Obama’s Zone Offense


Focused effort is a key to success for HCZ, and for this youth working on a computer at one of its programs.

The leaders of scores of community-based groups will meet in New York City this month to try to push forward a plan that is both exciting and daunting: replicating the highly touted Harlem Children’s Zone across the nation.

The Obama administration has pledged $10 million in planning grants to as many as 20 cities to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s central Harlem initiative. New Jersey has already issued a request for proposals to recruit potential HCZs in Newark and Camden. And small replications of some version of HCZ are under way in a few places, from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Orlando, Fla.

The question everyone is asking, somewhat nervously, is: Can the idiosyncratic HCZ really be replicated, and if so, what would it take? Yes, the obvious things: time and money. But how much money, and from whom? The HCZ experience, as well as observations from key people who have been involved in such efforts, suggest that it will take a remarkable combination of program fidelity, local leadership, capital infusions specifically for nonprofits, federal interagency coordination and political will from cities on through the White House.

Here is a look at how it might work and what the hurdles are. (Related story: Why the Zone Will be Hard to Copy)

What Is the Zone?

In a nutshell that cannot capture its richness and complexity, the Harlem Children’s Zone links education to wrap-around services for children and their parents. The Zone’s charter schools, successful in that the children who have passed through them show demonstrably positive educational performance, are linked to services for parents (including a “baby college” providing parenting skills training), after-school programs, health services and much more.

Candidate Barack Obama made the replication of the Harlem Children’s Zone a core component of his urban poverty reduction platform, and President Obama is following through with an initiative called Promise Neighborhoods.

Promise Neighborhoods is a flagship for some core principles of Obama’s domestic agenda – a renewed national commitment to an urban policy after eight years of lackluster responses to America’s cities, an emphasis on place-based community building, a willingness to put federal dollars into the replication and diffusion of innovative social experiments.

Each of the 20 Promise Neighborhood sites will receive approximately $500,000 as a one-year planning grant to lead to larger, though as yet undefined, implementation funds. Even with no specific money pledged for implementation of these HCZ replications, states, cities, school districts and nonprofits are lining up to make their case for the Education Department’s HCZ largesse. (See story on these pages for more details about HCZ.)

The HCZ replication project also underlies other federal programs. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Choice Neighborhoods program incorporates the Harlem Children’s Zone focus on schools, children and intergenerational poverty into schemes for public housing redevelopment projects. Largely replacing the department’s HOPE VI program, Choice Neighborhoods is explicitly designed, according to HUD Secretary Sean Donovan, to “link housing initiatives with early childhood education innovations.”

But are they trying to replicate the nonreplicable? First, they have to understand some specific factors that made HCZ a success.

How HCZ Grew

Prospective applicants will want to remember that the current success of the Harlem Children’s Zone is the product of 20 years of program evolution from the Rheedlen Center’s initial anti-truancy programs to the multifaceted, comprehensive approach that it is today, fitted to the conditions, challenges and opportunities of New York City.

One challenge that concerns many observers is not how to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone, but how to replicate its mastermind and Executive Director Geoffrey Canada. Most writers end up describing Canada as a visionary, a charismatic leader, or, in Michelle Obama’s words, “one of my heroes.” Clara Axam, Enterprise Community Partners’ Atlanta director, described Canada as the kind of visionary who doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

But, like real estate, sometimes the key to successful nonprofit programs and their visionary funders is not just charisma, but location, location, location – and timing. Based in New York City, Canada attracted pre-recession Wall Street support, including financial help from billionaire hedge fund owner Stanley Druckenmiller, who also served on the HCZ board, and philanthropist George Soros. In addition, with a well-respected charter school at its core, HCZ was able to tap into a vigorous education reform movement at its political crest, supported by the willingness of New York City’s mayors to experiment with alternatives to traditional public schools and tie in wrap-around family, health and after-school programs and services.

The result is that HCZ became a very well-funded initiative, with access to huge foundation grants over the years, including $2 million in 2003 and again in 2005, and $25 million in 2006, all from the Starr Foundation (financier Hank Greenberg’s foundation), more than $9 million from Lehman Brothers (now defunct), $2.7 million in 2008 from Atlantic Philanthropies, and $7.5 million in 2004 and $5 million in 2006 from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. According to its most recent tax return, the organization had total assets of $170 million as of June 2008. Canada has indicated that Druckenmiller himself donated “well north of” $100 million.

