Harlem Children’s Zone: Geoffrey Canada’s Efforts to Break Generational Poverty from the Start

This post is part of this month’s “What’s Going Right in Public Education” series, highlighting achievements and forward-thinking ideas happening now in education policy, law, and practice.

A great deal of today’s knowledge on the benefits of early childhood education stems from a research project commenced nearly fifty years ago in a small Michigan town called Ypsilanti.

The Perry Preschool Project, developed by a school administrator named David Weikart, examines the lives of 123 African Americans born into poverty in the late 1950s that were “at high risk of failing school”:

From 1962–1967, at ages 3 and 4, the subjects were randomly divided into a program group that received a high-quality preschool program based on HighScope’s participatory learning approach and a comparison group who received no preschool program. In the study’s most recent phase, 97% of the study participants still living were interviewed at age 40. Additional data were gathered from the subjects’ school, social services, and arrest records.

The preschool program had an academic focus, aiming to teach low-income students some of the basic skills needed for success in the early grades. Teachers also focused on the students’ cognitive development. Students in the “preschool” group were active participants in their education. The study is innovative because it is still yielding data; every few years, researchers interview and track down data about the program’s participants. At age 40, the contrast between the “non-preschool” and “preschool” groups is staggering (see graph below).

Source: HighScope (http://www.highscope.org/)

HighScope has also put together an excellent video and a comprehensive report about their research results for their Perry Preschool Project participants through age 40. For those interested, the HighScope website has a wealth of detail about the lives of the participants. In sum, the results show that participants in the “preschool” program group have performed better throughout their formal education, have made more money at work, and have had more stable family lives.

Why is all of this important? Despite these stunningly clear findings, legislatures across the country still don’t establish and fund proper early childhood programs. Programs like those studied in the Perry Preschool Project can help low-income students compete with their more affluent peers if the support continues throughout their education. In 1965, the federal government allocated Head Start funding for states. However, the recent economic downturn made abundantly clear that pre-kindergarten and early childhood education programs are often the first programs to be cut. Pre-K and similar programs are often seen as “optional.” Families in some cities are even having difficulty enrolling their children in kindergarten programs, which are considered optional under the law in many states (including Texas).

In 1997, Geoffrey Canada took matters into his own hands. He founded Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an organization that pulls together all of the educational and social services that could help low-income families in one Harlem neighborhood. Canada’s program, the focus of the recent documentary Waiting for Superman and Paul Tough’s book Whatever It Takes, serves families inside a 97-block Harlem neighborhood (called a “promise neighborhood”). The premise of HCZ is that kids born into poverty need support from cradle-to-college (and beyond). Therefore, HCZ focuses on the entire family and all of the issues that burden the typical low-income communities. HCZ’s “umbrella” services start at birth and go above and beyond any traditional educational program.

Since founding Harlem Children’s Zone in 1997, Canada has started charter schools in his Harlem neighborhood. However, he also serves families whose children attend other area schools (as long as they are in the 97-block radius). David Brooks has written in the NY Times about the dramatic gains achieved by students attending HCZ schools and/or receiving HCZ services:

Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas — reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.

Geoffrey Canada has found an approach to educating low-income students that works. Canada has found a way to break the cycle of poverty.

The most impressive part of Canada’s story is that much of his funding comes from private sources. Canada’s groundbreaking success has come without endless amounts of taxpayer dollars funding his program.

Now, Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has finally started to catch the attention of national policymakers. Several years ago, President Obama approved grants for 20 cities to establish “promise neighborhoods” in areas with especially high-need. Neighborhood Centers, Inc. has led Houston’s “promise neighborhood” in a 3.7 square mile section of the Gulfton area. Results from Houston’s “promise neighborhood” are starting to trickle in, and it looks good for kids involved with the program.

Alex Hunt

About Alex Hunt

Alex Hunt is the Yale & Irene Rosenberg Graduate Fellow at the Center for Children, Law & Policy. Alex graduated from the University of Texas in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in government. Before entering law school, he taught middle school math at YES Prep Southwest in Houston with Teach For America. In 2010, he received New Leaders' EPIC Spotlight Teacher Award, a national award for teachers with outstanding student growth. Alex graduated cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in May 2013. During law school, Alex was Casenotes & Comments Editor for the Houston Journal of International Law, interned for both state and federal judges, and served as Vice President of the Health Law Organization (HLO). In addition, Alex has received the Irving J. Weiner Memorial Scholarship Award (for a year of outstanding work in the UH Law Center Legal Clinic), the Napoleon Beazley Defender Award (for outstanding work on behalf of children), the Ann Dinsmore Forman Memorial Child Advocacy Award, the Mont P. Hoyt Memorial Writing Award for an Outstanding Comment on a Topic in International Law, and he was a finalist for Texas Access to Justice's Law Student Pro Bono Award.

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