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An Audacious Promise

How Harlem's Promise Neighborhood experiment is expanding its scope

How Harlem's Promise Neighborhood experiment is expanding its scope

For most of its history, Harlem hasn't been much of a role model for other communities. In fact, despite its rich cultural history, the New York City neighborhood has often been trotted out as a generic symbol of community dysfunction: rampant crime, bad schools, broken families, and entrenched poverty.

The problem hasn't been for a lack of social programs-Harlem has long been a testing ground of cutting edge anti-poverty strategies, everything from slum clearance to Empowerment Zones. But insofar as broader prospects for defeating the culture of poverty, its fair to say that by the late 1990s there was a whole lot of well-earned pessimism, even among the experts.

That is, until Geoffrey Canada came along with a big idea and pursued it with the zeal and energy of a political revolutionary-a big idea that has since inspired President Barack Obama to reimagine social welfare in this country and to dedicate potentially billions of dollars to remake 20 other struggling neighborhoods around the country, using Canada's experiment as the model for going forward.

In the early 1990s, Canada-a black Harvard-educated social activist and educator who grew up poor in the South Bronx-was working with kids in Harlem, essentially with the same aim as everyone else: Trying to help a lucky few make it to college and become exceptions to the rule.

But the birth of his own son changed his perspective by steeping him in the science of early-stage childhood development. The importance of the first three years of life in determining the path each child would eventually follow, Canada learned, could hardly be overstated. But what if the deficits for children in Harlem didn't begin accruing in utero-what if a system were built to ensure that every child entered school on an even footing, so as to compete with their middle class counterparts.

That's a tall order, though, and one that involved fundamental changes in the nature of the community. Canada's answer? A neighborhood as "conveyor belt," essentially a community built around functional, healthy institutions capable of carrying children along from the hospital delivery room to their college graduation ceremony.

After a woman gets pregnant, she attends "Baby College," to learn parenting skills, where she also has access to comprehensive health and counseling services. Later, 4-year-olds enter a full-time pre-kindergarten program and receive the sort of brain-building intellectual stimulation typical of preschoolers in well-to-do families. And from elementary to high school, children are enrolled in demanding, high-quality charter schools with access to tutoring and after-school programs to stay on track.

Canada refers sometimes to finding a "tipping point" for Harlem-the moment when enough children and enough families were thriving, so as to uproot the whole culture of poverty. (He estimated the figure at 60 percent of families necessary to make the leap.)

After raising tens of millions of dollars to bring the new vision to life and seeing it deployed over an area of 97 square blocks with 8,000 children in the system, Canada and his Harlem Children's Zone have produced remarkable results. One Harvard economist looked at the HCZ's outcomes and remarked that that the data "changed my life as a scientist." The academic gains were simply off the charts: Third graders who were brought along on the "conveyor belt" had completely erased the achievement gap-they were testing as well in math as typical white students in the New York City's public schools.

The White House has taken notice. A year after taking office, Obama announced a program called Promise Neighborhoods that will replicate the experiment in Harlem and expand it nationwide. In his 2010 budget, the president proposed $210 million to start holistic HCZ-style programs in 20 cities. Already, interest around the country has been overwhelming-local efforts to develop Promise Neighborhoods are already afoot in Charleston, South Carolina, Chicago, Providence, Rhode Island, and Savannah, Georgia, among others. While the federal government hasn't yet laid out the criteria, selections are expected later this year. And if Obama carries through on his campaign talk, Promise Neighborhoods could eventually become multibillion dollar programs.

Of course, that notion scares a lot of people. Canada has built HCZ from the ground up with private standards of accountability and a ruthless dedication to high standards. When the HCZ playbook gets handed off to local bureaucrats who lack both Canada's fierce talents and his free hand to hire and fire ineffectual educators-Canada fired half his teachers after year one, and another third after year two-will it just become another tepid government program of the sort that had been failing in Harlem for decades? And, if there's a way to avoid that outcome, what local conditions would best correlate with success?

Even if the Promise Neighborhoods program lives past its trial phase and takes root as a new vision for fighting poverty and creating equality in America, those answers are still years away. But there's reason to be hopeful.

Illustration by Parliament of Owls.

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