Can it be Replicated?

Is the Harlem Children’s Zone really replicable in places without that kind of philanthropic capital investment available? It isn’t surprising to hear experts in the field suggest, as Anne Kubisch of the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change does, that “it does make you nervous that something so unique can be replicated.”

Making replication more challenging is the Obama administration’s commitment to make Promise Neighborhoods (and HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods) focus on more than youth and education. As described in HUD’s fiscal 2010 budget materials and descriptive materials issued by program enthusiasts at PolicyLink and the United Neighborhood Centers of America, the Promise Neighborhoods initiative is also aimed at intergenerational poverty, much like the “comprehensive community initiatives” (CCIs) long sponsored by foundations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation (the Making Connections, Family Economic Success, and Rebuilding Communities Initiative programs), the Surdna Foundation (the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Initiative in the South Bronx), the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (Neighborhood Partners Initiative), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Urban Health Initiative), and more recently the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative in West Oakland, San Jose and East Palo Alto).

Promise Neighborhoods may be government’s adaptation and replication of these foundation initiatives, but the CCIs contain lessons that the successful applicants will face. Deeply immersed in mining the experiences of dozens of CCIs for keys to success and causes of failure, Aspen’s Kubisch suggests that Promise Neighborhoods implementers are going to have to temper their ambitious HCZ-like visions with the much more limited, realistic outcomes they really want to be held accountable for. She calls it a matter of “alignment of ambition, capacity, and money,” three factors that lead her to conclude that “if you want to talk about something more than a fairly narrow program replication, it’s almost impossible.”

What it Would Take to Replicate

To digest two decades of lessons from HCZ and other community building initiatives, Roger Williams, senior fellow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, reports that philanthropic sector leaders have created a new resource to aid these Obama administration initiatives: the What Works Collaborative. Rather than reinventing knowledge, they are committed to finding and bringing proven models and techniques to the Department of Education and HUD to help these programs succeed.

Observers and people involved cite several core elements that will be necessary, including one that seems to point to a gap in the plan as it stands – technical assistance.

• “Fidelity to the model!” argues Bruce Trachtenberg, former Edna McConnell Clark Foundation officer and now director of the foundation-serving Communications Group. “There are a number of unique and interconnected elements at HCZ that have been put in place and nurtured over time,” he adds. “To the degree possible that all those elements can be replicated elsewhere, great care should be taken to make that happen.”

Kubisch describes efforts to scale and replicate the Nurse Family Partnership, a program that links or assigns nurses to pregnant women. Like HCZ, it was and is a strong program with clearly defined intervention points, training and program elements. In its replication, according to Kubisch, “there were some places that had less money [than needed] and watered it down, and it didn’t work as well.” Adapting the HCZ model from Central Harlem to much different demographic settings is necessary, but tinkering too much with a well-designed program may lead nowhere.

• Federal interagency coordination: Casey’s Roger Williams notes how much coordination has to take place among the federal agencies and within the agencies themselves to make these programs work. Patrick Lester, senior vice president at the Alliance for Children and Families, says “cross-talking” is needed among the agencies, which he presumes is happening, but in some cases, slow-moving Obama administration appointments in critical departments and agencies such as the Corporation for National and Community Service or HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, could slow the process.

• Patience: HCZ’s successes emerged over a very long time, not because of specific cash infusion and a charge to replicate. Will Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods allow their grantees the same? Clara Axam of Enterprise Community Partners notes that Canada “understands that this is not a short-term game, it’s a long-term one,” and asks, “Will every project have that [ability to think long term]? I doubt it.” And will the political timetable of an administration that has to show product and outcomes be able to show patience?

• Capital infusions for nonprofits: While there is no current hard and fast commitment of federal dollars for the post-planning implementation of Promise Neighborhoods, no matter what the federal government delivers, nonprofits will be hard-pressed to be competitive players without access to private capital. While Patrick Lester of United Neighborhood Centers of America believes that applicants need not totally rely on charity and philanthropy for the undoubtedly hefty private matches Promise Neighborhoods will require, these programs will require philanthropists to step up to the plate with money for the implementing groups and to support an “infrastructure” of technical assistance providers.

