It costs $5,000 plus academic expenses to support a child for a year in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit organization working to break the cycle of poverty through educational and social support programs. While the project’s size may make the cost seem unrealistically high the program serves 11,000 children living in a 100-block region of Harlem it is a small price for the intelligent, optimistic citizens that HCZ produces, Canada said in a lecture on Monday afternoon.
“We’ve decided we’re not going to educate some folk, and when those folk can’t get jobs and break the law we’ll put them in jail,” Canada said. “We’ve created a country that is locking up more people than any country on the face of the Earth.”
Incarceration of young Americans costs the country billions of dollars, as it costs $37,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison, Canada said. He added that this money would be better invested in children’s early education.
“Here’s what you get for my $5,000 for infants I have my parents learning about brain development,” he said. “I keep those kids on track through elementary school, through middle school and through high school.”
HCZ which was featured in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman” uses a comprehensive approach to education reform that provides resources to children and their families at each stage of their development, from infancy through college graduation, Canada explained. Although the majority of children living in the region encompassed by HCZ attend public schools, families have the option of sending their children to one of three Promise Academy charter schools opened by Canada. All children and their families who live in the Zone including those enrolled in public schools can participate in after school programs ranging from educational pre-college advising classes to recreational salsa dance classes.
“We’re not trying to save a couple hundred students,” Canada said. “We’re trying to change the way a community raises its children.”
Students at HCZ have access to social, family and mental and physical health support, he said.
“I make sure that they go to college,” Canada said. “What do you get with the $37,000 [spent per prison inmate]? Absolutely nothing.”
Canada’s HCZ has received national attention since it was featured in “Waiting for Superman,” which was released in October 2010. The film criticized the American public education system and the greed of the American Federation of Teachers.
Since a qualified teacher accounts for 75 percent of a child’s educational success, Canada hires and assesses teachers based on their effectiveness rather than their seniority, he said.
Canada emphasized that if bad teachers cannot be fired, they should be sent to upper-middle class neighborhoods where students have the support systems in place to endure one year of “lousy” teaching.
“I fundamentally believe that if you teach and you can’t teach, then you should probably find another job,” Canada said. “Because you know what happens if you’re poor and you have a teacher that can’t teach? Your life is destroyed.”
Despite “Waiting for Superman’s” message, Canada said he does not oppose all teachers’ unions, but added that unions often serve as impediments to innovation.
“Unions should be making sure that teachers can get proper pay they should be leading the way to change,” Canada said. “They are subtly resisting change when they should be leading the way with this stuff.”
Educators’ fear of trying something that seems “silly” has caused them to continue using ineffective teaching methods, he said.
Although Canada acknowledged that his techniques are innovative, he said his measure of success is simple whether or not a student graduates from college.
“Rich people have only one set of expectations for their kids – college,” Canada said. “Dartmouth. Princeton. Hairdresser school? Never heard of it.”
He emphasized the importance of optimism to a child’s future success.
“Part of our mission is to keep young people believing they can be successful,” Canada said. “Human beings who see the cup as half full are much more resilient than those who see it half empty.”
Whether in a rural environment like Hanover or an urban setting like Harlem, a successful school has five key attributes: It fosters a sense of community among children and adults, makes a “pipeline of services” available to students at every stage in their development, is designed to help all students in an area rather than only a few, uses data “in real time” and holds teachers accountable for the success of their students, Canada explained.
“People are constantly pushing back on this notion that poor kids can achieve high levels,” Canada said. “I don’t think there’s any debate at all in the end, fundamentally, these kids can make it.”
Canada stressed that undercutting the country’s youth is a “fail strategy” that will ultimately place the United States behind its global competitors.
“We’re competing against the best and brightest around the world,” he said. “It’s not about how much oil you have in the ground anymore it’s about how many engineers, how many doctors, how many scientists you can produce.”
Canada’s lecture, titled “Speaking Out for Children,” took place in Spaulding Auditorium and was sponsored by the Dartmouth Center Forum and the Tucker Foundation.