Whatever It Takes

By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Company. 304 pp. $26
Oct. 12, 2008

Chapter One

The Lottery

By the time Geoffrey Canada arrived at the Promise Academy lottery, the auditorium was almost full. He had expected a modest turnout - he figured the rain would keep a lot of parents away - but by 6:00 p.m. more than two hundred people had crowded into the back of the hall, and there were dozens more still streaming in the front door. Here and there, members of Canada's staff were consulting clipboards and calming anxious parents. His director of education hurried past him, shouting into her cell phone. It was April 14, 2004, a cool, wet night in Harlem. The hand-lettered sign out front of PS 242, streaked with raindrops, said "Welcome to the Promise Academy Charter School Lottery," and inside, past the sign-in table set up in the school's front hallway, a tall, bull-chested young man named Jeff was handing a rose to each woman as she walked in. "These are for the moms," he said with a smile. "Welcome to the ceremony."

Canada, a tall, thin black man in a dark blue suit, surveyed the crowd. From what he could see, the parents taking their seats in the auditorium were the ones he had hoped to attract: typical Harlem residents, mostly African American, some Hispanic, almost all poor or working class, all struggling to one degree or another with the challenges of raising and educating children in one of New York City's most impoverished neighborhoods. In many ways, their sons and daughters were growing up the way Canada had, four decades before, just a few miles away in the South Bronx: cut off from the American mainstream, their futures constrained by substandard schools, unstable families, and a segregated city. Five years earlier, frustrated by Harlem's seemingly intractable problems, Canada had embarked on an outsized and audacious new endeavor, a poverty-fighting project that was different from anything that had come before it. Since 1990, he had been the president of a well-respected local non profit organization called the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, which operated a handful of programs in upper Manhattan targeted at young people: afterschool drop-in centers, truancy prevention, antiviolence training for teenagers. They were decent programs, and they all did some good for the kids who were enrolled in them. But after Canada had been running them for a few years, day in and day out, his ideas about poverty started to change.

The catalyst was surprisingly simple: a waiting list. One Rheedlen afterschool program had more children who wanted to enroll than it was able to admit. So Canada chose the obvious remedy: he drew up a waiting list, and it quickly filled with the names of children who needed his help and couldn't get it. That bothered him, and it kept bothering him, and before long it had him thinking differently about his entire organization. Sure, the five hundred children who were lucky enough to be participating in one of his programs were getting help, but why those five hundred and not the five hundred on the waiting list? Or why not another five hundred altogether? For that matter, why five hundred and not five thousand? If all he was doing was picking some kids to save and letting the rest fail, what was the point?

Canada became less and less sure of what his programs really added up to. Each one was supported by a separate short-term grant, often on a contract from one city agency or another, and in order to keep the money flowing, Canada was required to demonstrate to the foundations and agencies that paid for the programs that a certain number of children had participated. But no one seemed to care whether the programs were actually working. In fact, no one seemed to have given a whole lot of thought to what, in this context, "working" might really mean.

Canada began to wonder what would happen if he reversed the equation. Instead of coming up with a menu of well-meaning programs and then trying to figure out what they accomplished and how they fit together, what if he started with the out comes he wanted to achieve and then worked backward from there, changing and tweaking and overhauling programs until they actually produced the right results? When he followed this train of thought a little further, he realized that it wasn't the out comes of individual programs that he really cared about: what mattered was the overall impact he was able to have on the children he was trying to serve. He was all too familiar with the "fade-out" phenomenon, where a group of needy kids are helped along by one program or another, only to return to the disappointing mean soon after the program ends. Head Start, the government-funded prekindergarten program for poor children, was the classic example. Plenty of studies had determined conclusively that graduates of Head Start entered kindergarten ahead of their inner-city peers. And plenty of studies had shown that a few years later, those same graduates had slipped back to the anemic achievement level of neighborhood kids who hadn't attended Head Start. A few years of bad schooling and bad surroundings were powerful enough to wipe out all of the program's gains.

Canada wanted to find a way off the treadmill. So he asked himself a series of questions, and gradually his thinking took shape.

Who did he want to help?

He wanted to help poor children.

