November 26 — 1:00 am, 2008

In Harlem, families are getting into the Zone

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America


For five years, Paul Tough, a reporter on education and an editor of the New York Times Magazine, followed Harlem native Geoffrey Canada and the creation and development of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) – a multilevel social service network “woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood couldn’t slip through.” The result is this illuminating book, which chronicles both the successes and limitations of the effort.

Canada’s goal was to intervene in the lives of children in traditionally underserved communities, not just by creating scattershot social services programs, but also by blanketing the neighborhood with interventions that parents would have to go out of their way to avoid.

Canada, a former Boston-area schoolteacher, came up with the idea for HCZ based on his own experiences. As a young, workingclass father, his involvement with his children was wanting. Yet after attending Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and becoming a teacher, Canada became aware of the importance of his role in the development of his children.

Decades later, when he remarried and had his second son, his knowledge and experience as an educator and middle-class parent reaffirmed how much parents and children in Harlem needed help in receiving and sustaining the best education.

“If you want to be a successful parent, you’ve got to start early, and from day one, everything you do matters,” he said.

The idea is once the child is a part of the HCZ, he or she remains – from birth until high school graduation. It starts with Baby College, which is a nine-week program for expectant and recent parents. Every Saturday, they meet to learn the latest research and ideas about child development and parenting techniques.

There are three major thrusts to the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The first is the “conveyor belt” notion, with families moving from one program to another. After Baby College comes the Journey program for three-year-olds, Harlem Gems for pre-kindergarten, and finally Promise Academy, a charter school, for grades K through 12. In order for children to be placed on this conveyor belt, parents must enter their child and their child must be chosen from the lottery when still a toddler.

The second thrust is “contamination.” By contamination, Canada hopes that with enough children going through the HCZ conveyor belt, they will eventually positively impact the neighborhood and become the norm. With a critical mass of achieving, successful children and parents who understand and practice the child-raising principles HCZ teaches, Canada reasons, the culture of the community will change.

The third thrust of HCZ is “escape velocity” – the idea that children provided with enough supports will be able to overcome the obstacles of poverty and social inequality.

In Tough’s telling, the creation and journey of the Harlem Children’s Zone illuminate many of the issues facing school reform in general, including dependence on official whims and the impatience for improvement. It was only made possible through the financial and political backing of individual donors and the cooperation and encouragement of high-level officials, particularly New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

The narrative makes clear how the demand for quick, measurable gains in test scores is so intense that a project like this is not given the time to implement a reform and perfect it. Tough devotes two chapters to the dilemma of low achievement in the middle school, which started up with students who had not gone through HCZ’s intensive support system.

But while Tough gives a good sense of the hopes and dreams of Geoffrey Canada and the students and parents of the HCZ, the challenges that teachers face are nearly invisible in the book.

Also, there is very little critique of the content and method of Canada’s instruction, especially when it comes to parenting styles and techniques. What is unclear is whether Canada wants to impose White, middle-class ways of parenting on working class people of color or whether he just wants to develop the raw material and knowledge that the parents possess to become better parents in their own culturally specific ways.

Nevertheless, Whatever it Takes is an engaging read that will have teachers, parents, administrators, and students rethinking the ways in which change can happen and what kind of change is achievable. It also shows that determination, flexibility, and community support can bring about meaningful, widespread reform.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism