Geoffrey Canada expects all the children who attend the Harlem Children’s Zone schools to go to a four-year college. Not a trade school, not the military–even though there is nothing wrong with those options for other children and those paths could be considered a monumental accomplishment for the impoverished, at-risk populations he serves.
“You have to have aspirations for all kids, and for me, that’s college,” he explained at a Sunday luncheon for members of the National Black Caucus of School Board Members. “The only goal I have is for all these kids to go to college. If you get paid to work with other people’s kids, you should have the same aspirations for them as you have for your own children. And I have yet to see a wealthy person who did not want all of their kids to go to college.”
To Canada, adults are responsible for the success of the children in their liveswhether that be their own children, the children who attend their schools, or children in their neighborhoods. Any failure at the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is considered the fault of an adult.
“If you fail our children,” he said, “then you can’t work with them.”
Canada’s no-holds-barred approach and success in providing a comprehensive range of social and educational services in a tough inner-city area that now covers nearly 100 blocks of New York City, has led him to national acclaim (he even stars in an American Express commercial). He detailed his work for school board members that face many of the same challenges.
It began, he said, when he began thinking about what supports would be needed to rid the Harlem neighborhood of crime, drugs, and social ills, and bring back economic prosperity and a strong, supportive community. He began speaking with political and educational leaders to figure out a plan to give these most disadvantaged children a chance at success.
“Some people don’t believe we’d allow America to be lost, but here is no plan to save American children,” he said. “I decided, I’m going to save my own kids in Harlem.”
His work begins at the “Baby College,” a program that provides workshops and training to parents and services for the infants to 3-year-old population. Early childhood education is the foundation of the HCZ, he explained, because there is so much research that shows the importance of brain development in that critical period.
“If you miss that period of time, you will spend large amounts of time trying to rewire that brain the way it was supposed to be,” he said.
Under the HCZ’s program, students who attend the network of charter schools spend more hours and more days in school than their more privileged peers and a top priority is getting adults involved. School staff are encouraged to be creative in finding solutions to children’s needsfor instance, Canada tells of a teacher he had who had him read two different books to learn a math concept. One book made no sense, the other helped him learn. Those are the kinds of experiments teachers conduct with the students each day.
While the HCZ has seen improvements, Canada believes the nation must make education a priority or face dire consequences.
He believes money should not drive a district’s ability to provide servicesparticularly in light of the massive economic bailoutas children are the nation’s essential investment in its future. Education leaders must rethink the entire model of schooling and focus on what at-risk students need to succeedsuch as more time in school, health care, family servicesand find ways to provide them. Teachers should be paid much higher salaries to attract the best and brightest to the field and be given training and supports in their early years.
Canada is infuriated that the weakest teachers often end up in the toughest schools, given that those students are so much further behind than students from wealthier families. He has a radical idea for those teachers who refuse to believe in their charges or make excuses for failure: “If we can’t get rid of lousy teachers, we should send them to the upper-middle-class communities,” he said. “If you can’t do it, we’ll find someone who will.”