools in the district. Only a
handful of students at the Promise Academies arc English-language learners, compared
with 14 percent in schools citywide. And the students who attend HCZ are selected by
lottery, which may in itself shape the schools’ population: Unlike open-enrollment
neighborhood schools, the lottery requires a measure of parental initiative that benefits
HCZ students in other ways. “One has to take the ... evidence with a grain of salt,” Fryer
and Dobbie caution. “Children who participate in the HCZ are not a random sample of
students…Students served by HCZ are likely to be self-selected, and results that compare
[them] to other children in Harlem may be biased.”
Harlem Children’s Zone school leaders, however, are adding more than a grain of salt.
Faced with dramatically different testing outcomes between state tests and the Iowa exam,
they decided to find an alternative to the Iowa. According to the organization’s 2008-09
annual report, “Two years ago, a decision was made to deemphasize the [Iowa test] in
order to focus on New York state standards and the skills needed for success on state
assessments; thus the school is looking for another nationally recognized standardized test
which aligns more closely with New York Stale standards.”
Being able to display the right kind of results is a matter of survival. “We are bottom-line
kind of people. We live by the numbers. Show us the outcome. That’s how we’re
measured—that’s how we measure you,” said HCZ supporter Ken Chenault of American
Express at the November “Changing the Odds” conference. “The Harlem Children’s
Zone thinks about product value, just like they do at Apple, just like they do at J. Crew,
just like we do at my company. A strong brand can bring financial assets—a promise of
goods and services, based on trust.”
At the Promise Academy, school leaders and teachers work backward from the test score
goals set by Canada and the HCZ leadership: As Paul Tough related in Whatever it Takes,
disturbingly low test scores in the school’s first years dictated a results-oriented attack.
“The whole school was going to be concentrating on one thing: raising the test scores,”
Tough wrote. During the period from 2004 through 2008 when Tough reported on the
school, test prep began before school, at 7 or 7:30 a.m. for some students, with cash
incentives for attendance. Schoolwide test prep started in September, Tough reported,
with “morning test-prep sessions, a test-prep block during the school day, test prep in the
after-school program, and test prep on Saturdays.” Over the 11-month school year, focus
persisted on the state tests.
Every week, teachers tell City Limits, students took practice tests, using previous state
exams as study guides. “We used exactly what people were going to see on the exam,”
says a former math teacher, to make sure students were “thoroughly inculcated with test
sophistication, test practice. So that when they got on the field: they’d be ready.”
“It’s all about the numbers,” another former Promise Academy math teacher tells City
l.imits. “Everyone felt the pressure. People got bonuses for their performance. There was a
synergy there. It wasn’t so clear-cut, that if X children fail, I’m out of a job. But you
knew, at any time, you could be released.”
HCZ does not deny its focus on testing. “We do work with the kids to prep for state
tests—during school, after school and weekends,” says HCZ’s Lipp. “We are judged by
the slate tests. We have to pay attention to it.”
One part of the HCZ experience that is not emphasized in media coverage is the
stunning rate of teacher turnover the Promise Academies have posted. In 2006-07, a third
of Promise Academy I’s teachers left or were dismissed. The year before 48 percent were
fired or quit. Only one of the original teachers is still with the Promise Academy middle
Some teachers elected to leave, like those who told City Limits that working with data
took precedence at the school over working with children. Others were fired. One
teacher, who flew in from Hawaii to teach at the Promise Academy, was let go before her
household furnishings arrived by shipping container.
Efiom Ukoidemabia, the school’s former math coach, stepped into a teaching role after an
instructor resigned, and was summarily dismissed. “Before I was fired, I was never
observed in the classroom. I was never offered feedback on my performance. There was
no paper trail, and there was no guidance. I was given no chance to improve over time,”
he tells City Limits—all steps that would have been in place if the school were bound by
the sort of union rules and contracts that charter school proponents contend inhibit
educational innovation.
On the afternoon City Limits was permitted to visit the Promise Academy I school at
Harlem Children’s Zone headquarters, the teachers encountered were predominantly
young; about half had not taught school previously in New York City (or elsewhere).
Two came to teaching via the New York City Teaching Fellows program and Teach For
America, alternate-certification programs that bring bright, young college grads into the
public schools, with mixed long-term outcomes.
