Geoffrey Canada — author, educator, psychologist, motivator, poet, black belt, sometime comedian, and founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone — spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 300 in the packed Ames Courtroom in Austin Hall last week (March 12).
He began, with his gravely voice and a showman’s impeccable timing, by telling of his recent television appearances, including one on “60 Minutes” and another on “Oprah,” to which he was accompanied by family members including his mother, wife, oldest daughter, and two sons. “My mother and my daughter were telling me stuff about Oprah I didn’t know, ’cause I don’t watch her show,” he said. “‘Don’t go hugging and kissing on Oprah,’ they said. ‘She don’t like it.’ … [Oprah] grabs both of my hands, I’m pulling back! She grabs my face! I’m saying, ‘Don’t do it, Oprah!’ She says, ‘I just want to kiss you!’”
If you think Canada told this story just to loosen up his audience, check out the video on YouTube; he does look apprehensive.
Apprehensive he is not, however, regarding his ideas about education in this country. He speaks about his projects in Harlem and the possibility of replicating them with the fervor of an evangelist, interjecting humor and tales of his own life to get his points across: He was raised in the South Bronx by a single mother, but in part because of inspired mentorship and strong role models, went to Bowdoin College and Harvard Graduate School of Education. The laughs dissipate quickly when he begins to outline the situation.
“This country is facing a crisis with its young people,” he said. “I just don’t know why Americans are not focused on this. America, even middle-class America, is not competitive in the global marketplace today. We are throwing away our children as if they do not matter at all.”
He cited a few statistics, sadly familiar to the audience but startling nonetheless: Fewer than 40,000 black males earn bachelor’s degrees every year. One in 100 Americans is in jail; for people of color, the number jumps to 1 in 15. Among African-American males with no college degree, 50 percent are unemployed; among those with no high school diploma, 70 percent are jobless.
“We’re going to have to change our policies as a nation,” he said, adding that the same ZIP codes — whether in Roxbury, Dorchester, New York, Baltimore, or Detroit — “have been producing negative outcomes year after year for decades.”
He spoke briefly about the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, which began in 2000 by taking on two blocks of the neighborhood and now encompasses almost 100 blocks, providing children with state-of-the-art facilities, free health care, free healthy lunches, structure, and cultural enrichment. He starts with the parents, offering a nine-week course called “Baby College” that teaches young mothers and fathers how to raise their children so they will be prepared when it’s time to start school, and follows the children from pre-K through college.
Canada explained his success by outlining five key precepts. First, he said, children must begin learning at grade level at a young age. “By age 4 we get the kids from 8 in the morning till 5:45 in the evening. They’re very intense, very long days. You can catch up any 4-year-old. That’s the nature of being 4. You can’t do that at 14.”
Canada’s second recommendation was to “create a series of best-practice programs that kids go to from birth until they graduate from college. We offer a complete array of services — health care, education, mental health. You have to do it in a creative way so the parents don’t have to run all over the world to get their needs met. Get the kids in the pipeline, then let them go through the whole pipeline.”
Canada noted that funders often ask him to target one age that’s the most important, and focus on that. He tells them to pick the key age in their childhood.
“We all know that the most important time in a child’s life is today,” he said. “I don’t care what age the child is, that’s the time the child is in crisis.”
Even best-practice programs, unfortunately, often become mediocre-practice programs without leadership and accountability, he pointed out. “And with mediocre practice, what do you get? Mediocre results.” Evaluation, Canada maintained, “has to be a tool to drive student outcomes.” People need to be held accountable, he said, “and a lot of teachers have to be fired. I told them when I started charter schools that I’d fire myself if there was no change in five years.”
Schools need to be redesigned as well. “If we know the design of our school day prohibits poor children who are behind from ever catching up,” he said, “why don’t we change that?” The current rule, instead, is to simply bring in a new superintendent every couple of years. But lengthening school days and extending semesters, of course, costs money. When it’s pointed out to him by policymakers that “money is not the answer,” Canada said, his response is, “If money’s not the answer, why don’t you send your children to schools that don’t cost $30,000 a year?”
But even the best schools, administrators, and teachers can’t do it alone. Engaging parents as partners in their children’s education and creating communities that support learning are crucial as well. “We cannot allow children to grow up in places we wouldn’t be caught dead in.” After asking why some kids escape these environments, Canada recounted an experiment he read about in college that tested why some rats give up and drown when thrown into a vat of water, and others keep swimming. “What I learned from that,” he said, “is that if you care about rats, don’t throw them in a vat of water!”
If no one does anything to change communities — “building by building, block by block” — they are captured by the criminal element, and chaos and fear proliferate. You only need 20 percent of community members to be onboard with change, he added. “It’s absolutely doable.”
Finally, we need to instill children with faith that things can change. Speaking of those who get caught up in bad environments, Canada said, “They have looked at the facts and reached a conclusion that makes totally logical sense. They don’t see a hope for the future because there’s nobody there to tell them otherwise.”