August 28th, 2009

In The Zone

It’s hard not to feel positive about Harlem Children’s Zone.  It is by definition a buzzworthy concept, and it feels like a social reform bandwagon that everyone has jumped on, including President Obama.  In a much-quoted campaign speech, then-Senator Obama claimed he wants to replicate the Zone in twenty cities across the United States.  If his presidency sees the realization of that goal, it will really be something to talk about.A dad at baby college

The Harlem Children’s Zone is the brain-baby of Geoffrey Canada, and the subject of journalist Paul Tough’s in-depth reportage in a recent book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.  The basic idea behind Canada’s program is to combat urban poverty through intensive work with children, particularly during early childhood.  Harlem Children’s Zone’s goal is to get each child in a 100-block section of Harlem through college; the idea is that every child will have been in HCZ’s care since before birth.  This kind of holistic, community-wide approach to education reform is touted by many, but Canada’s program is, so far, unique.

Last week, This American Life re-aired a piece on HCZ, produced by Tough before the release of his book.  If you’re looking to get inspired by Canada and his vision, the radio piece is a great introduction to the theory behind the Zone.  Tough hones in on the phase of HCZ’s program called Baby College, where new and expecting parents are trained to think differently about child-rearing.  Over and over, Tough reiterates that the concepts being taught in Baby College are ideas that have proliferated over the past decades among middle- and upper-middle class suburban families.  Tough frames the birth of HCZ as the direct product of Geoffrey Canada’s  mid-life move to the suburbs, where:

…there was a ton of new research on the importance of stimulating your child’s brain early on, and apparently, every parent in the suburbs had heard about these studies, because they were obsessed with preparing their infants.

Canada’s vision, then, is–among other things–to hand down the values of affluent parents and families to families living in poverty:  the parents who attend Baby College are encouraged to read to their children every night, and to reconsider their ideas about corporal punishment.  If all goes as Canada plans, Harlem will produce a generation of high school graduates quite similar–at least in values and training–to today’s suburban teens.  One wonders, given the sometimes dismal vision of suburban affluence portrayed in pop culture by shows like “Laguna Beach,” for instance, what these future citizens will be like.

That said, Canada’s project is quite amazing and deserves all the attention it is getting, and more.

Harlem Children’s Zone
“Harlem Renaissance”
[This American Life, 8/16/09, "Going Big"]

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