Friday, October 24, 2008

Blog Blast for Education: Geoffrey Canada and The Harlem Children's Zone

Please join April's wonderful project: Blog Blast for Education. For more Blog Blasters, please click here.

There's a great deal of talk about reform in education.

There's also a great deal of talk about if only this, this, or this were done in schools, then our students would perform better.

There's also, sadly, a lot of talk about the inadequacy of parents in certain racial/economic groups - assumptions made, decisions made by administrators that even IF they did X, the parents wouldn't follow through.

I've long believed that:

a. the educational process for a child always, always, ALWAYS needs to be a partnership between the school, the child and the family (parents, grandparents, guardian - whoever is raising that child).

b. that almost all parents/guardians want to be the best they can be in that capacity and that this crosses all "groups". The few exceptions are sick exceptions and those exceptions ALSO cross all "groups".

Well, apparently a genius, with far better resources and insight than I, agrees with me. Not only does he agree with me, but he was able to get big funding guns to agree with him and he's been creating a very successful educational experiment in Central Harlem in New York City.

I first found out about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone via This American Life, where Paul Tough, who is a regular contributor to This American Life as well as a reporter for The New York Times, put together a piece on Canada and his own, recently released, book about the project: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. You can listen to the podcast here.

Some of the points of the program I don't agree with from a purely philosophical standpoint - there's a lot of emphasis on testing, but then they also need (and are getting) big bucks to fund this program (over $100 million in private donations) and investors like to see quantifiable results.

This isn't a perfect program.

In all my years of being a teacher and a parent (27+) I've never seen a "perfect" educational environment.

Sad, but true.

This, however, is one of the most exciting experiments in educating underserved children that I've ever seen. So let's explore it:

Simply put, the the Harlem Children's Zone is available to the 10,000 children who live in Central Harlem, a neighborhood where virtually all children live in poverty and traditionally 2/3 of those children scored below grade level.

Geoffrey Canada has promised the parents/guardians who will commit to sending their children to his school and to working with him from the outset, that his program will get their children to college. Period. And he appears to be doing it. Here's what he has to say (from 60 minutes):

"He has made a bold promise to the parents who live in the zone.

'If your child comes to this school, we will guarantee that we will get your child into college. We will be with you with your child from the moment they enter our school till the moment they graduate from college," Canada vowed during a speech.

Canada’s ambitious experiment aims to prove that poor kids from the inner city can learn just as well as affluent kids from the other side of America. He has flooded the zone with social, medical and educational services that are available for free to all the children who live here.

"They get what middle-class and upper middle-class kids get," Canada explains. "They get safety. They get structure. They get academic enrichment. They get cultural activity. They get adults who love and them are prepared to do anything. And I mean, I’m prepared to do anything to keep these kids on the right track.'"

Currently, while the services for health care and other opportunities via the Harlem Children's Zone are available to all the children in Central Harlem, those who get into Promise Academy, the school that is the cornerstone of the entire project, is run by lottery. Canada's current focus is to open many more schools.

The incentives he uses are similar to the KIPP schools - structure, longer school days, inclusivity at all levels, material bribes as the children get older as they complete challenges in attendance or workload.

Baby classes are also an important part of the total program for the Central Harlem area, and these are used to help parents learn new ways of communicating with their young children and stress the importance of reading to their children, early and often.

For those who don't get into Promise Academy, they can still attend the after-school enrichment programs, that will ensure that work gets done and that the children (and teens) have a loving, structured environment to come to during the hours that their parents may be working.

I could probably fill several posts with all of the innovations that Mr. Canada has enacted through this project, but I'll let some links fill you in if you're interested in learning further:

the Harlem Children's Zone website - you can also donate here, if you're so moved

CBS News


NPR's podcast on the Harlem Children's Zone - It's 36 minutes long, but worth every. single. minute. if you're interested in education issues.

Now, go learn about other education issues through Blog Blast for Education.


Unknown said...