Classrooms were clean, bright and barebones modest: They were thinly supplied, with
little student-made artwork, writing or other projects on display and limited classroom
resources like the libraries and manipulative materials often seen in public school
classrooms. Most often, students were arranged in old-school rows of desks, with the
teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but the instruction was often energetic and
engaging: In one fourth-grade music lesson, the teacher, who had drawn a cartoon selfportrait on a whiteboard before the lesson, wiped away an ear in protest after a
cacophonous, enthusiastic recorder display. “Put the ear back!” called out one boy, “so
you won’t be Vincent van Gogh!”
Teachers in the classes City Limits visited often worked in pairs, giving the very small
classes of 10 to 16 students additional attention, discipline and guidance. While some
teachers shushed kids on the stairways or snapped their fingers at children, expecting
obedience, others coaxed their charges with humor, like the English teacher who pleaded
with students for details in their essays: “Nobody wants a sandwich without the mayo and
the lettuce.” An essay without color, “that’s just the meal and the cheese. That’s dry.”
Students wear uniforms that wouldn’t be out of place in parochial schools—gray plaid
skirts and white blouses for the girls, gray slacks and red vests for the boys, with high
schoolers in khakis and button-downs. A sign at the building’s entrance prohibits hats,
“durags” and hoodies—streetwear that doesn’t belong in the classroom.
The schools two science labs are not currently used as labs but as regular classrooms
certainly complicating the instruction of Regents-level science classes like biology and
chemistry. History students learning about World War I studied from books that included
Regents and other test preparatory materials, although their teacher assured City Limits
that they used a textbook on other days. (We didn’t see any textbooks in use, but a few
were on classroom shelves.) The gleaming gym, visible from 125’“ Street through a wall
made of 15 double-height panels of plate glass, features an HCZ logo on the basketball
courts maple floor—and 15 automated white-fabric panels that slide down, like so many
eyelids, when the kids in the gym wave to passers-by on the street.
Most of the teachers who came to—and left—the Promise Academies (the second school,
launched a year after the first in 2005, is located a few blocks away on Madison Avenue)
bought into Canada’s vision of education reform. One former staffer recalls crying, she
was so inspired the first time she heard Canada speak. Ukoidemabia says that becoming
the math coach of the Promise Academy was a dream after 15 years teaching in the city’s
public schools. “On a visceral level, I’m an African male, this is 125th Street—you can’t
get any more Harlem. There were these other African males, from Harvard, Bowdoin I
was dazzled,” he says. “It was an amazing opportunity’ to shape kids—and a $44 million
building. I thought, ‘I want in on this’”
But reality was less inspiring. Physical conditions in the first years were bad, some teachers
say. Discipline, an initial obstacle for many Promise Academy teachers, was a challenge for
leadership as well, says HCZ treasurer Kurz. “We developed a lot of grand plans,
educational philosophies,” he recalls, “and we overlooked sort of the fundamental aspect
of running a successful school, and that is managing the culture of the school, managing
the discipline. Forget the curriculum maps and everything else, until you’ve gotten the
blocking and tackling of the culture as a whole “
Canada says teachers should he treated as professionals, like hard-driving, wellcompensated young associates at law firms. “You take the brightest young people, and you
work them to death,” he said at the Sheraton conference, only half joking. Indeed, the
demands on Promise Academy teachers are high and near constant. The school year
begins on or near Labor Day and finishes in the second week of August. Longer hours and
a longer year were part of the original job description; evening sessions and Saturday
school were not. All of the schools’ staff, from the principals down, serve at the pleasure of
Canada and the HCZ board. There is no union, there is no tenure, and there is no job
security. That lack of security can be a stumbling block for experienced teachers and
Former Promise Academy teachers say that leadership applied a double standard to
teachers versus parents. “To get parents to meetings, they would give away iPods, stereos,
Pathmark gift certificates,” says former literacy coach Shelly Klein. At parent meetings,
dinner was ordered for parents who attended, “but they would not let the teachers eat,”
Klein says, despite the fact that teachers remained on call alter a very long school day. The
message from the board was clear, she says: “The people who gave us the money [for the
schools] wanted to see results. These gentlemen gave millions of dollars. The kids weren’t
getting better. The responsibility, and the critique, was to the teachers.”
Canada does not dispute this. Of the most reluctant parent-participants, he says flatly, “I
bribe them.” Boxes of Pampers, cases of Coke, free pizza dinners, tickets to ballgames, gift
certificates—“whatever it takes” to get parents engaged and into the schools. Canada
relates how he motivated competition in an ongoing anti-obesity initiative: Children who
lost the most weight won a trip to Disney World in Orlando; winning staffers were
rewarded with a sojourn in the Bahamas.
