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forbes.com
March 11, 2010

Closing the Achievement Gap in Harlem
The White House wants to replicate the Harlem Children Zone nationwide. Not easy.

Geoffrey Canada can barely get a word in. He is surrounded by fourth graders from Harlem, all clamoring to speak. Atypically among their peers, they don't want to talk hip-hop or basketball: They want to discuss exam scores. Last spring they took their first state standardized test. All scored above the New York City average in reading and well above the state average in math. They are living proof his experiment is working.

Canada, 58, believes that just providing a decent classroom experience isn't enough to teach disadvantaged kids. So he starts in the womb: His organization, the Harlem Children Zone, offers free prenatal care to pregnant women and follows their children from birth to college, providing free health and dental care, afterschool programs and tutoring along the way.

It's an approach that is catching on. Canada has become a darling of Wall Street philanthropists. President Obama recently announced plans to duplicate the Zone model in 20 other cities, making it the centerpiece of his "Promise Neighborhood" campaign. But before the Harlem Children Zone can be replicated nationally, the plan's advocates need to clear some hurdles--in particular, making it work without Geoffrey Canada.

The Zone was born in 1994, when Canada (then a director of a truancy-prevention program in Harlem) concluded that his only hope of keeping kids in school and out of prison was to take a holistic approach. The plan: Target a small area, where program staff can go door-to-door to check on kids. He focused on a 24-block area at first; today the Zone covers 97 blocks and 8,000 kids. Of those, 1,200 attend Canada's k-10 charter school, the Promise Academy. The school is housed in a gleaming $42.5 million building on an otherwise blighted block. Its children spend 60% more time in class than their public school peers, and teachers' only hope for job security is improving student performance year after year.

The school catapulted to national prominence last spring when Harvard researchers found Canada's progress was "enough to reverse the black-white achievement gap." Their study found that average sixth graders entering the Promise Academy scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. Two years later they were scoring in the 79th percentile, matching or outscoring their white peers in New York City public schools.

Canada's budget is $75 million, up from $10 million in 2000. Two-thirds of the money comes from private donors, for whom Canada fine-tunes his pitch: Giving $5,000 a year to help a kid go to college beats the $50,000 it would cost to keep him behind bars. Canada spends $5,000 a year on each child in the neighborhood program but, with help from the state, spends $19,200 per child in its charter school.

Stanley Druckenmiller, a wealthy money manager and, like Canada, a Bowdoin alumnus, has donated well over $100 million to the Zone. His enthusiasm has lured in other big contributors: Druckenmiller's former boss George Soros, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone and hedge fund manager Richard Perry. Problem: How do you take that kind of success national? "The problem is we're in New York City," says Druckenmiller. "The Zone model is duplicable, but the fundraising model is not."

Any school rescue program that relies less on donations and more on taxpayer money is at risk of becoming a captive of the education establishment. A two-year project to replicate the Zone in Jacksonville, Fla. saw its largest private donor, the Chartrand Foundation, back out when it appeared that the program would be run by government officials and lack the Zone's accountability.

Under Canada teachers make 10% more than they would with the union, plus bonuses--but only if scores go up. After the school opened in 2004, half of its teachers were not asked back at year-end. Another third were dropped the following year. The data-driven approach resonates with Wall Street but remains controversial among education reformers. Says Canada: "I'm for firing lousy teachers." Fighting words to the National Education Association.

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