A Promise Worth Keeping: Can the Harlem Children's Zone Work Anywhere?

By most accounts, the Harlem Children’s Zone has been a slam dunk. Can it work anywhere?


By most accounts, the Harlem Children’s Zone has been a slam dunk. But now that the model is expanding to 20 other cities, it’s worth asking: Can it work just anywhere? We looked at four high-need cities to find out. \n
\nThe experiment started small. Isolate one city block in Harlem, and see what it would take to ensure that every single child on that block succeeded. Dilapidated housing would need to be addressed, as well as violence and chronic health issues. Kids would need better schools and social services that supported them from before they were even born, all the way through college. It was ambitious, to say the least: a hyperlocal approach to battling urban poverty—and an expensive one, at that. But Geoffrey Canada, the man behind that early 1990s experiment, is nothing if not ambitious.
\n
Nearly 15 years later, the Harlem Children’s Zone now spans 97 city blocks, and has transformed upper Manhattan. Heralded as a success by the media and policy-makers alike, there was always the sense that what Canada had done wasn’t particular to New York City and that his model, if properly tweaked and adapted, could serve as a template for other urban cities.


“There’s no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem,” said Barack Obama back in July of 2007, promising that the Children’s Zone would serve as a blueprint for his own plans to battle urban poverty. Two years later, Obama delivered on that commitment, and what has been tried in Harlem is about to become federal policy.
\n
Last February, in outlining its budget for the following year, the administration announced a competitive grant called Promise Neighborhoods. Twenty cities will be chosen to receive $210 million in the first phase of its rollout. The selections will be announced in the coming months—and neighborhoods urban and rural, large and small, are clamoring to be first in line.
\n
But duplicating the model hinges on adapting it to suit the needs and capacities of the neighborhoods where it’s being transplanted. “It’s kind of like throwing seeds on the ground,” said Jeffrey Henig, who directs the politics and education program at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “If the ground isn’t fertile, you’re wasting your time.”
\n
Determining what is fertile ground is a subjective, messy business. Does it require a visionary mayor intent on reform? Deep-pocketed local businesses willing to buoy the effort? What if half of the students in the school district currently fail to graduate from high school? Does that make an ideal candidate, or a lost cause?
\n
Unlike other federal neighborhood policies, such as the Model Cities program of the late 1960s and early 1970s—a federal urban-aid program that was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty—or the more recent Empowerment Zones, Promise Neighborhoods stand apart for one distinct difference: Schools are at their center. The logic is that while schools alone can’t be responsible for lifting entire communities out of poverty, they can be combined with social services, from high-quality prenatal care and child care to after-school programs and college-readiness seminars.
\n
The Harlem Children’s Zone has shown promise: Research by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer demonstrates that the HCZ’s charter schools have eliminated the longstanding achievement gap on the citywide math exam, and The New York Times has called it “the Harlem Miracle.” But after 13 years, it’s still too early to tell whether this experiment actually works. Even Canada concedes that concrete proof may be another 10 years away.
\n
And even if it works in Harlem, is it—as the Obama administration would have us believe—this generation’s solution to fighting racial inequity and urban poverty nationwide?
\n
Taking something that works in one place and transplanting it to another is made more complicated when the original has a charismatic, strong leader, with raging success at bringing in philanthropic and corporate donations, and a board of trustees representing some of the most influential businessmen and financiers in the country. “One of the real challenges for Promise Neighborhoods is that we can’t clone Geoffrey Canada,” said Michael Rebell, a professor of law and education at Teachers College.
\n
But Paul Tough, the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, who has written about Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone since 2004, has a different perspective. “It does not require a cult of personality,” he says. “It does not require a charismatic leader.” Tough envisions the model looking “different in different cities. In some it might be based mostly in the local government; in others it might be built around a non-profit or a church.”
\n
Once the applications are in, the first step, of course, will be the selection of 20 neighborhoods later this year. While the Department of Education has yet to announce the criteria it will be using, it’s likely that the location and size of the neighborhood will be a factor, as will the percentage of children living in poverty, city crime rates, and rates of academic achievement.
\n
Hayling Price, a policy analyst at the United Neighborhood Centers of America, says Harlem’s slow-grow pace was wise. “Beginning with smaller, centrally located neighborhoods, with plans to increase size and increasing operations into adjacent blocks, will allow programs to use their resources effectively and expand their work on a realistic timeline,” wrote Price in a how-to brief.
\n
Many people, like Lisbeth Schorr, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, have made it their life’s work to try to figure out how to transform disadvantaged neighborhoods on a large scale. “The Harlem Children’s Zone seems to have come closer to being able to do that than anything else we know,” said Schorr, who is encouraged by “its promise to take on seemingly insurmountable challenges and surmount them.”
\n
To be sure, eradicating poverty is difficult business. It is Obama’s hope that Promise Neighborhoods might eventually spread to entire cities, so that the block a child is born on does not dictate his or her destiny. But in the meantime, the program’s success will hinge on how well this first batch of cities can adapt and tweak the model to work for them.

