Harlem Children’s Zone shows us what is possible here

Harlem Children’s Zone shows us what is possible here

Ask me how I’m doing these days and I’ll tell you that I am absolutely filled with awe and teeming with gratitude because I, along with 11 others from the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), just returned from New York City, where we spent three days witnessing the “New Harlem Renaissance”!

Yes, a “New Negro Movement” (named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke) is afoot in Harlem. And what a fitting place — still!

As our shuttle drove down Frederick Douglas Blvd. and coursed by Marcus Garvey Memorial Park, I enviously contemplated the Black Mecca that this part of our country still represents as punctuated by its cultural centers such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Cultural Life, Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the Apollo Theater (not to mention Duke Ellington Circle and the Diana Ross Park I visited). It was amazing!

And most amazing of all is that once again an obsession a dedicated cultivation of Black intellectual and artistic life is evident and being obsessively nurtured, but this time the focus is on the children of Harlem and can be found throughout the 97-block area designated as the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

Started by a visionary named Geofrey Canada, HCZ is a place-based strategy to create a cradle-to-college pipeline for over 10,000 children throughout central Harlem by pioneering a comprehensive community approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Canada’s premise is that if we give poor low-income kids what middle-class kids take for granted — an excellent education, a safe neighborhood, parents who read to them, and medical care — they will succeed in school and in life.

Canada promises that if a family stays with the zone, their children will graduate from college, an audacious proclamation for this community. In the HCZ, 73 percent of the children are born into poverty, 31.5 percent of families have an annual income of less than $15,000, 36 percent of the adults have not completed high school, and 76 percent of the children are born to single mothers. There is a 44-percent obesity rate among HCZ school children and an unemployment rate that is triple that of the city and nation.

While visiting the HCZ, we (NAZ staff and partners from Northside nonprofits, as well as public district and public charter school leaders) witnessed first hand many of HCZ’s various free wraparound programs and services. We also visited and met the leaders of their Promise Academy charter schools, as well as, their senior staff- almost all of whom were African American, incredibly bright, rabidly results-driven and passionate.

HCZ programs and services include Community Pride (a community-driven revitalization and community-building program), Baby College (a nine-week workshop series for parents and caregivers of children 0-3 years old), the Harlem Gems Head Start program, Harlem’s Beacons and after-school programs, Harlem Peacemakers, SMART, (Shaping Minds Around Reading and Technology), TRUCE Fitness and Nutrition Center, and the HCZ Community Center, just to name just a few.

Although the academic achievement of students in HCZ schools has been the subject of recent debate (only 15 percent of sixth graders in one of their schools passed the 2010 state English test), the likelihood that in a short time they will make good on their promise to the families is evidenced by their quick response to the poor performance — revamping their curriculum and firing several teachers while reassigning others — and the undisputed success of their other grades and schools.

In 2008, 100 percent of their third graders in both schools were at or above grade level in math, and 87 percent of their sixth graders scored at grade level or above in math, outperforming the statewide results of only 40 percent. And, HCZ is sending 650 of their high school students on to college, a big feat in light of the fact that most entered high school well below grade level and took years to catch up. Now many are ahead.

The HCZ folks have reported that “since their students spend 10 or more hours at school immersed in the school’s culture of achievement and intellectual growth, many feel that it is ‘cool’ to be smart and firmly believe that they will succeed.”

Ultimately, when it comes to the success of our children and community, what I will keep forever in my mind and, with dozens of partners, replicate here in North Minneapolis is not just the “whatever it takes” attitude of all the folks I met at the HCZ, but also their “and whatever else it takes” posture.

We may never have the HCZ’s $85 million budget, but we don’t need it. Others have done it for less, and we can, too. But we do have, multiplied among all our partners, their talent and skills, collective resolve, tireless commitment, and unflinching focus on real results. We, too, will significantly change the trajectory of our most imperiled children.

During the trip, we witnessed a Harlem Gem’s preschool class named Spellman/Moorhouse — other classes were named after other universities — of 25 low-income, predominantly African American three-year-old children listening and responding to their teacher entirely in French, of which my 44-year-old educated self understood not a word. Afterwards, a school leader passionately asked me, referring to our children in the North Minneapolis Zone, “Sondra, what is really possible?”

I responded, “Everything is possible — everything!”

Sondra Samuels’ “Everything’s Possible” column appears monthly in the MSR. She welcomes reader responses to sondra@citypeace.org.