Trachtenberg talks about capital to cover the financial uncertainties in imagining an HCZ replication: “To take something working in one place and plop it down in another location requires not only money to cover the cost of running the operation in another location, but … sufficient capital to keep the organization running until it can develop its own steady income streams.”

• Political will: Lisbeth Schorr of Harvard University’s Center for the Study of Social Policy writes that “The interventions that turn around inner-city schools, strengthen families, and rebuild neighborhoods are not stable chemicals manufactured and administered in standardized doses. They are sprawling efforts with multiple components, some of which may be proven experimentally.” To pull together lots of moving parts, Lester believes that successful replications of HCZ will require immense “local political support and buy-in” to pull together multiple funding streams to work in community building.

• Planning into action: Canada himself notes that the first element of success for replication is a strong leader. From Obama to Oprah Winfrey, the talk is about Canada himself as much as the specific HCZ program elements. These initial planning grants may be for the design of programs, but the real challenge may be finding community leaders with the skills and will to galvanize nonprofits, schools and governments into collaborative community building programs serving, educating and strengthening children and their families.

Gaps in TA

The recipe for successful implementation of place-based strategies includes more than money; successful replications of comprehensive social programs like HCZ need access to expert hand-holding and guidance. Based on his monitoring of successful models, United Neighborhood Centers’ Lester observes, “I think you really do need a solid technical assistance piece in this.” The place-based initiatives that have shown sustainable success, such as the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program effort in the South Bronx, came with substantial (foundation-funded) hands-on technical assistance (TA).

According to Lester, no money is built into Promise Neighborhoods for capacity-building TA. Logically, the technical assistance provider would be HCZ itself, through its Practitioners Institute (see story on these pages) or PolicyLink, which, in conjunction with HCZ, generated the proposal of the Promise Neighborhoods program used by the Obama campaign. The two organizations are co-sponsoring the New York meeting, to help nonprofits and governmental agencies understand the principles of the program that can be “adapted and modeled at the local level.”

According to Kubisch, the Harlem Children’s Zone is really a story of “20 years of capacity-building.” Replicating HCZ will require mechanisms for packaging Canada’s experience into digestible technical assistance programs and modules.

Who Would Be In?

Because of that, without significant capacity-building technical assistance, and perhaps unavoidably so, successful replications of the Harlem Children’s Zone will be limited not only to organizations bringing a combination of “dollars and capacity,” Kubisch says, but “if they want successes, they’ll have to pick high-capacity institutions with proven track records to get success in short order.”

Nonprofits and public agencies in smaller cities or states without access to sizable philanthropic resources are not likely to have the resources for replication.

Much of the nonprofit sector is bereft of resources, due to plummeting levels of foundation and charitable giving and state and local government budgets in deficit disarray. Kate Barr of the Nonprofit Assistance Fund foresees at least three more years of financial downturn and hardship for nonprofits. Most of the nonprofit sector – more than nine out of 10 of them with revenues and assets of less than $1 million, according to statistics from the Urban Institute – will not be in the running for replicating an ambitious program like the Harlem Children’s Zone, unless provision is made for scaled-down replications tied to access to significant technical assistance.

This may be the challenge and limitation of Obama administration nonprofit initiatives: connecting with the majority of the nonprofit sector composed of relatively tiny organizations. Like the new Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service – to be delivered largely through foundations to groups able to provide dollar-for-dollar matches of minimum grants of $100,000 a year – size and scale may be crucial to the success of Promise Neighborhoods replications of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

A May 2009 report from the Chicago Policy Research Team of the University of Chicago calculated that a successful Chicago Promise Neighborhood would require an HCZ-sized budget “in order to provide the comprehensive programs that make HCZ successful.” Paul Tough’s admiring portrait of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone was titled Whatever It Takes. For the Promise Neighborhoods program, most nonprofits instinctively know that it will take, in addition to finding a local leader with some of Canada’s charisma and vision: a lot of capital. That will relegate most of the nation’s human service nonprofits to the sidelines.


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