Just a quick comment on "material bribes"--or incentives; I recently heard that among poor people such incentives are generally viewed as something to work for, while among the more affluent such incentives are viewed as "part of a game." This difference in emphasis can account for the differences in effort put forth by students of different economic levels to achieve said incentives.

But, yeah! Someone is getting notice for attempting to do something for education. It is about time that a teacher achieve some kind of notice!

Meg said...

Nice Post! My husband teaches in the Early College High School on the University of Toledo campus. It allows disadvantaged kids to earn up to two years college credit while completing their high school degree.

So far, the results have been great. But I must say, that parents who go to the effort of investigating and signing their kids up for these alternative programs are very different from many of the other parents of urban kids who don't have a clue what's going on.

Like you, I don't believe in a perfect program. Also, I don't believe true reform can happen in isolation from families, communities and the society at large.

I have an education post up today--tragedy on a humor blog, sort of. But also hope. And one cute teacher!

Jen said...

Greg - from the educators I've talked to... I probably shouldn't have used the word "bribes" - it shows the kids that education leads to money leads to things they want. And that IS important.

Meg - the thing about this program is that EVERYONE knows about it in that 10 block square radius and EVERYONE has access to all the programs except the Promise Academy itself, which is by lottery. They literally send people out on the streets grabbing people and letting them know about all the programs that are available. The goal is to serve every, single one of those 10,000 children in every way they can. I loved your post - I think we may have cross-posted this morning.

Anonymous said...

I am not a fan of using material bribes, especially because the "wants" at the middle and high school level are far more than I can afford (usually). My kids have fake bank accounts wherein they get "paid" every Friday for doin homework and other stuff during the week. They pay for Friday movie/popcorn time and squirrel away the rest. They use that "money" to buy their way out of homework, free time, etc. This reinforces the importance of saving, the notion of bank accounts and the kids love it! It also takes the idea of "stuff" out of the equation.
While I appreciate the gentleman's school in NY, I can't agree with the idea of sending every kid to college. This is because college is not appropriate for every child. I am a huge fan of vo-tech (esp. for my special ed kids) and other career options. I think that college is great for learning to live on your own and other life skills, but I think that it is unrealistic for some kids. I do agree with some sort of post high school training for every kid, but kids are not one size fits all and therefore college should not be the ultimate goal for EVERY kid.
I also wish that public schools would get the kind of funding and support that we need so we could have vo-tech and other career options for kids. But if wishes were horses....

anno said...

I heard this guy on NPR, and, wow, he is dynamic... and seriously intense! Excellent post -- it's good to hear about someone who is still willing to work to make a difference.

Jen said...

Patti, not surprisingly, I agree with you on pretty much every one of your posts. In terms of the incentives, I think that's the main point that Canada is trying to put forth. His school is a public school, btw... He gets $6,000 of the $10,000 he needs to educate each child as the regular pay-out for NYC school children and raises the rest. KIPP schools are public, too. I believe both are in the Charter School category.

You know how I feel about vocational/tech ed and the fact that not all children of any economic level should go on to college - we need better alternatives for our kids who are not collegiate types, but for this population, and for the fact that college can be a great economic leveler, I agree with his point - the main thing is that the opportunity will EXIST for these kids, who might never have the opportunity otherwise.

He IS intense, isn't he, Anno? I really feel he's a person with a major mission and one of the best examples of yes, one person CAN change the world. I find him extremely inspiring.

Núria said...

Investing in our kids is the best we can do!
I hope Mr. Canada succeeds in his attempt!

April said...

I heard a bit about financial incentives on NPR - but not the full story. KIPP did use a form of incentives, but rather than cash, you earned "Scholar Dollars" that the kids could use at an auction at the end of every quarter. It's how Sylvia won her iPod last year.
Parents have long debated the use of allowance if seen as a bribe?
The way I see it is, it's a way to prep them for their life in a country based on capitalism. It's teaching our children the way the world works.
Thank you for your participation!

jenn said...

Great post. Very interesting. Whether I can agree with all of the views or not, I'm so glad to see that someone is doing something. Very encouraging.