What was his goal for them?

He wanted them to be able to grow into fully functioning participants in mainstream American middle-class life.

What did they need to do to accomplish that?

They had to survive adolescence, graduate from high school, get into college, and graduate from college.

And what did he have to provide in order to help them accomplish that?

Well, that was where the questions got interesting, and difficult to answer.

He concluded, first, that his efforts couldn't be as diffuse and haphazard as they had been. He would need to select a single geographical area and devote all of his energies to that one place. He would have to start intervening in children's lives when they were young, at birth or even earlier. The support system he provided would need to be comprehensive, a continuous, linked series of programs. It wasn't enough to help out in just one part of a child's life: the project would need to combine educational, social, and medical ser vices. And he wanted serious numbers. He wasn't interested in helping just a few kids, the ones who were already most likely to succeed, the ones whose parents had the resources and foresight to seek out aid and support for themselves and their children.

It was partly a gut feeling, a personal thing: he had always hated the idea of picking and choosing, helping some kids and letting the rest fail. But it was also practical. He believed that in troubled neighborhoods there existed a kind of tipping point. If 10 percent of the families on a block or in a housing project were engaged in one of his programs, their participation wouldn't have much influence on their neighbors, and the children who did enroll would feel at best like special cases and at worst like oddballs. But if, say, 60 percent of the families were onboard, then participation would come to seem normal, and so would the values that went with it: a sense of responsibility, a belief that there was a point to self-improvement, a hopefulness about the future. Canada's theory was that each child would do better if all the children around him were doing better. So instead of waiting for residents to find out on their own about the ser vices he was providing, his recruiters would seek out participants by going door-to-door in housing projects and low-rent high-rises. They would create programs that were well organized and even fun to attend, and they would sweeten the deal by offering incentives - everything from a free breakfast to Old Navy gift certificates - to break down any lingering resistance. At the end of the 1990s, Canada dedicated himself to making his idea a reality. He chose as the laboratory for his grand experiment a twenty-four-block zone of central Harlem, an area that contained about three thousand children, more than 60 percent of whom were living below the poverty line and three-quarters of whom regularly scored below grade level on statewide reading and math tests. He and his staff developed an array of new, integrated programs that followed the life of a child: a parenting class for Harlem residents with children three and under, an intensive prekindergarten for four-year-olds, classroom aides and afterschool instruction for public school students, and a tutoring center for teenagers. Canada's objective was to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood couldn't slip through. It was an idea both simple and radical, and he gave it a name to match: the Harlem Children's Zone.

A few years into the life of the Zone, Canada hit a snag. The problem was the schools. His original plan had called for his staff to work closely with the principals of Harlem's local public schools, providing them with supplemental ser vices like computer labs and reading programs. In some schools the collaboration had worked well, but in others it was a disaster. To Canada's surprise and displeasure, principals sometimes resisted the help, turning down his requests for classroom space or kicking out the tutors that the organization supplied. Even in the schools where the programs were running smoothly, they didn't seem to be producing results: the neighborhood's reading and math scores had barely budged. In the dozen years that he had been in charge of the organization, first as Rheedlen and then, after he changed the name in 2002, as the Harlem Children's Zone, Canada had worked with five consecutive New York City schools chancellors. And while each one had come into office with new reforms and lofty promises, in the end none seemed to make much of a difference in the lives of Harlem's schoolchildren. Still, Canada felt unusually hopeful about the latest chancellor, Joel Klein, a product of the New York City public schools who had gone on to serve in Bill Clinton's Justice Department, most notably as the lead prosecutor in the federal government's sprawling antitrust case against Microsoft. Klein was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire technocrat with no previous political experience who was elected in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001. Once in office, Bloomberg persuaded the state government in Albany to restructure the city's education bureaucracy, centralizing power under the mayor's control. Together, he and Klein succeeded in pushing through a series of significant reforms, often in the face of stiff opposition from teachers' unions and city officials. One of Klein's early strategies was to recruit private groups, both non profits and corporations, to contribute in a variety of ways to the public school system. The Harlem Children's Zone was an obvious candidate, and soon after Klein arrived in New York, in 2002, he called Canada, and the two men met to discuss how the school system and the Harlem Children's Zone could work better together.