Canada, in efforts to inspire students, visited the school frequently, Klein says. “In middle
school, when kids did their homework, Geoff Canada would stand in the auditorium with
a roll of money and pay them. Kids would be called up by name. ‘Oh, you got X grade,
here’s $20.’ He would call up kids. Don’t forget he’s not the principal. And he’d hand out
money. That’s what Oprah doesn’t say.”
The conditions and demands look their toll, on individual teachers and the schools
themselves as they tried to build a culture of success amid staggering turnover. “New
teachers come in—12 new teachers, 12 distinct cultures. It affects the gestalt. The sum of
the parts doesn’t equal the whole,” says Ukoidemabia.
Attrition has lessened since 2008, a result, at least in part, of a dramatic move to revamp
the school’s focus.
The tension between the teaching staff at Promise Academy I and the HCZ board came
to a tumultuous head in March 2007, when, after three years of consistently dismal test
scores, Canada elected to close enrollment in the middle school for a year. No new sixthgraders were to be admitted—a luxury that an open-enrollment neighborhood school,
which is by law obliged to educate all youngsters within its catchment zone, could never
entertain. (The school also decided not to admit sixth-graders the following year,
“restarting” the middle school in grade five. It also ended the practice of the middle
school admissions lottery and began the preschool lottery that determines eventual
enrollment in the Promise Academy. Neither strategy would be permitted in conventional
open-enrollment schools.)
As it closed the entrance to new kids, the Promise Academy also ushered existing students
out the exit. Of the 100 eighth-graders who were the inaugural Promise Academy middle
school students those who entered the school with the understanding that they would
continue through 12th grade there—65 remained in the academy when the hoard stopped
enrollment. That May, they were hastily “graduated” and placed in city and private high
schools. Where the kids ended up is not clear.
“We don’t track them in the sense that we evaluate our own kids,” says HCZ
spokesperson l.ipp, who couldn’t detail where that cohort went to high school or discuss
their progress toward graduation. “We don’t track them as a group, like we would track
our eighth-graders.” This division “our” eighth-graders vs. the children who were once
Promise Academy eighth-graders stands in sharp contrast to the oft repeated promise of
the Promise Academy and the HCZ: Once a child is in the HCZ pipeline, they’re secure
and supported all the way through college. Here, children who once were in are now out.
In the fall of 2008, the Promise Academy I middle school again accepted new students.
But instead of admitting sixth-graders, the decision was made to start fresh with fifth
graders who came up from the Promise Academy lower grades, effectively controlling the
quality and previous education of students entering the middle school. The eighth-graders
whose 2007 test score gains inspired Fryer and Dobbie’s enthusiasm, just a year after the
middle school hiatus went into effect, are now in the Promise Academy high school. In
2014, 10 years after it opened its doors, the Promise Academy will finally reach its full K12 enrollment.
Going National
“We are so desperate for any little inkling of success ...”
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 lest” 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 Washingtonbased 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 /one, 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 belter 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 /ones secrets and
strategies. In response, Canada assigned his longtime colleague, confidant and fellow
Bowdoin alum Rasuli Lewis the task of creating the 11C/ Practitioners Institute. More
than 100 groups, from the U.S. and overseas, have since visited the HCZ to observe its
Now that the White House has tapped Canada’s model as the template for tackling 21
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 gel 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 HC/ 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 other
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 cant 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 BloombergKlein 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 CFO 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, through 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
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—”Its 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 insidertrading 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. Rajaratnams $100 million bail,”
according to the Times, citing the prosecutor’s concerns that Rajaratnam could be a flight
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.
An Act Of Faith
"So you and I, we must succeed…in this crusade, this holy deed."
The HCZ model might not work in every depressed urban center. But something else
might work in those cities—or might already he 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. Nearly as many go on to college or other
postsecondary education. And at least 86 percent of job-training graduates who can learn
culinary arts, lab technology or horticultural skills, among a score of options—go on to
paid employment.
A different approach revitalized East Lake Meadows in Atlanta. There, developers bet that
building mixed-income housing would be the catalyst for community growth—and so far,
it seems, the bet is paying off. Carol Naughton, speaking at "Changing the Odds," says
that "the depth of the distress was liberating" in East Lake Meadows: In 1995,
unemployment was rampant; only 13 percent of adults in East Lake Meadows had a job.
Crime was triple that of downtown Atlanta—East Lake marked a murder a week, on
average—and 18 times the national average. Only 5 percent of schoolchildren met statetesting standards. "Our ideas, our program, was so audacious that nobody believed it
would work," said Naughton.
