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.

What’s Going RIGHT In Public Education: Highlighting the Positive (And Where We Go From Here)


The state of public education in America is a topic that attracts the attention of a diverse crowd. The impact public schools have on children is felt by more than the students, parents, and educators directly involved in a child’s education. Education serves as the foundation for every industry in America’s economy. In the past, our nation’s educational strength powered the American economy to international greatness. Today, however, educational news is overwhelmingly negative. Dropout rates, bullying, racial division, gangs, ineffective teachers, insufficient funding, and restrictive standardized tests dominate news coverage.

The focus on what is wrong with our educational system is not completely misguided. Numerous studies and interviews with business leaders have indicated that the U.S. economy is being held back by its failure to educate a generation of students to their full potential. One recent study has even linked education with our nation’s security. However, the negative aspects of public education are only part of the story. Throughout the country, educational leaders have turned their unconventional ideas into action–and succeeded.

This month, I will post a series of posts focusing on achievements in public education. There’s enough out there about the negatives. Those stories won’t be hard to find with a quick Google search. Instead, I will focus on the unique ideas from unlikely leaders that are transforming public education.

Some topics that will be covered include:

  • how  virtual or “online” schools are reducing costs and expanding accessibility to personalized, differentiated education,
  • the unconventional methods used by David Domenici and James Forman, Jr. in their See Forever Schools to make education for kids in juvenile detention useful and worthwhile, and
  • how Geoffrey Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone have successfully taken a holistic, cradle-to-college approach from a ninety-seven block area in New York to “promise neighborhoods” all throughout the country.

There will inevitably be some discussion of what’s going wrong in education today. Any discussion about education would be incomplete without it. However, each post will primarily focus on the positive, forward-looking, and assets-based thinking that has led to pockets of achievement in the unlikeliest places.