Canada brought with him a complex proposal that had his group and Klein's Department of Education working hand in hand to administer a few schools in Harlem. "Great idea," Klein said. "But it will never work." It would take forever to get parents, principals, and teachers to agree to that kind of power-sharing system, Klein explained; by the time they had the details worked out, he would probably be out of office and back in the private sector. But he suggested to Canada that there was a faster and easier way for the Harlem Children's Zone to get involved: charter schools.

In 2002 charters were still fairly rare. There were more than two thousand nationwide, but they were mostly small and new, operating off the public's radar screen. The charter idea was born in Minnesota in the early 1990s: publicly funded schools run by in de pendent organizations, usually non profits, outside the control of the local school board. In education circles, there were bitter disagreements over charter schools, and the debate was politically charged. Teachers at charter schools were usually non unionized, and many conservative policy groups touted the schools as a free-enterprise solution to the nation's choked educational bureaucracies. Liberals were more likely to oppose charters; many suspected that the Right's sudden interest in inner-city education was nothing more than a cloak for a campaign to weaken unions and undermine the public school system.

Nationwide, charter schools had a mixed record. Early advocates claimed the schools would raise test scores across the board, and that hadn't happened; nationally, scores for charter school students were the same as or lower than scores for public school students. But by another measure, charter schools had succeeded: by allowing educators to experiment in ways that they generally couldn't inside public school systems, they had led to the creation of a small corps of schools with new and ambitious methods for educating students facing real academic challenges. One of the best known and most successful was a fast-growing national network of charters called the Knowledge Is Power Program. KIPP schools targeted low-income minority students, the demographic that in most school districts was mired at the lowest academic levels, and yet KIPP students were for the most part thriving, consistently earning above-average scores on state tests. Canada knew KIPP well. He had visited one of KIPP's flagship schools, the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, and he had become friendly with David Levin, the young Teach for America graduate who had helped found KIPP and now ran the organization's New York schools. Chancellor Klein had encouraged KIPP and other successful charter-management organizations from around the country to apply for charters in New York City, and KIPP had plans to open two new schools in Harlem.

Although Canada was himself somewhat skeptical of the charter school movement - he believed that the only way to successfully educate poor children in significant numbers was to improve, not replace, the public school system - Klein's offer was too attractive to pass up. If Canada could open his own schools in Harlem, the pipeline he had been trying to create would be complete. Instead of reaching kids here and there, for a few hours a day, he would have them under his care for eight or ten or twelve hours a day, enough time, he hoped, to let him bring order to even the most chaotic young life. So in 2003 the Harlem Children's Zone submitted its three-hundred-page application to the New York City Department of Education. With Klein's support, it was approved, and as parents arrived for the lottery that rainy night in April 2004, the opening day of Promise Academy was less than five months away. The school would start with just two hundred students - one hundred in kindergarten and one hundred in sixth grade. Each September, as those students progressed through the school, they would be joined by a new kindergarten and sixth-grade class, and over the course of seven years, the academy would expand into a single, continuous school, educating thirteen hundred students, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, in the center of Harlem.

Like every charter school in New York, Promise Academy was free of tuition and open by lottery to students from anywhere in the city's five boroughs. But the only students Canada really wanted in his school were from central Harlem, especially the lowest-performing students, exactly the ones whose parents were least inclined to apply to send their children to a different school. So in the days and weeks leading up to the charter school lottery, the organization's outreach workers solicited applications from the parents of children in every one of its programs, and they knocked on doors all over Harlem. By the evening of the lottery, they had received 359 applications - almost twice as many children as the school had room for. Now, here at PS 242, every seat in the auditorium was filled with a hopeful parent or a potential student or a patient sibling, and late arrivals were standing in the aisles. They weren't all model parents - Canada recognized some of them from the organization's substance- and alcohol-abuse programs - but they all wanted something better for their children. Multicolored helium balloons were tied to the end of each row of seats, which gave the room a festive air. More than anything, though, the place felt nervous.


Excerpted from Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough Copyright © 2008 by Paul Tough. Excerpted by permission.
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