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.
All children learn Spanish and French in classrooms with names such as Columbia and Harvard (to plant aspiration early). Classes are tiny, with a student-teacher ratio of 4 to 1. About 10 percent of children are in foster care or homeless shelters, and a social worker is assigned to each family.
Meanwhile, at the new, glass-walled $43 million building of the Promise Academy at 125th Street and Madison Avenue, students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. for a healthy breakfast (no syrup allowed on pancakes) and stay as late as 7 p.m. for an after-school roster of academics, arts and athletics.
"I feel like a pioneer," said Kelly Downing, an English teacher who worked in the public schools before switching to the Promise Academy. Small class sizes, teachers' aides and other supports shift the focus to teaching, he said. "It's really on you to find the most effective way to reach the kids."
In Downing's book-lined ninth-grade English and study techniques class, a few students are giggling.
"Keep it academic," Downing intoned, and the room hushed.
"Everybody feel confident about tomorrow and the test?" he asked.
Jason LeGrand, a 14-year-old in Downing's class, later said he has been at the Promise Academy since sixth grade, when he transferred from public school.
"My old school, we didn't really do anything. Sometimes we had free time all the time," Jason said. "Here, there's more work. All the teachers want you to go to college. They'll help you even on their lunch break."
Harlem is a hard place. About 73 percent of children are born into poor families, according to city statistics. The area has the highest rate of foster care placement in the city. Its unemployment rate is about twice that of the city as a whole.
But the Children's Zone has already achieved significant results. Math test scores of the typical sixth-grader entering the charter school leap 35 percentage points in a few years. In middle school, Promise Academy students, who are largely African American, score as high as white students in the city in math. In a neighborhood with low high school graduation rates, about 550 alumni of the after-school program will be in college come fall.
The authors of a recent Harvard study called the Children's Zone "arguably the most ambitious social experiment to alleviate poverty of our time."
But critics say that although the research indicates that the Children's Zone helps the individual children in the charter school succeed, no study has measured the program's ability to achieve its core goal: to reach a neighborhood tipping point.
"The way to figure out if that's working is not to look just at the kids who take part, but to look at outcomes of the community as a whole," said Patrick Sharkey, an assistant sociology professor at New York University. He said that in the future, it could be important to compare neighborhoods that receive the Promise grants with those that do not.
"There are still questions to be answered," said Jim Shelton, the Education Department's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. "But the kinds of results we've seen from the school and children and families are worthy of note. If every school produced those kinds of outcomes, you'd have a lot less problems in many neighborhoods."
He said the department would offer applications for planning grants for Promise Neighborhoods in 2010 and could eventually expand the program nationally.
Canada said it is too early to gauge community impact, which will begin to show most readily when the first group of children to start the Children's Zone in kindergarten -- now in fifth grade -- graduates from college.
"We're trying to get enough kids in college so that you end intergenerational poverty, and we're well on the way to doing that," Canada said. The impact will be clear, he said. "We'll see the impact five or six years from now, when these are working adults and no longer going to prison."
Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.