Click here to view the Case Studies.





Illustrations by Chris Johanson







This article first appeared in GOOD Issue 19: The Neighborhoods Issue. You can read more from the issue here, or find out what it's all about by reading the introduction.



Infographics

We've all felt lonely at some point in our lives. It's a human experience as universal as happiness, sadness or even hunger. But there's been a growing trend of studies and other evidence suggesting that Americans, and people in general, are feeling more lonely than ever.

It's easy to blame technology and the way our increasingly online lives have further isolated us from "real" human interactions. The Internet once held seemingly limitless promise for bringing us together but seems to be doing just the opposite.

Except that's apparently not true at all. A major study from Cigna on loneliness found that feelings of isolation and loneliness are on the rise amongst Americans but the numbers are nearly identical amongst those who use social media and those who don't. Perhaps more importantly, the study found five common traits amongst those who don't feel lonely.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

He risked his life to leave a "historical record of our martyrdom."

via Yad Vashem and Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007

In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. By April 1940, the gates closed on the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest in the country after Warsaw.

Throughout the war, over 210,000 people would be imprisoned in Lodz.

Among those held captive was Henryk Ross. He was a Jewish sports photographer before the Nazi invasion and worked for the the ghetto's Department of Statistics during the war. As part of his official job, he took identification photos of the prisoners and propaganda shots of Lodz' textile and leather factories.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities
WITI Milwaukee

Joey Grundl, a pizza delivery driver for a Domino's Pizza in Waldo, Wisconsin, is being hailed as a hero for noticing a kidnapped woman's subtle cry for help.

The delivery man was sent to a woman's house to deliver a pie when her ex-boyfriend, Dean Hoffman, opened the door. Grundl looked over his shoulder and saw a middle-aged woman with a black eye standing behind Hoffman. She appeared to be mouthing the words: "Call the police."

"I gave him his pizza and then I noticed behind him was his girlfriend," Grundl told WITI Milwaukee. "She pointed to a black eye that was quite visible. She mouthed the words, 'Call the police.'"

Keep Reading Show less
Good News


Rochester NY Airport Security passing insulting notes to travelers caught on tape www.youtube.com

Neil Strassner was just passing through airport security, something he does on a weekly basis as part of his job. That's when a contract airport security employee handed him a small piece of folded cardboard. Strassner, 40, took the paper and continued on his way. He only paused when he heard the security employee shouting back at him, "You going to open the note?"

When he unfolded the small piece of paper, Strassner was greeted with an unprompted insult. "You ugly!!!"

According to Strassner, and in newly released CCTV of the incident, the woman who handed him the note began laughing loudly.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Facebook: kktv11news

A post on the Murdered by Words subreddit is going viral for the perfect way a poster shut down a knee-jerk "double-standard!" claim.

It began when a Redditor posted a 2015 Buzzfeed article story about a single dad who took cosmetology lessons to learn how to do his daughter's hair.

Most people would see the story as something positive. A dad goes out of his way to learn a skill that makes his daughter look fabulous.

Keep Reading Show less
Lifestyle