Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Up Where They Belong

When Geoffrey Canada's extraordinary and uplifting 'Harlem Miracle' one day makes it on to film, it might be tough to sell as a true story. But as an inspirational teacher movie, it will blow you away.

The Harlem Children's Zone began life in the 1970's as an anti-truancy program. In those days, Harlem – Northern Manhattan, population today about 126,000 from a peak of about double that in the 1920s – was perhaps the toughest, most violent neighborhood in the world. Educational attainment was way down the list of priorities for a community and families under siege: poverty, drugs, guns, a culture of learned helplessness. Kids weren't learning to read or write; they were just clinging on.

Enter Geoffrey Canada, himself a child of the inner-city. He became President and CEO of the HCZ in 1990. In two decades, he has built a network of educational, social and medical services that takes care of kids from cradle to College. Canada's 'whatever it takes' philosophy is all about outcomes. If teachers are not advancing student achievement, Canada will exit them. Students who are not reaching their potential are required to spend twice as much time at school as the average New York student; even high-achieving kids attend 50% more. It's all about Math and Reading, all the time. No excuses.

The New York Times said, "The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through."

How are the results? They appear astonishing.

In Math, Canada's Promise Academy has lifted achievement among its poor and minority students to the same level as middle class suburban kids. This has been the most intractable achievement gap in education. Middle-schoolers start at the Promise Academy behind 60% of the State in English; within two years, they are in the top 25%. Ninety percent of its High School seniors go to College.

Canada's vision is infectious. Harlem has become a case story in education innovation across the board. In 2009 the Harlem Children’s Zone and Zone Project served over 18,000 children and 13,400 adults. Locals have formed Harlem Parents United to help make the most of this new abundance of choice and opportunity for their children. Their annual Harlem Education Fair, expected to attract 10,000 eager parents, was held last weekend. In 2009, 64% of its funding came from almost $40 million in donations from corporations, foundations and private citizens. Big effort here.

President Obama is funding 20 projects based on the Geoffrey Canada model. City educators everywhere shouldn't wait for the movie. To me, Geoffrey Canada’s education ride feels appropriately wild and exciting.