At an event this weekend, I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation between Geoffrey Canada, the founder and director of the Harlem Children's Zone, and Paul Tough, the author of Whatever it Takes, a book about the HCZ. As I was listening to them speak, I kept thinking to myself, "Here's a guy who gets it."
The idea behind the HCZ is that high poverty neighborhoods like Harlem need an extra boost in order to have the things that middle class neighborhoods take for granted. The Children's Zone sponsors a baby college for expecting and new parents to help prepare them to be ready to actually raise a child. Not a bad idea for a neighborhood with high teen pregnancy rates. Babt College seeks to imbue parents with some of the skills and values that we know can lead to successful children in this society.
The HCZ also offers intensive educational programs for kids as early as two and seeks to provide health services that are needed. Finally, the kids transition into an HCZ run school where they stay from kindergarten through 12th grade. The program is designed to provide a "cradle to college" experience similar to what is taken for granted in more affluent communities. This simply makes sense.
Canada also impressed me with his analysis of schools like KIPP and Achievement First. As he said, "The teachers in those schools are heroes, no question about it. But we can't expect to have heroes in every classroom." The answer is not to make up the difference when kids fall behind, it's to make sure that they don't fall behind in the first place. I couldn't agree more. We can't argue that every teacher should be exceptional - it's just impossible. But we can do our best to make sure that good (though unexceptional) teachers are all that is needed.
As no one has yet gone through the entire program from cradle to college, it's too early to tell if the program is actually going to be successful. But I really hope it is. I think that this program, more than any other that I'm aware of, points the way toward a replicable model of school/urban reform.