Building a Children’s Zone

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Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America

By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Company
296 pages. $26.

Geoffrey Canada is a man on a mission. Using traditional social service and education programs in a nontraditional format, he intends to transform low-income communities, particularly the children who live in them. He has dubbed 97 blocks in upper Manhattan “The Harlem Children’s Zone,” in a program that some people hail as a model for replication in other urban areas.

In Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, guides readers through stages of Canada’s personal and professional development that led him to ask and try to answer a question that youth and social service providers struggle with daily: What does it take to change the life of one poor child? But Canada extended that to ask: What does it take to change the lives of large numbers of poor children and the communities in which they live?

Canada considered this question from an interesting and unusual perch. He was the child of a single mother and was for a time an absent father himself. Refusing to replicate his own father’s neglect of family, Canada restored his relationship with his children before marrying a second time to begin a very different lifestyle.

In addition, he was the second director of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a nonprofit offering after-school drop-in centers, truancy prevention and anti-violence training for teens.

As Tough reports, Canada’s personal and professional experiences led him to posit that long-lasting change can be effected only if the right resources are applied at just the right time in a child’s development. It is a strategy of continuous service and intervention that Canada calls a “conveyor belt.”

Building the Belt

Tough explains how Rheedlen Centers morphed into the Harlem Children’s Zone with the help of Stanley Druckenmiller, a Wall Street hedge fund manager; ex-classmates from Bowdoin College and Harvard University; and Kenneth Langone, founder of Home Depot. He tells us how, over the course of several years, Canada put together his conveyor belt: the Baby College, a nine-week parent training course, Harlem Gems, a pre-kindergarten program, and Promise Academy, elementary and middle schools run by two different principals and staffs on different floors in the same building.

Tough profiled Canada and the Children’s Zone in an article for The Times. Whatever It Takes evolved from there, based on five years of conversations with Canada and many others, including Zone board members, parents and public officials.

Tough attended the lottery that selected children for the first class at the Promise Academy; was present when Canada subsequently announced the closing of the middle school; and observed the nine weeks of Cycle 21 [the 21st cycle of sessions] Baby College. In other words, it appears that Tough investigated every aspect of the life and struggles of the Zone.

But the book revolves primarily around Canada: his life, his motivations, his internal and external conflicts, his challenges and disappointments. Tough demonstrates not only a deep understanding of his subject, but a mastery of research about poverty and education reform. He weaves in competing theories and studies from such people as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sociologist James Coleman, authors Charles Murray, William Julius Wilson, and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, to provide a clear picture of the historical weight and the seemingly intractable nature of the issues that Canada sets out to tackle.

Achievement and Disappointment

Not unlike Jason DeParle’s American Dream – which tracks three women to understand the impact of welfare reform on their lives – Tough’s profile of the Children’s Zone helps readers appreciate not only how public and social policy get implemented, but also the effects of those policies on people and communities. Thus, we come to appreciate the work and money needed to effect radical reform of the standard social service system and public education.

We get a close look at parents in the Promise Academy lottery and the Baby College; principals who don’t accept Canada’s belief that there is no such thing as intervening too late to turn around a child’s life; board members and investors who want to see measurable results in short order; youths who initially rebel against the middle school program and leadership, only to be told of its closing after they have come to believe in its promise that they will succeed; and Canada’s own internal battle – the idealist struggling against the realistic corporate manager.

For example, Canada insisted, despite arguments to the contrary, that even the lowest performing or most difficult children, with emotional issues and weak educational foundations, could succeed in his program. As the test scores at the middle school remained unacceptably low, Canada was forced to rethink his position. Tough reports that Canada considered the closing of Promise Academy middle school the lowest point in his career.

What’s missing here is some helpful detail. We’d like to know more about the daily lives and backgrounds of the parents at the Baby College. We don’t get a chance to follow one family along the complete conveyor belt – from Baby College through the Harlem Gems and into Promise Academy. Tough says Canada spends about $3,000 on each graduating parent in the Baby College. But how does that compare with what the long-term public investment might be if the parents didn’t receive the training? Tough doesn’t say. This is important, given the glowing evaluations the Children Zone has received.

Still, Whatever It Takes is a valuable read for youth workers and those who view social service and education reform as the vehicle for attacking poverty and other ills. Through Canada’s story, Tough shows that significant transformation requires large sums of money, even larger emotional investment, and an intense, unwavering commitment – even in the face of occasional unmerciful defeat. Also required: an almost blind faith in the human spirit to rise, with strong guidance, above adversity.

Jonetta Rose Barras, the author of Bridges: Reuniting Daughters and Daddies, can be reached at Rosebook1 - at -