Review of “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” by Paul Tough

This book describes a radical approach to the problem of educating underprivileged students, and the one endorsed by President Obama: The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

The author, who covered the project’s first five years for the New York Times Magazine, thoroughly documents the nature of poverty in black America to give readers a sense of what founder HCZ Founder Geoffrey Canada was up against. While this book is rigorously researched, it does not read like a sociological treatise. Rather, it is engrossing and engaging, and has you rooting not only for Geoffrey Canada but also for the people of Harlem who so generously shared their struggles with the author.

In 1999, Geoffrey Canada began planning a poverty-fighting project that would cover the twenty-four-block zone of central Harlem (eventually expanded to a ninety-seven block area) with the biggest problems: crushing poverty, unemployment, crime, high homicide rates, young single parents, bad schools, and children who were for the most part doomed to failure.

The statistics of the HCZ were grim. More than 60% of children lived below the poverty line, and three-quarters of them scored below grade level in reading and math. Tough writes:

The average white family in Manhattan with children under five … had an annual income of $284,000, while their black counterparts made an average of $31,000. Growing up in New York wasn’t just an uneven playing field anymore. It was like two separate sporting events.”

Canada’s idea was to create a safety net for these children, to save them from more poverty, from prisons, or even an early death. He started with a third grade, and was shocked and overwhelmed to see all the parents who swamped the auditorium in Harlem for the first lottery drawing to reserve a space in “The Promise Academy.” One of the most stirring passages in this book is the speech made by a friend of Canada’s, the Reverend Alfonso Wyatt, to these Harlem parents:

I want to tell you something that maybe you don’t know. … The people who run prisons in this country are looking at our third-graders. They look at their test scores each year to begin to predict how many prison cells will be needed twenty years from now. … And so I want the people in this house to tell them: You will not have our children!… ‘Let me hear somebody say it,’ Wyatt called out, and he led the crowd in a chant: ‘You! Will! Not! Have! Our! Children!’”

Canada wanted these kids to have the same chances as the kids in Manhattan. But his goal was daunting. Researchers found the dysfunction of ghetto families to be the result of generations of discrimination, isolation, and cultural decay. As a result, ghetto residents tend not to qualify for many jobs in the modern economy that require high levels of education and technical expertise, and the lethal vortex of poverty continues to hold them in its grasp.

Most importantly from Canada’s standpoint, decades of study reveal that the difference in academic achievement begins very early – before kindergarten! Tough reports:

By middle school, the gap between avid readers and reluctant readers has grown into a chasm.”

Much of the gap stems from the depth of exposure to language: not only is the number of words the child hears important, but the kind of words and statements (“encouragements” versus “discouragements”) as well.

Cognitive skills have a complement in non-cognitive skills (also lacking in the poor) that also confer advantages in both education and in the job market. These include: the confidence to deal with institutions, authorities, and situations; patience; persistence; ability to follow instructions; ability to delay gratification; and the sense of entitlement that comes from positive parental involvement in both children’s education and in activities and recreations. Training for both kinds of skills is an integral part of The Promise Academy.

Canada with Students from the Promise Academy

In sum, to change the trajectory of a poor child in an inner-city neighborhood, research shows you need to do the following:

1. intervene early in the child’s life
2. continue to intervene throughout adolescence
3. give him extra time in school and extra support outside of school
4. involve his parents if possible but be prepared to compensate for their absence
5. focus on improving his cognitive skills but also nurture his non-cognitive, social, and emotional skills

Finding that advantages as well as disadvantages accumulate, Canada decided – when he was finally able to expand – to begin his program with a “Baby College” for prospective parents. From there, kids went to the Three-Year-Old Journey, then Harlem Gems prekindergarten, and then on to the Promise Academy. Canada called this the conveyor-belt approach:

“The way Canada sees it, the middle-class children he wants Harlem’s kids to compete with are surrounded by a cocoon of support – educational support, emotional support, medical support – that starts at birth and never stops.”

Geoffrey Canada

He describes his project’s aims using a basic principle of Newtonian physics: what he wants to do is build enough positive momentum so that kids can escape the downward spiral of poverty in Harlem and reach “escape velocity.” What he does not want to do, however – and here is how he differs from KIPP – is to strip the kids of the good aspects of their black or Spanish cultures. Rather, he wants to “contaminate” Harlem with positives and combine the best of both worlds. [The Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP is a nationwide network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States. KIPP schools are usually established under state charter school laws.]

Canada emphasizes that one could say the desire to help the poor has nothing to do with “morality.” In fact, he avers, is in the country’s best interest to help these kids: it will save money on the costs of social programs for the poor, and add tax money from more workers.

Fittingly, the book ends with the creed that the students of the Promise Academy recite:

I promise to always dream out loud, to lift my head and be proud. And never end up a face in the crowd.”

Note: As of the author’s writing in June, 2009, Congress had not approved the White House’s request for planning grants to go to community-based non-profits interested in applying to start a Promise Neighborhood.

Evaluation: I have always been interested in the enduring problem of poverty, as well as the challenges of education. If either or both of these subjects interest you, I believe you will find this book quite rewarding.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008

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