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Harlem renaissance

A massive project to change the lives of America’s poorest children

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

A massive project to change the lives of America’s poorest children

It’s raining in Harlem this morning — big fat American rain tipping out of the big gray sky, sluicing down the crumbling brownstones, over the awning of the Manna soul food and salad bar (‘we serve oxtail, collard green, candy yam, fried fish, chips and tea’) and on to the corner of 125th street and Madison in an oily pool of such enormity that the word puddle is no good as a description — you’d have to call it a pond.

Each Harlem citizen manages the pond in his own peculiar way. Two gangster-looking guys with hats askew take a traffic-stopping stroll around the outer rim; a man with no legs drives his electric scooter through the middle like a jet-ski. I step up to the edge beside a very small old lady, just as a bus drives past sending a sheet of the evil gloop shooting up the side of the metal-faced kerb and all over me. ‘Whoo-ey!’ says my tiny friend with a grin, ‘You sure got got!’

No fear of getting wetter now, so I take a walk around the block, looking for evidence of the change that’s supposed to be happening round here. Those brownstones you once couldn’t give away are now in demand: crime is going down; property is going up.

The first thing I see is a glimmer of Harlem’s happy past: a painted sign for the Trowel and Square Ballroom, a remnant from the days of Billie Holiday, Bojangles and 80 per cent employment. There’s more evidence of the decades that followed, the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, when half of those jobs were lost and replaced by crime and crack. A notice across on Madison urges passers by to call a local number AND ADOPT A CHILD. Can it be that easy?

Back by the pond, this time on its far shore, there is one hopeful sign: a massive, sleek-looking building calling itself the ‘Promise Academy and Harlem Children’s Zone’. But this isn’t just a sign of regeneration — some say it’s a cause of it. It’s the hub of a project of breathtaking scope which has one burning ambition: to get every child in the ‘Children’s Zone’ into college. The Zone isn’t just this building, it covers around a hundred city blocks. If you stood on the Promise Academy roof, and the view wasn’t obscured by sheet rain, you could see how far it stretches, from within shooting distance of central park in the south, right up to the Harlem river in the north; it’s an area saturated with programmes for children and their parents: homework clubs, family support groups, fitness centres, crèches, literacy classes, kindergartens, schools — everything a Harlem child might need to beat the odds he was born with.

If you were to come down from the roof a couple of floors, you might find yourself, as I do, in a room with Mr Geoffrey Canada, the Zone’s tsar; the man behind this enormous plan. And you’d be impressed not just by his project but by his presence. Canada is 59 but still lean and tall, with the same easy charisma as his friend Obama, plus the hint of a harder edge — maybe honed in his youth on the mean streets of the south Bronx, or maybe in later years on Wall Street, persuading cash out of NYC Wasps. He’s dapper — grey suit, gold cufflinks — but even if you didn’t know that he was a black belt in tae kwon do, you still wouldn’t want to take the mickey.

Right now he’s flanked by flip charts and maps (there’s one covered with stickers showing where last year’s Zone grads are at college). And he’s talking passionately about what he calls ‘his kids’, which means not just the 1,200 lucky few enrolled in his own two schools, the ‘Promise Academies’, but all the other 10,000 or so children in the Zone. In the past, social reformers have talked sorrowfully of a pernicious ‘pipeline’ here, from cradle to prison, but Canada and his team have created, he says, another pipeline: from cradle to college — a linked series of programmes and schools designed to help each child escape a life dominated by the drug trade, and most likely an early death. Canada has an audience of about 15 today. One person asks the question we’re all thinking: ‘But won’t you have to keep this pipeline going forever, getting bigger and bigger and more and more expensive?’

‘No,’ says Canada. ‘That’s the beauty of it. If we have enough success stories, then it will create a tipping point and then the whole culture will change. I mean this is not an exact science, it’s just an educated guess, but we think once around 65 per cent of kids in Harlem start to succeed, then all the other kids will want to aim high too. What’s normal will change. The whole district will change!’

As he talks, the scale of his ambition becomes clear. It’s not just about changing lives or even transforming Harlem. It’s also about changing the world’s preconceptions. Do you remember the fuss caused in the mid-1990s by the Bell Curve theory, which claimed that there was a limit to how much poor, lower-class children could achieve, because their IQ was in part dictated by their genes? The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ to friends) has at its heart a steely conviction that there’s nothing at all genetically limited about ghetto kids; that if you give a new generation, right from birth, the same chances and experiences as middle-class kids usually enjoy, they will perform just as well.

