Building the Village
A Harlem educator's radical program to help impoverished children succeed.

Reviewed by Donna Foote
Sunday, October 12, 2008


Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America

By Paul Tough

Houghton Mifflin. 296 pp. $26

Three questions lie at the heart of Paul Tough's important new book. Why are poor people poor? Why do they stay poor? And what would it take to get them out of poverty? Theories about the causes of lasting poverty and cures for the problem have long fueled debate and wide public policy swings. Throughout, generations of a disenfranchised underclass have remained stuck in a cycle of perpetual penury.

Enter Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic black man on a mission to deliver his people. Born in 1952 to a single welfare mother of four, Canada defied the odds, finding his way out of a South Bronx tenement and into a single-family house in the burbs. He has made it his life's work to enable others to do the same. But as president of a nonprofit that ran a handful of youth programs, he found his reach limited and the effects of his efforts often short-lived. That got him thinking about what it would really take to get Harlem's poor children into the mainstream. Canada came up with a social experiment so radical and potentially transforming that Barack Obama has promised a "few billion dollars a year" to replicate it in 20 cities should he become president.

Canada's idea: Instead of offering discrete programs to ameliorate certain aspects of poverty, he would do it all. He would create a safety net so tightly knit and widely spread that not only would it prevent an entire community of kids from falling through, it would actually propel them out of poverty. In fact, the net would be a continuous series of integrated interventions beginning with pre-natal parenting classes and intensive early childhood programs up to college. More than anything else, the poverty-busting project would imbue poor black children and their families with solid, middle-class values that would become contagious. "If we touch enough kids at the same time with the same message, then it won't seem unusual to think, 'I should do well in school, I should speak proper English, I should do my homework,' " reasoned Canada.

Without Canada's bona fides, the plan could have easily been dismissed as cultural imperialism. But coming from him, a program to develop the cultural mindset by which poor black kids could acquire the same attitudes and cognitive skills as their more privileged and successful peers made sense to the community and wealthy backers. Canada called his crusade the Harlem Children's Zone and chose a 24-block section of Harlem as his laboratory. Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, began tracking the effort in 2003. The result is Whatever It T akes, a you-are-there recording of the project's development, amazing growth and potential promise -- and an informed primer on the correlation between race, poverty and the achievement gap in America.

This is a serious book about a pressing issue, but Tough manages to make it an easy read with a cast of sympathetic characters. Eager students in the Zone's Baby College, a nine-week parenting course, include Victor Boria, a high school dropout with a criminal record, and Shauntel Jones, a 32-year-old expectant mom whose other children have been taken away from her by the city's child welfare agency. The benefactor who keeps the belt running is Stanley Druckenmiller, a quiet Wall Street honcho and registered Republican. But in this fast-paced narrative of trial and triumph, the undisputed hero is Canada.

The dramatic tension in the book derives from the problems plaguing urban education. A few years into the project, when he realized that crummy local schools were a major snag in his net, Canada opened his own charter school called Promise Academy. He started the elementary school with two grades: kindergarten and sixth. As each class advanced, he intended to add a grade until the school spanned grades K-12. Though he believed that closing the achievement gap required a wholesale change of the environment in which poverty breeds, he also embraced the outcomes-based, no-excuses approach of education reformers like KIPP, the successful charter-school chain that insists that schools must compensate for the disadvantages of dysfunctional families and lousy neighborhoods. "I'm for vouchers, I'm for charter schools -- I'm for anything that blows up the status quo," Canada tells the author. To the parents who show up for the lottery that will determine which lucky few get a spot in his new charter, he says: "If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. We're not going to say, 'The child failed because they came from a home with only one parent.' "

Three years later, Canada had to eat his words when the inaugural sixth grade class failed to achieve the academic results he had expected of them in eighth grade. The ultimate pragmatist, he put the school's expansion into high school on hold, leaving angry parents scrambling to find new schools for their dejected children.

Missing from the book is a clear explication of what went wrong. Students in the lower grades at Promise Academy appeared to thrive, validating research that indicates the importance of early intervention. But the middle school, despite huge investments of time, energy and resources, suffered from the high rates of teacher turnover and student attrition endemic to urban education. Canada placed the blame on teachers; the staff pointed to parents and students.

We don't know how this story will end. Time will tell if Geoffrey Canada has hit on what it will take to break the cycle of poverty in America. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the Harlem Children's Zone -- about the power of an idea, the role culture plays in student achievement, accountability, the indomitable human spirit. This book should be on every policymaker's reading list. ยท

Donna Foote's book "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America" was published this year.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company