Harlem Program Singled Out as Standard to Improve Children's Lives

The Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the lives of Harlem youth, is being used as a template for President Obama's Promise Neighborhoods program.
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

NEW YORK -- On a recent Saturday morning in Harlem, a few dozen pregnant women in a parenting class made resolutions for life after the baby's birth. Avoid cursing. Provide healthy foods. Develop a sleeping routine for the infant.

"I want my son to be perfect," said Naquell Williams, 22, who is unemployed and pregnant with a child whose father is in prison.

This is the starting point for the Harlem Children's Zone: the womb. Geoffrey Canada's nonprofit has created a web of programs that begin before birth, end with college graduation and reach almost every child growing up in 97 blocks carved out of the struggling central Harlem neighborhood.

Canada was raised poor in the South Bronx and went on to earn a graduate education degree from Harvard. Years ago, he grew frustrated that his successful after-school program was not decreasing Harlem's tally of high school dropouts, juvenile arrests and unemployed youths. He set out to devise an encompassing program to "move the needle" and improve the lives of poor children in a mass, standardized, reproducible way.

Now the Obama administration seeks to replicate Canada's model in 20 cities in a program called Promise Neighborhoods and has set aside $10 million in the 2010 budget for planning. President Obama has frequently singled out the Harlem Children's Zone, and first lady Michelle Obama recently called Canada "one of my heroes."

The charismatic Canada often talks about using a "conveyor belt" of programs to nurture a child through each stage of development. The goal is more than just to steer individual children toward success; it is also to create a neighborhood "tipping point," where the programs affect the community environment to benefit even children not involved with the Children's Zone.

There are asthma prevention plans and fresh produce deliveries; dental, medical and psychiatric care; after-school arts and music; tenant-ownership schemes and early childhood education; tae kwan do and dance, weight training and sports; and foster care prevention and charter schools. It adds up to about 20 programs using more than 1,500 staff members and reaching about 8,200 young people out of 11,300 in the zone. The cost is about $5,000 per child, and Canada raises much of his $70 million budget privately; it has been difficult during the economic downturn -- he was forced to lay off 10 percent of his staff.

The conveyor belt begins with Baby College, a nine-week prenatal and early childhood parenting class with sections on brain development, discipline and parent-child bonding. Outreach workers, such as Hallie Rouse, canvass the housing projects in the zone, knocking on every door in every building, and stroll up and down Madison Avenue, Fifth, Lenox, Seventh, Eighth, stopping everyone -- "You never know who might have children at home," Rouse said -- and pressing fliers into hands.

"If they look interested, we start talking," Rouse said.

The next step, for 3-year-olds, is the Children's Zone preschool, then the Promise Academy, one of the well-funded, successful charter schools that are the centerpiece of Canada's efforts.

At the Harlem Gems all-day preschool on 117th Street, about 57 children ages 3 to 5 sing, play, draw and write.

"Feliz y triste," sang the Spanish teacher with one small group. Happy and sad.

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