‘Yes it’s expensive to start with, of course it’s expensive,’ says Canada, shrugging his shoulders, ‘but it’s worth it. And what I ask people is, “You wanna pay now or later?” If you don’t help them now, these kids will end up committing crimes, in prison, on drugs. And that’s going to cost you a whole lot more.’

This is towards the end of our Canada talk and the little audience are all by now nodding, writing endless notes, or just smiling up at him, eager to signal their enthusiasm. He’s so obviously a force for good; so obviously devoted. It’s easy to see why Oprah has called him ‘an angel from God’; why there’s been a film made about his struggle (Waiting for Superman) and glowing portraits on 60 minutes, ABC, PBS and CNN.

It’s easy to see why, although his country’s pretty broke, Barack Obama has raised a large chunk of cash to try to replicate the HCZ, creating ‘Promise Neighbourhoods’ in 21 cities across the nation. He began rolling out planning grants of $500,000 in September 2010 and has set aside $200 million from this year’s budget. ‘We will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to,’ said Mr President.

Which is terrific in some ways, and a touch anxious-making in others. Of course HCZ is a great thing, but it’s an unfinished experiment, as Canada himself admits. The first kids to have been pushed into the ‘pipeline’ right at the beginning, from baby college (which teaches young parents how to get a baby thinking and not to hit him so much) to Harlem Gems (the HCZ’s intensive pre-kindergarten) are now only ten. It’ll be another decade before we know whether the baby college gang make it to adult college.

But the more hype Canada gets, the more politicians worldwide want a piece of him. It’s as if Canada himself (if not Harlem) has reached a tipping point. There’s even been recent talk in Tory circles about trying to ‘do a HCZ’. Now no one could actually want to replicate HCZ in the UK — it’s tailored especially to solve Harlem problems: gangs, obesity, chronic asthma. But over the course of the day, trotting around Harlem, visiting HCZ programmes, I decide there are some useful lessons here for our coalition friends.

The first, for any Steve Hilton ty
pe dreaming of an HCZ of their own, is not to be a politician. ‘What sort of co-operation or help have you had from government when you were starting out?’ I ask Canada. ‘None,’ says the big man. ‘Politicians only show up after you’re a success. We couldn’t have done anything if we’d asked politicians for help because they’re really interested in hitting targets.’

Nor, I decide, halfway through a tour of Harlem Gems, should anyone get any ideas about HCZ being a ‘Big Society’ project, in which volunteer groups fill the gaping holes left by cuts. This is big bucks, requiring big state and big society too. At the Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten,16 happy four-year-old faces are singing in French, two teachers at the front and two others at the back, each with a Gem wrapped around their legs. That’s a student-teacher ratio of 4–1 and about $13,500 per child — and all just for one tiny portion of the Zone.

Perhaps the toughest lesson our aspiring Canadas can learn is that teachers in the Zone must never, ever put their own happiness before the kids’ success. I’m shown around Promise Academy 2 by the excellent head teacher, all home-cooking on the outside, with a chip of necessary ice in her heart. ‘Oh,’ she says with a cheery squint, ‘we lose between 10 and 15 per cent of our teachers a year. I’m afraid if they’re not up to it, they have to go. The kids are always the priority.’

And just by the by, how many bad teachers do you think have been sacked in England in the past ten years? Answer: 15.

As I get ready to leave PA2, the rain dries up and the sun shines through the windows, picking out bright squares on the linoleum corridors. We look in on a class of eight-year-olds who are reciting the Promise Creed: ‘We will go to college, we will succeed! This is our promise, this is our creed!’ They have red jumpers on and they thump their chests on the word, ‘will’.

Back at HCZ central, the pond has receded, leaving behind a nasty sludge into which someone has dumped a trolley. I watch as a Promise Academy teacher, who clearly doesn’t live very close by, gets out of a shiny car and totters carefully over to the door. Maybe one day, when Harlem is transformed, she’ll move to the hood.

Upstairs, in his office, Geoffrey Canada is hatching even bigger plans. He has just received $60 million from the Department of Education, $20 million from Goldman Sachs and a $6 million gift from Google to start a new Promise Academy on the notorious St Nicholas housing estate in the south of the Zone, and he’s racking his brains to think of ways to make it work. And here’s the final lesson of HCZ. If you’re going to take on the world’s most intractable problem, the divide between the rich and the poor, you can never stop, never claim victory or plead defeat. The only option is to keep forging ahead.

Waiting For "Superman" is available to buy now on DVD.

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