Putting a child on a “conveyor belt” might seem like a cold image. But in the hands of Geoffrey Canada, it’s a metaphor cradled in unrelenting love.
For the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit serving more than 7,000 children a year, no moment is wasted in the quest to give kids everything they need to grow and learn and succeed – everything that poverty would try to deny them.
Paul Tough, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, gained virtually unrestricted access to Canada and his organization over the course of nearly five years. As a result, he delivers both a personal portrait and a broad primer on the intersections of class, race, and education in Whatever It Takes.
The Harlem Children’s Zone is a living laboratory for many of the theories and policies that have sprung up as the United States tries to chip away at the “achievement gap” – the buzzword for low-income students and certain minority groups lagging behind their peers.
Canada grew up in the 1950s and ’60s amid the street-fighting culture of the South Bronx and was catapulted into a different world when he attended prestigious Bowdoin College in Maine on a scholarship. He ran a series of youth programs in Manhattan before becoming convinced, in the late 1990s, of the need for tackling problems more comprehensively.
“In starting the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada was asking a new set of questions,” Tough writes. “What would it take to change the lives of poor children not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in a programmatic, standardized way that could be applied broadly and replicated nationwide?”
Hence the conveyor belt: It starts with “Baby College,” to help parents in the high-poverty zone understand the latest research on early development and give their infants the same kind of cognitive leg up that’s routine in middle-class families, moves on to preschools and demanding charter schools, and offers after-school programs rich with academic and creative opportunities.
Canada and his partners set goals and measure results with corporate efficiency. They take no excuses and fire principals if children’s test scores don’t sufficiently improve. But what gives muscle to the title – “Whatever It Takes” – is Canada’s deeply personal devotion, which makes him mourn when he has to tell parents thirsty with hope that their children didn’t win places in his new charter-school lottery.
Tough’s compassionate portrayal doesn’t dip into stereotypes. It gives readers a chance to know the people touched by Canada’s dream.
One story line centers on a teenage Harlem couple – Cheryl and Victor – enrolled in “Baby College.” The nine-week parenting course teaches them about nutrition, the importance of talking to the child they’re expecting, and good ways to discipline (not by hitting or pinching, a lesson that surprises Victor and others who’d grown up with corporal punishment).
Such classes don’t erase the obstacles faced by a pregnant teen and a high school dropout with a criminal record. But they do equip the couple and their child with tools and a support network. And the experience moves their relationship to a new level. With Canada and dozens of others looking on at the Baby College graduation ceremony, Victor grabs the microphone and asks Cheryl to be his wife.
Those celebratory moments in the book are matched with crises moments. Tough describes in detail the day Canada announces he will not expand his Promise Academy charter school beyond eighth-grade as planned, because of low test scores and a need to concentrate on the lower grades. Canada faces angry parents and hurt eighth-graders who have to scramble late in the game to enroll in different schools.
At this point, his conveyor belt is still being built, and some of the kids feel they’ve been dumped off the trajectory to success prematurely. He does his best to explain and comfort, all the while feeling keenly that “they had put their trust in him, and he had failed.”
Despite that setback, the book portrays a strong, hopeful momentum for Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough helps readers feel the tumble and energy of classrooms where inner-city children are mastering math equations and foreign languages, where they’re being nurtured and challenged with the high expectations more typical of the suburbs.
The Zone has caught the eye of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has said that if elected, he’d try to replicate it in 20 cities, with half the funding coming from the federal government, half from business and philanthropy. Regardless of who prevails in November, Canada has a lot of company these days in asking that central question, “What would it take?”
Stacy Teicher Khadaroo is the Monitor’s education reporter.