Harlem Children's Zone: Hope or Hype?

It's safe to say that the 97 city blocks that make up the Harlem Children's Zone have more than captured our attention. But the antipoverty...

It's safe to say that the 97 city blocks that make up the Harlem Children's Zone have more than captured our attention.
But the antipoverty program, whose comprehensive services span from cradle to college, will soon serve as a template for a federal model. Called Promise Neighborhoods, the aim is to take what worked in upper Manhattan and transplant it to other cities.\n

\nCity Limits devoted its recent issue to the topic and while the full story is behind a paywall, plenty of other goodies are available on its website for free, including a Q&A with Geoffrey Canada.

We asked Helen Zelon, a freelance writer from Brooklyn, who spent the better part of a year reporting and writing the story, to answer a few of our questions.

\nGOOD: What specifically about this experiment has captured and sustained our attention?\n

\nHELEN ZELON: First, I think, is the utter elegance and appeal of the model, coupled with Geoffrey Canada's undeniable charisma, intelligence, and dedication to the project. He is a unique force; his impact and inspiration can't be underestimated. But it seemed to me that separating the man from the work made sense.

\nG: Going into the story, what did you expect to find?\n

\nHZ: We wanted to answer three questions: Does the Harlem Children's Zone work as a template for national antipoverty programs? Can it be exported to other cities? And is it the best way to help the greatest number of children?

\nG: What most surprised you in the course of reporting it?\n

\nHZ: There were many, many surprises, but perhaps the most striking was the relative lack of critical thinking about the Harlem Children's Zone's programs and schools, both in academia and also in the media.

\nG: It's a bit untouchable in terms of criticism. Was it difficult to gain access?\n

\nHZ: Yes, it was. But in fairness, they are not in the business of providing information to media, but rather, a social-service agency with a large and demanding mandate. I do think that more prominent news organizations have an easier time-City Limits is not 60 Minutes.

\nG: Do you think Canada's experiment is working? And if it's too early to tell, do you really think it will take upwards of 10 to 20 years, as you mention in your story, until we will know for sure? \n

\nHZ: I think parts are working, and parts aren't yet ripe enough, for various reasons, to withstand rigorous evaluation. Canada himself says that the real proof is ten years out. The charter schools have gained the most attention, but are only part of the whole "pipeline," and came as a relative afterthought, a decade after Canada first created the Harlem Children's Zone.

\nG: Going forward, as it concerns Promise Neighborhoods and the expansion of this model to other cities, is it capable of being replicated in other places or does it require a Canada-like cult of personality to make it work?\n

\nHZ: I think leadership is critical in any replication effort. But saying there's a "cult of personality" around Canada is not quite right: He is a tremendous leader, uniquely charismatic, dedicated to the core, and demanding of his staff, his students and himself, but he is no cult leader. Think instead of a corporate model-a dynamic, visionary CEO who inspires allegiance, awe, and commands no small measure of respect, combined with a compelling personal narrative.

\nG: Finally, as it concerns antipoverty programs that work, are all-encompassing neighborhood programs the only way to go? And what, in paying such close attention to this, have we possibly ignored?\n

\nHZ: There's so much good work going on across the country that it's hard to single out particular programs for praise. That said, it's important to understand that housing-development programs, which combine mixed-income housing and access to employment, have tremendous potential-and that many schools, both traditional public and charters, achieve results comparable to or better than the Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academies, often with less robust funding and no perks, like trips to Disney World for getting good grades. But I do worry that the focus on Canada's model has dimmed the light that can shine on other antipoverty programs.

For more debate, The Brian Lehrer Show recently interviewed Zelon alongside Paul Tough, author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.

Cover image via City Limits.

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