Schoolhouse Rock

The Zone

The reason I think the Harlem Children’s Zone is so important—the reason I wrote a whole book about the program—is that I think it’s the closest thing we have to a model for the kind of collaboration I was referring to yesterday .

What Geoffrey Canada has constructed in Harlem is a comprehensive set of integrated programs that currently serve 8,000 kids in a 97-block neighborhood, starting at birth and going all the way through college. It is based on two innovative ideas. The first is what Canada calls the Conveyor Belt—a system that reaches kids early and then moves them through a seamless series of programs that try to re-create the invisible cocoon of support that surrounds middle-class and upper-middle-class kids throughout their childhoods. The Conveyor Belt starts with Baby College , a nine-week program that provides expecting parents and parents of young children with new information about effective parenting strategies. The next stop is an all-day language-focused pre-kindergarten for 200 4-year-olds, who then graduate into a K-12 charter school that has an extended day and an extended year and employs some of the intensive academic practices developed in the KIPP schools. Throughout their academic careers, students at the school have access to social supports: after-school tutoring, a teen arts center, family counseling, and a health clinic.

The second idea is a tipping-point notion—what Canada refers to as contamination. His theory is that in a low-income, high-crime neighborhood, if you offer social and educational supports to just a few of the kids who live there, their participation will always seem a bit oddball, and they won’t have much of an effect on their peers. But if you get participation rates up to 40 percent or 50 percent or 60 percent, then taking part will come to seem normal, and some of the behaviors that used to seem commonplace in Harlem—teenage pregnancy, drug use, dropping out of school—will start to seem like the oddball path. The engaged kids will “contaminate” their friends with their behaviors and attitudes.

Canada’s system isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work just to keep it in motion. And in the years that I spent reporting in Harlem, Canada and his staff made lots of wrong turns and hit plenty of dead ends. In the book, I followed one class of parents through Baby College, and some of them, it seemed, faced such big deficits and such huge obstacles in life—they couldn’t read, they had had other children taken away by Child Services, they had spent a couple of years in jail—that it seemed hard to believe they would ever be truly effective parents. In the middle school, the first couple of years were quite rocky, as Canada struggled to combine the ethos of a community organization with the accountability of a no-excuses charter school.

By the time I finished my reporting, though, the middle school was starting to find its footing, and the elementary schools, where some of the students had been with the Harlem Children’s Zone since Baby College, were truly thriving. The third-grade test scores last spring were good—at one charter school, 97 percent of the third-grade class was on grade level in math, and in the other, 100 percent were. (The English scores were lower, but they were still quite good. At one school, they were 10 points above the state average, and at the other they were just a point or two below the state average.)

And perhaps more importantly, the elementary schools and the kids in them felt somehow … normal. When I spent time in the classrooms, I got the strong feeling that when these kids got to middle school, they weren’t going to need the kind of heroic interventions that Promise Academy and most charter middle schools need to employ today. They wouldn’t need remediation and advanced character-building and constant test prep—they would just be competent, engaged students for the rest of their school careers. And these are kids who, for the most part, came from low-income, often difficult backgrounds, with a fair number of teenage parents and parents who didn’t complete high school.

They were exactly the same kind of kids, in other words, who arrived in the sixth grade in the first year of Promise Academy middle school, the ones who showed up reading three and four years behind grade level , and whose subsequent middle school careers were a constant struggle. This new generation of kids had the good fortune to find a place on the Conveyor Belt, and that meant they faced a very different kind of future than most kids growing up in Harlem.