Schoolhouse Rock

Whatever It Takes

My interest in education and schools came about in sort of a roundabout way. In 2003, I started reporting on what was then a fairly modest social-service agency in upper Manhattan called the Harlem Children’s Zone . That reporting turned into an article  in the Times Magazine about the project and its founder, Geoffrey Canada, an ambitious and charismatic man in his early 50s who had come up with a unique approach to combating poverty. He had selected a 24-block neighborhood in central Harlem and was saturating the children who lived there with educational and social supports. His goal was to get them all to college and to transform the neighborhood in a single generation.

Usually when I get to the end of reporting a big magazine article, I’m pretty sick of the subject. But this time, the article felt like the beginning of a story rather than the end of one. I wanted to keep following the experiment that was unfolding in Harlem. And so I decided to write a book about it. The result, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America , goes on sale today, a little more than five years from the first time I sat down in front of Canada and turned on my tape recorder.

There’s some background on the Harlem Children’s Zone in this review by Sara Mosle last week in Slate . And then, you know, there’s always the book itself .

So, how did my Harlem reporting get me into writing about education? Two months after the Harlem article  came out in the Times , Geoffrey Canada opened his first charter school, the Promise Academy . When the middle school opened, the administrators gave every sixth-grade student a diagnostic test. They expected that many of the children would be behind grade level; most kids in public schools in Harlem are. But when they got back the results, they were shocked by just how far behind grade level the kids were. Fifty-seven percent of the sixth-grade class was reading at a third-grade level or below.

And Geoff Canada had just promised to get them all to college.

I wanted to find out why those kids had fallen so far behind—and whether anyone had yet figured out a way to do what Canada wanted to do: take disaffected 10-year-olds who had till then received only the most threadbare education and accelerate them to a point where they were on par with their middle-class peers.

Those are some of the questions I explored in my book and which I’ve been blogging about, in one way or another , here on Slate for the past two weeks. Over the next few days, I’m going to write more about what I found during my time in Harlem—and why I feel it has the potential to change the terms of the country’s education debate.