A safety net for children
What will it take to change the lives of poor children nationwide?
Whatever it Takes is a no-holds-barred look at one of the greatest social experiments ever taken: a 97-block laboratory in central Harlem where educator Geoffrey Canada is hard at work exploring new, often controversial ideas about poverty in America.
The narrative by Paul Tough, one of the nation’s foremost writers on poverty and education issues, is engaging but frank as he looks at the lessons learned through Canada’s work. For Canada, the great experiments started after he began questioning the value of his work with a handful of after-school programs. There were 500 children lucky enough to participate in one of his programs, but there were another 500—and 500 after that—who were not getting the help they needed.
And he wasn’t just talking help with school work. Canada envisioned a system where all the children got all the help they needed, starting from birth—and even before. He would have to do it in a tightly defined geographical area, and he would have to do it comprehensively. He envisioned an array of programs that followed the life of a child: parenting classes, a pre-kindergarten curriculum, after-school instruction and tutoring sessions.
“Canada’s objective was to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood couldn’t slip through it,” Tough says. “It was an idea both simple and radical, and he gave it a name to match: the Harlem Children’s Zone.”
It was an audacious and ambitious plan, and it hasn’t been easy. A few years after the project began, project organizers decided that the programs simply weren’t working in the schools. The solution? They would open their own charter school.
Chosen by lottery
Tough provides a riveting description of the evening when the first 200 children were chosen by lottery to attend the new Promise Academy—and hundreds more were not, disappointing an auditorium full of parents. The early days of the school were marked by conflicts, struggle and disappointment, but the programs started there are still going strong, as are others in the Zone, particularly Baby College, where parents-to-be learn to be parents.
President Obama has called the Harlem Children’s Zone an “all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck antipoverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children.” He has vowed to reproduce it in 20 cities across the country.
Whatever it Takes offers an engrossing look at poverty in America today. What will it take to change the lives of poor children not one by one, but in a standardized way that could be replicated nationwide?
While they may not have all of the answers, Canada and the others working with the Harlem Children’s Zone are still asking the hard questions and coming up with some compelling solutions.
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