Education reformer challenges community to save its children

This is the challenge: If Kalamazoo wants to save its children then it’s up to the community. No one else is going to do it.  

The challenge is issued by Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, described as an ambitious social experiment for the way it the way it combines educational, social and medical services for children and how the community it serves is being transformed in the process.

Kalamazoo Community Foundation invited Canada to its annual community meeting as part of the work it as a member of the Learning Network recently initiated to create a community where learning is considered important and that value is conveyed to its young people. In June, $11 million was committed toward the new education initiative and the work ultimately is expected to cost at least $60 million as new programs and processes develop to achieve an education-centered community.

With equal parts humor and sobering statistics, Canada told a room full of about 650 people at the Radisson downtown that the nation’s future is in peril if the way children are educated is not improved and educators are not asked to become innovators.

"I love this country. And if you love America, and you see what’s going on, you feel like somebody has to do something," Canada says. "If we continue to go in this direction we will destroy the nation. As a nation, we have made some decisions that are flat wrong. We’ve decided that some folks are not going to get educated: poor children, our most disadvantaged. They all are failing everywhere in America."

To those who believe Canada is exaggerating the matter, he points to the change job environment across the country. He says the time in the nation’s history when a person with minimal education could get a "halfway decent job. Those days are so over, and those jobs are never coming back."

"We have a real crisis in this country and if you look at the numbers they ought to give you pause. The number of children whose families receive what we used to call food stamps, children who are living in utter poverty, is 20 percent," Canada says.

Unemployment is 30 to 40 percent and as high as 75 percent among black males in some communities.

"This has been going on for a long time and the strategy has been when you don’t get educated, when guys drop out, and can’t get jobs, they break the law and are put in jail," Canada says. "That’s our strategy. We have the highest per capita incarceration rate of any place on the face of the Earth. No place even comes close to us."

In 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports more than 7.2 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at yearend  -- 3.1 percent of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 32 adults. "We’re investing in jails and prisons," Canada says, "and we can’t afford it as a nation."

Canada says if children are our future and we can’t afford to invest in our children you don’t have to do the math to quickly figure out we are not going to have a future.

As further proof of just how serious the situation is, Canada points to a report by the top generals in the all the military forces: "Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve."  The report says 75 percent of the young people in this country cannot qualify for military service either because they have not graduated from high school, they have graduated but can’t pass the military entrance exam, they have criminal records or due to obesity, asthma or other diseases they are not physically fit to serve.

"This is a national calamity. Our kids are in real trouble and we think someone else is going to solve this problem," Canada says. "Huge numbers of our children are failing. We are spending money on failure. We think, 'there are people who are not going to let America go down. They know what to do.' Over the last 10 years, I've met a few presidents, a few secretaries of education, a few secretaries of labor, directors of domestic policy. There is no plan. They do not know. When I meet these folks, they say to me, 'Geoff, what do you think we ought to do?' I say, 'You’re asking me?' If you want to save your kids, you have to do it."

The room broke into applause when he said it is time to "put the interests of children above every other interest," though he cautions it’s easier said than done as he has experienced with his work in New York.

The Harlem Children’s Zone was created, he says, because no one else was going to save Harlem.

The zone is a 100-block laboratory in central Harlem where he tests ideas about how to help children achieve. Today it serves more than 10,000 children. He’s concluded if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in the lives -- their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents.

His work started out with a single block, bringing in a range of support services to address problems that poor families were facing, everything from crumbling apartments, to violent crime to chronic health problems. Programs were evaluated to see if they were meeting their objectives and if they weren’t they were eliminated.

Children are followed from birth through college graduation with programs like Baby College, workshops on how to interact with infants; Harlem Gems, a pre-school program designed to get children ready for kindergarten, a charter school program and health programs. They also work with children who are attending public schools. It’s what Canada describes as "whatever it takes" to successfully educate children.

For children in the Harlem Children’s Zone, the goal is always college graduation, rather than pursuit of options for vocational education. "When in doubt, do what the rich people do. You never hear a rich person say, 'I have three children, one goes to Harvard, one to Yale and one to hairdressing school.' You never hear that," he says. "All rich people have one ambition for their children -- to go to college. If you prepare kids equally the kids sort themselves out."

For children to be ready for college they have to stay in school and graduate, he says.

"We believe the way to do that is to take care of their health needs; we have arts, sports and culture for our kids. If they need them there are social workers and counselors. When people ask how much that costs we tell them honestly: It is $5,000 per child on top of education."

The next comment from the person who asked about the cost of the programs, typically is that those services cannot be a model for other schools because it is too expensive and is "not scaleable." Meanwhile, Canada says, the nation's judges never tell the convicted young person before them that they cannot be sent to prison, because the cost a prison stay is “not scaleable.”

Canada's theory is that spending that money upfront can prevent the need to spend $39,000 to keep a person in prison. And in the end, instead of having a person who is not contributing to society, you have a person who can get a job, pay taxes and serve in the community.

As the country wrestles with how to handle the national budget, Canada has his own ideas. "If I were president everything would be on the table -- tax cuts, wars, social security -- except for our investment to prepare the next generation. Instead we are putting nothing on the table except children. I know it will destroy this country as surely as I am standing here."

The key to the future is schools that work, he says. Studies show that during the summer poor children go backward, so school needs to go all year and the school day lengthened. "The question is how do we give kids enough time to be successful?" he asks. "How do we do it if we don’t extend the school day and school year? What do we want to invest in? What do we want to fight for? We don’t have honest discussions about these issues."

He also is a proponent of getting rid of teachers who cannot teach and says that it is up to adults to take responsibility if children are failing.

He recently addressed a group of business people on Mackinac Island about these issues and found business people are beginning to understand the need to do the work to see children successfully educated so they can become productive citizens.  

In response to a question from the audience on how to instill the value of high standards for students, Canada said the work may take 20 years: "It may take a generation. But places can change block by block. Success breeds success. Part of it is a sense that it can be done."

His success has led to transformation in a community where once homes could not be given away. Now, he says, they may sell for $900,000 to $1 million.

"No one thought it could work," Canada says. "That’s part of the message. Hope is as infectious as despair."

He told the crowd there is not a single place in the country that a school district has seen a drastic improvement in education for its children living in poverty. His final challenge: "Be the first place in America to do it."

What happens next?

Carrie Pickett-Erway, Vice President of Community Investment for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, says she believes a number of individuals took Canada’s challenge personally and the community will see them "stepping forward in a meaningful way."

Pickett-Erway says she does not necessarily see a replication of the Harlem Children’s Zone model as the solution for Kalamazoo, because each community is different. But much of the work being done there needs to be done here as well. One of the differences is when Canada started out there was no infrastructure, while Kalamazoo has many nonprofits working to help young people.

The task in the future will be to make sure they are aligned with the needs of successfully educating children, Pickett-Erway says. The Learning Network, of which the foundation is a member, also will be looking at the many nonprofit organizations now at work to identify gaps that need to be filled in order for children to succeed.

"One of Mr. Canada’s most important points is that this is a generation of work," Pickett-Erway says. "There are no easy fixes and this is really hard work. Given that, we have to keep at it, dig deeper, and try harder. We believe Kalamazoo has the tenacity and ability to persevere for our grandchildren."

Kathy Jennings is the Editor of Second Wave Media. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos courtesy of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, by Jessica Aguilera.

Geoffrey Canada answers questions from members of the community before his local address on the need for education reform.

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