Lessons From the Harlem Children's Zone

As Black History Month draws to a close, it seems appropriate to end with a call to arms. If we want to make black history every month, we must do a better job educating the millions of impoverished black children in America. For many of them, school will be the only way out from under the federal poverty line. The 35 percent of African-American youth living in poverty are the most visible victims of what is often called the achievement gap. But black children of all socioeconomic levels perform worse on national tests and graduate in fewer numbers than their white middle-class peers. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics found that African-American students scored, on average, 26 points lower than white students on their reading and math tests.

Millions of dollars have been spent trying to eradicate the gap and a forest of trees has been killed trying to explain it. Some say, as Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and American Enterprise Institute political scientist Charles Murray did in their 1994 book, The Bell Curve, that the cause is genetic. And though The Bell Curve has been discredited in scientific circles, the idea that IQ is somehow linked to race has been slow to retreat. Others,like Cornell University researchers Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg, believe that "physiological stress is a plausible model for how poverty could get into the brain and eventually interfere with achievement," as they wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Our best efforts at narrowing the gap nationally—think No Child Left Behind—haven't worked. But locally, there are now signs of hope. At the Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy charter schools, at least 97 percent of third graders scored at or above grade level on a statewide math test in 2008, outperforming the average scores of both black and white children in New York City and New York state.

And yet we continue to discuss public education as if the Harlem Children's Zone and other similar programs did not exist. Our debates about the future of public education remain limited to the boundaries carved out by No Child Left Behind—testing, testing, and more testing, and the ability to weed out poor teachers or provide school vouchers—when none of those things has been proven to make a significant difference. What the HCZ does is first recognize that the amelioration of poverty does not begin and end with an excellent education, but also requires a full belly, parental education, safety, advocacy, and the expectation that every student will succeed. "We help parents and kids through the system," HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada says. "We get them past every hindrance put in their way, whether it be at home or with social services. We can advocate on a child's behalf, whether it be at home or in the classroom or with the juvenile justice system." Indeed, the HCZ starts early: it provides new parents with a Baby College to teach parenting skills during the crucial first three years of a child's life and a preschool Gems program, where kids learn not only French and Spanish but healthy eating habits to combat childhood obesity. The Zone also offers the HCZ Asthma Initiative to provide medical care and education to families, thus drastically cutting down on the number of school days missed by students suffering from asthma. And it has a network of afterschool programs that teach media literacy, karate, and computer skills. It's called the pipeline—once familes enter, it's hoped that they'll stay until their child graduates from college. The idea is to create "a safety net woven so tightly that kids can't slip through," according to Paul Tough, author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.

The Harlem Children's Zone is not alone in its aims. Many other schools have made great strides in achievement with similar missions—Capital Prepatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn.; the American Indian Charter High School in Oakland, Calif.; and the Harlem Village Academies, to name a few. But until we are able to shift the national discussion from union work rules and class size to replication of schools that work, programs like these will be exceptions to the rule and we won't create what Canada calls a "tipping point," where whole neighborhoods are able to use education to move themselves out of entrenched poverty.

President Obama has set aside $10 million in matching funds to replicate the HCZ in 20 areas in the United States. (This kind of education isn't cheap. The Zone spends more than $20,000 per student per year.) But in order for these new programs to succeed, we must not only set aside our calcified arguments but also change our attitudes about poor black children. For too long we have seen them as either victims of a poverty beyond their control or resistant to the advantages of a first-rate education. The argument was summed up by Bill Cosby in a 2004 speech at Howard University: "The lower-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids—$500 sneakers—for what? And won't spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics." But the truth is much more complicated. Local, state, and federal governments have poured billions into educating our kids but have not yet found a way to fix failing schools. Many parents of poor children feel that public education has let them down and have stopped trying to improve the system. Others simply do not have the time or resources.

But despite the assertions of Cosby and others that education is anathema to poor black folk, thousands of parents have flocked to the Zone to try to get their kids enrolled. Countless more are trying to teach their children without the benefit of the HCZ—parents of color have rallied all around the country demanding better schools for their children. It is misleading and punitive to blame the achievement gap on parents in poor neighborhoods, especially when the current education department recognizes, as it did in its plan to spread the idea of the HCZ nationwide, that "providing both effective schools and strong systems of support to children and youth in poverty, and thus meeting their health, social services, and education needs, will offer them the best hope for a better life."

I am still amazed that the achievements of the Harlem Children's Zone don't make bigger news. Think about it as a headline—POVERTY DEFEATED—and you'll see where I'm going. It is crucial, if Black History Month is to become anything other than a dry recitation of black inventors and heroes, that we tell African-American children that they are not genetically inferior, that they are not doomed to failure in school. There are solutions, like the HCZ, that can provide them with the tools to succeed. With the right kind of education, coupled with the right kind of support, it is possible to give all children the benefits of a first-rate education, and thus the opportunity to achieve anything … maybe even become president of the United States. Because while Barack Obama is a marvelous symbol of racial progress, the HCZ is another kind of proof that the playing field can be leveled. It is a shining example that what was possible for Obama is not a fluke of history, but within reach for all children of color.