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Child Watch® Column: "Whatever It Takes"

Release Date: April 24, 2009

Marian Wright Edelman

Whatever It Takes. That's the title of the recent book by New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough about Geoffrey Canada, a vice chair of the Children's Defense Fund's board of directors and the visionary creator of the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). "Whatever it takes" is Canada's philosophy about serving and saving the thousands of children in the nearly 100-block radius that constitutes the Harlem Children's Zone Project. Canada's comprehensive, innovative strategies for how to do this are at the heart of the book and have brought him national attention, including praise from President Obama, who is proposing plans to replicate Canada's successes in 20 more communities across the country.

In Whatever It Takes, Tough explains the history behind HCZ. Canada, whose bestselling memoir, Fist Stick Knife Gun, talks about his own childhood in the South Bronx, and how he later started a conventional nonprofit organization that did a good job providing support and services in its Harlem neighborhood. But Canada could sense that the impact of this effort wasn't going far or deep enough—especially for children. The programs had too little control over the experiences they had before they arrived or the influences they faced as soon as they stepped outside the door. Canada began to shape the idea of a program where all the services a child and parent might need for success—prenatal tips, parent education, preschool, education, health services, after-school programs, job skills training—could be coordinated in one place. He also envisioned providing these kinds of comprehensive services not just for a few lucky children, but for every child in a particular community—every child on a block, every block in the neighborhood. The Harlem Children's Zone project began taking shape.

Over time, HCZ's signature programs developed. For example, Baby College enrolls parents of children up to age three, starting with expectant parents, and offers nine-week workshops on topics from stimulating babies' and toddlers' brain development to positive discipline techniques. The all-day Harlem Gems prekindergarten program offers foreign language instruction. The Harlem Peacemakers program trains young adults to work as teaching assistants and role models for elementary school students. The TRUCE Fitness and Nutrition Center offers middle-school students free classes in karate, dance, and health and nutrition. The Employment and Technology Center gives teenagers and adults computer and job skills training, and the College Success Office and the Learn to Earn program prepare high school students for life after graduation.  Canada describes HCZ's targeted programs as a "conveyor belt" strategy: They are designed so that a family can enroll in Baby College before their baby is born and get that child started on a track that is prepared to carry him or her all the way through college.

HCZ's vision also includes its partnership with the Promise Academy Charter Schools, which feature an extended school day and year and immerse children in a culture of learning. Running schools, of course, presents a unique set of challenges, but as Tough explains in the book, providing a high-quality educational system that can serve every child who enrolls is a key piece of the HCZ vision. "As Canada often said, he was tired of programs that helped a few kids 'beat the odds' and make it out of the ghetto; his goal was to change the odds, and to do it for all of Harlem's kids…. [Canada believes] the only way to serve large numbers of poor children in a neighborhood like Harlem is to give them all a high-quality education, even the least motivated and least prepared, beginning at a very young age, and to do it in the context of a broader transformation of the entire community." Strong schools are an essential element of HCZ's conveyor belt strategy, and for the group of children who have had the opportunity so far to follow the conveyor belt from Baby College to elementary school, evidence suggests Canada's model is working. For example, in 2008, 100 percent of third graders at one of Promise Academy's elementary schools and 97 percent of third graders at the second one tested at or above grade level on the statewide math exam.

It was HCZ's potential as a successful comprehensive anti-poverty strategy that caught President Obama's attention. His plans to build on HCZ's model, reconfirmed in the Administration's recent budget proposal, begin with creating a series of "Promise Neighborhoods" across the country. As he said during the campaign, "If we know it works, there's no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem. It's time to change the odds for neighborhoods across America." Geoffrey Canada would likely be the first to agree—whatever it takes.

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