The construction of 542 mixed-income residences half now occupied at market rates and
half subsidized by Section 8 housing vouchers—was enriched by the creation of the Drew
Charter School, where 84 percent of students now meet state standards for reading and 94
percent for math. The project also includes a community center, early-childhood
resources, a YMCA and a public 18-hole golf course. Only 5 percent of adults in East
Lake Meadows are now unemployed, another hallmark of the redeveloped neighborhood,
which has its own service and support pipeline featuring multiple college partnerships that
bring college students into the community and, by doing so, provide living, breathing role
models for local schoolchildren.
Other local approaches to combating poverty have been tried from Savannah to
Philadelphia to Oakland, with mixed results. The Obama administration’s decision to
require school-based approaches to poverty reduction means the Promise Neighborhoods
initiative is unlikely to support projects that mirror the Manchester Bidwell or East Lake
Meadows models—efforts built around job training and housing, respectively By the same
token, cities like Orlando, FL., where the mayor and other civic leaders have launched a
series of HCZ-based reforms, cannot apply for funding, because it is restricted to
nonprofits. States without charter schools, like Washington, may not be legally able to
dedicate a public school to Promise Neighborhood development. Cities where court
desegregation rulings require busing cannot provide the centrally located school model
that the Promise Neighborhoods require. And efforts already under way are not eligible
for the funding either; only newcomers need apply.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But Obama's urban czar,
former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion, told HCZ's November conference that
the President "fell in love" with Canada's project. Promise Neighborhoods are "of global
importance," Carrion said. "They are a smart investment in people and in neighborhoods
that build strong communities, strong regions and strong countries. It’s an international
He added: “ ‘Do what’s right’ doesn’t work. Let the data speak.”
On a different night in November, Canada found himself in front of a crowd in
Springfield, Mass., a struggling city of 150,000 that some residents hope will be one of
Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods. A quarter century after returning to New York to
commence his life’s work, 15 years after launching the Harlem Children’s Zone and five
years after starting the charter school whose test scores have propelled HCZ into the realm
of presidential priorities, Canada is in Springfield to deliver his well-honed message to one
segment of his new national audience. Fittingly, his words speak to a nations fears.
“I believe the country is in peril. We can’t let America become a second-rate country,” he
says. Once again, lithe and elegant in a well-fitted pinstriped suit, Canada palms the mic,
striding across the stage, using his body to punctuate his words now still, now
pantomiming a scolding parent, now side-stepping with a dancer’s finesse in front of
almost 2,000. “Unless our country fundamentally changes its approach, we are not going
to remain a first-rate power in the world.”
“If you love America,” Canada tells the audience, gathered in the city’s rococo symphony
hall, “this work is essential.” Other countries “are in a war—a war around how- many
engineers, how many scientists, how- many doctors they can produce.” Other coun- tries,
like India and China, are preparing to “dominate the United States.”
“If you love America,” the cadence repeats, “you see a nation that’s not allowing children
to reach their potential.” But Canada knows the way out; it’s his way, the Harlem Children’s Zone. “You need a massive infusion of capital and human talent,” he says, echoing
the building blocks that underpin the Harlem Children’s Zone. “This is a science we’re
creating. All of these problems arc solvable. We had a plan at the Harlem Children’s Zone,
and it worked.”
There has never been any question about Canada’s commitment to the cause. Nor has
there ever been a full answer to the question of whether the Harlem Children’s Zone
really works, and if so, how. Now that the federal government wants to model its national
anti- poverty policy after what Canada has tried in 97 blocks of northern Manhattan, the
long- term test of the HCZ model will play out in a score of American cities.
The HCZ experiment has always rested largely on hope. Every morning, the students at
the Promise Academy recite this mantra: “We will go to college. We will succeed. This is
our promise. This is our creed.” As the program prepares to go national, faith is still its
foundation. It still informs the leader. Canada closes his remarks with a reading of his
poem “Take a Stand.” He stands center stage, beside the wooden lectern, reading carefully
from a printed sheet. But he knows the words by heart, and before long, his eyes are front
and forward, the paper forgotten:
So you and I, we must succeed
In this crusade, this holy deed
To say to the children of this land
Have hope. We’re here. We take a stand.
Is the pipeline that Canada built in Harlem sturdy enough to sustain Obama’s national
anti-poverty agenda? Is it enough to save a nation?
“We are hopefully saying that the Harlem Children’s Zone does work,” says Anne
Kubisch. “It’s hard to say, ‘We’re not sure it’s going to work. We can’t expect great
outcomes overnight.’ You have to have something that has some success—then everyone
wants to he a part of it.”