Promise in Harlem

Instead of funding small-scale social programs, Geoffrey Canada decided to change the odds for poor blacks in Harlem Children’s Zone, “an area with about 6,500 children, more than 60 percent of whom live below the poverty line and three-quarters of whom score below grade level on statewide reading and math tests.” In the New York Times Magazine, Paul Tough describes the zone’s network of educational, social and medical services, which reach 88 percent of children in the 24-block core neighborhood. Services are being extended to a 60-block zone.

The organization employs more than 650 people in more than 20 programs; on a recent afternoon, I spent some time walking around Harlem, dropping in on one program after another. At Harlem Gems, a program for 40 prekindergarten students at a public school on 118th Street, Keith, who had just turned 5 and was missing a front tooth, sat at a computer working away at ”Hooked on Phonics,” while Luis, a 19-year-old tutor, gave him one-on-one instruction. A few blocks up Lenox Avenue, at the Employment and Technology Center, 30 teenagers in T-shirts and basketball jerseys, all part of the organization’s new investment club, were gathered around a conference table, listening to an executive from Lehman Brothers explain the difference between the Dow Jones and the Nasdaq. At P.S. 76 on West 121st Street, fifth-grade students in an after-school program were standing in front of their peers, reading aloud the autobiographies they had written that afternoon. And over at Truce, the after-school center for teenagers, a tutor named Carl was helping Trevis, a student in the eighth grade, with a research project for his social studies class, an eight-page paper on the life of Frederick Douglass. In a nearby housing project, a counselor from the Family Support Center was paying a home visit to a woman who had just been granted legal custody of her two grandchildren; in other apartments in the neighborhood, outreach workers from Baby College, a class for new parents, were making home visits of their own, helping teach better parenting techniques. A few blocks away, at the corner of Madison Avenue and 125th Street, construction was under way on the organization’s new headquarters, a six-story, $44 million building that will also house the Promise Academy, a new charter school that Canada is opening in the fall.

Canada’s main focus is improving the educational success of students. After trying to work within the existing public schools and seeing meager results, he’s starting what will be a kindergarten-through-12th-grade charter school with an eight-hour school day, after-school programs and a longer school year. The school will run on the “no excuses” credo.

Here’s Jay Mathews’ story from the Washington Post on low-income D.C. parents with vouchers eagerly signing up their children for private schools.

About Joanne


  1. Very commendable ambition. I hope the unions leave him alone long enough for him to succeed. He seems to be the sort of person that induces resentment in union officials.

  2. Yeah, he’s committing the unforgiveable crime of succeeding where they’ve failed. They’ve got to bring him down, to ensure their own continuing survival and sense of self-righteousness.

  3. I’m a voucher-skeptic and I’ve expressed that view point on a JJ threads a couple of times, but I read the WaPo article yesterday and I highly recommend it. I will gladly eat crow if my views on school choice are proven wrong.

  4. speedwell says:

    Scott, I’m really happy to hear you have that attitude. It makes “what’s best for the children” sound like a decent, clean thing to say instead of the political whine it’s become.

  5. I am keeping “Be the Dream–Prep for Prep Graduates Share their Stories” on my bedside table, for inspiration.

    Anyone believing that all children of poverty and the inner city are without potential, are genetically lacking in academic talent, or are incapable of rising to academic challenge should read this book.

    The stories are drawn from the some 1,000 individuals who have gone through Prep for Prep.

    Prep for Prep is one of a number of organizations that identifies academically high-performing kids from (mostly) inner city backgrounds, and helps them achieve to their potential.

    Prep for Prep site:

    Prep for Prep identifies academically gifted kids from low-income, low-achievement backgrounds, and provides them with the training and orientation to succeed in elite college preparatory schools and beyond.