Jen said...

Nuria, I so completely agree.

April - I'm with you on this - I prefer the delivery system of KIPP and what Patti described. I used to have free time and fun activity incentives as my rewards for a job well done in my 3rd grade classroom. I think I might have done some similar incentive "earnings" with my 7th/8th graders, but honestly, I don't remember. I don't need to use anything like that with my current population - they're all pretty self-motivated, but aren't I lucky I teach in a dream environment like that.

Jenn - I agree that I don't agree with all of the ideas. However, I think what he's trying to do is amazing, and I'm glad there are people like Mr. Canada who care enough to get something like this off the ground. I think we're at a point with our educational system that the more models and experiments, the better, because the majority of our schools are not meeting the needs of the majority of our students. And thanks for stopping by!

Alex Elliot said...

I hadn't heard of this. Thanks for sharing it!

Momisodes said...

This American Life is by far one of my favorite programs. I look forward to reading more about this program and about Canada. It sounds like quite an innovative approach.

Jen said...

I hadn't heard of it, either, Alex, until I heard the podcast.

Sandy, I so agree - and I'm so happy they're so generous with their podcasts, because I'm rarely available when the show actually airs. As I said, there are some questions about this program, but it's getting results and the passion behind it has been extraordinary.

Dru said...

I would love to see this program expanded beyond Central Harlem.

You are definitely right about teachers and parents need to be hand-in-hand to better educate their children.

I knew a friend who left it up to the school to educate her son (the only time she came up to the school was when he did something bad and she blamed it on the school) and he just turned 21 and finally got his GED after much prodding.

Jen said...

Dru, as I said above, I really feel strongly that education has to be a partnership. It's too easy for one side to "blame" the other when things don't go as they should. I think both teachers AND parents get defensive, and what should be important is just making sure that once a child is in trouble that the focus is on solutions, not how the child got there.

I'd love to see it expanded beyond Central Harlem, too. Canada grew up in the South Bronx, and I found it interesting that he didn't choose that area as his first area for renewal/reform. I think his eventual plan is to move this model to other urban areas in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This sounds really cool! Here's something I've been wondering about...

Every semester, I fill out evaluations for my courses, professors, and graduate student instructors, but I never did that in high school or before. I know that the school administration and the school district kept tabs on our teachers, but I don't think there was a systematic way for students to give feedback. Is this true in other districts (yours)? Do you know why? (I can think of some reasons, although some are rather cynical...)

Jen said...

That's such an interesting question. I always ask for evaluations at the end of each semester from my students and I also asked it of their parents at the elementary/middle school level and sometimes at the high school level. To me, it's an important tool. I know that at my son's high school some teachers ask for evals, and some don't.

I don't think they've ever been required except at one district I worked at in MA.

I think the reason they're not required, sadly, is to keep the district "free" of "knowing" there were complaints about a specific teacher, which brings up all kinds of issues when you include tenure/union situations.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

jen - very interesting post.

I agree with you 100% that educating children has to be a partnership between the parents and the school.

Only now as an adult do I appreciate the fact that my parents were so involved. As a child (esp. during my teenage years) I was annoyed.

Jen said...

Oh, NYC, I am so with you on that one! I couldn't stand my parents messing with me as a teen, and now I'm nothing but grateful.

Luisa Perkins said...

This. Is. Awesome. Thanks for the info! I am thrilled and inspired.

Jen said...

I'm so glad, Luisa! As I said, it's not a perfect program, but it's quite extraordinary in its results.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - I can't wait to check out the site.

I taught in "the ghetto" for nine years and more of my problems came from lazy administrators and poorly educated colleagues than ever came from students or parents (and I had some very. . .uh. . .interesting parents). I think until education as a profession has the same high expectations and rewards as law or medicine we will be struggling to teach all kids effectively.

Jen said...

Jersey, you may be right on that on all counts. I must say my biggest professional frustrations have been with dingbat administrators and lazy colleagues - no question.

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