Can An Idea Truly Be Replicated? A Look into The Harlem Children’s Zone

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Public Education in the United States is not a perfect system. Reformers over time have tried to figure out the problems that correlate between poverty and education, but have yet to find the perfect solution. In the 1990s a dedicated New York City educator named Geoffrey Canada decided to create an intensive educational program to tackle poverty in Harlem, New York. Today, it is known as the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), and it includes its own charter schools, extensive social programs outside of school, and different forms of counseling. The idea of the Harlem Children’s Zone can be traced back to Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative from the 1960s (Dyson). Johnson believed in creating social welfare programs to link education, health and community to fix systemic issues of poverty. Poverty in the United States dropped to 11% under the Johnson administration, but they did not end poverty for good. Communities in the United States were still suffering from the never-ending cycle of poverty and lack of educational opportunities. Canada identified the root of these issues of lack of support and guidance for children. He believed that if he could break the cycle of poverty at the beginning of these kids’ lives, more kids would stay in school and out of trouble.

Canada’s model has come to be known as the cradle to college pipeline, or conveyor-belt strategy, and it has been very successful in helping the children in Harlem get a proper education and go onto college. When the Obama administration came to office they pledged to use Canada’s extensive model as a template for how to fix the education in other high poverty areas in the United States, Obama would call this the Promise Neighborhood Initiative, he said, “if poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community” (Tough 265). What challenges and opportunities have districts faced when they received federal funding to implement the Harlem Children’s Zone model?

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) model works because it is an infectious, contagious disease of hard work and positivity. Research shows that in order to fix poverty in America through education, it has to be a complete systemic change (Dyson). The reason HCZ worked and was able to spread its model for success around the country, was because it went beyond just education and fixed systemic family and community issues. Social scientists found that coming from a supportive, nurturing home gave children the success they needed to stay in school (Tough). However, not all cities or districts are the same. Even though different districts took on the Harlem Children’s Zone model, the outcomes were different. I looked at two districts in the United States with different demographics and socioeconomic statuses. Fresno, California was granted funding to use towards an already existing program, while the city of Cleveland Ohio used the HCZ model to start a new social program in the Central Cleveland area. From my research it is evident that the Harlem Children’s Zone model is working, but different cities will never have the same experience due to existing challenges, varying funding and community support.

The HCZ model has different programs and levels of schooling that focus on all ages to ensure success. Canada’s plan started before children were even born and followed their lives until they would eventually be accepted into college, this is known as the cradle to college pipeline. Canada began with the creation of Baby College, a program to properly educate new parents on how to stay smart during pregnancy and what they could expect with having a newborn. Then after Baby College the children would gradate to the three year old journey, then onto Harlem gems, and then finally to Canada’s charter school: Promise Academy. Canada’s charter school had strict rules, long hours, and the best teachers he could find. School culture has been a debated topic on the success or failure of low-income schools, for Canada, his school culture was not up for discussion. New York Times journalist Paul Tough comments on Canada’s beliefs in his book, Whatever it Takes, he writes, “but from the very first days of life, the middle-class children received extra stimulation and support, an ever-present helping hand that allowed them to develop and hone exactly those skills that they would need to succeed in school and as adults” (Tough 52). This quote shows Canada’s main thinking and inspiration for the HCZ, the idea was that in order to fix the problem with education, you had to fix everything else too. This included after school activities, parenting at home, and any other time the child was not in school. Then presidential candidate Barak Obama wanted to spread this inclusive, contagious model across the country in order to solve all issues with poverty and education, this idea became the Promise Neighborhoods.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood website outlines the goals of Promise Neighborhoods and how different cities can execute them. Their core goals are meant to affect the entire community and promote help and inclusion amongst members. At the beginning Promise Neighborhoods started assigning one-year, $500,000 grants to high poverty neighborhoods. These grants were to be used for educational, health and social change amongst the communities. The grants were given out on a point system and it was extremely competitive. The categories for the system range from quality of their project design to the geographic description and status of the current area. The neighborhoods that were granted the money scored almost perfectly in all areas, proving just how badly these areas needed help and to make a change (U.S Department of Education).

Fresno, California, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, was awarded the Promise Neighborhood Grant money in 2011. The median income for residents in Fresno is $14,212 and over 66% of the community has not graduated from high school ( The Promise Neighborhood program in Fresno is called, Reading and Beyond. The organization first started in 1998 when members of First Covenant Church came together to help children in the community who were struggling to read. The Fresno community recognized the needs and issues of children early on, and they started to build a strong platform of support to make change possible. The federal Promise Neighborhood grants were given to unique districts across the country, Fresno’s grant was used to support an already existing community with a strong base and large support network. This was not the case for all grant recipients, depending on the status of the community at the time the grant was given, heavily effected the outcome and results of the program.

Today, Reading and Beyond is a similar program to the HCZ which focuses on cradle to college support. They target entire families to build the proper framework and to help children receive the support they need at home, as well as in school. For example, Reading and Beyond provides six child care locations around the city to ensure children are constantly getting the attention they need when parents are at work. Reading and Beyond also provides in-home visits to help families communicate and make the best possible change with their guidance ( The executive director of Reading and Beyond, Luis Santana, was quoted saying this in regards to the Promise Neighborhoods grant, “This fund will not solve all of our problems. However, it will give us the resources to develop a 10-year plan for the for the Lowell/Jefferson/Webster neighborhood” (Business Journal 2010). Both Santana and Canada understand that this change will not happen over night. Santana recognizes that there is still a lot of work to be done in Fresno, poverty has not been entirely abolished.

Reading and Beyond gives families a positive example, as well as equally important hope to be able to overcome issues with poverty that are deeply affected by lack of education. Author Tough explains in regards to poverty across America, “the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods… the more significant advantages that middle-class children gain, these researchers argue, come from more elusive process: the language that their parents use, the attitudes towards life that they convey” (Tough 52). Successful programs start from a young age and teach parents about the resources and skills they should use at home. These early steps help create the concrete framework needed for a proper education and success after school. The different programs are helping break the cycle of poverty by teaching low-income families the subconscious secrets of successful middle class family homes.

A different kind of Promise Neighborhood lies in Central Cleveland, Ohio. The city of Cleveland has a large population of African American residents and a reputation of high poverty and crime rates. The Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood’s online website describes, “in 2009, statistics for the Central neighborhood showed that three quarters of the nearly 5,000 children lived in poverty, 66 percent of the residents lived in subsidized or public housing, and the three pre-K through eighth-grade schools were in academic emergency” ( These statistics show how the city was in desperate need of the full community change that then-President Obama was focused on. Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood (CCPN) was denied two times for the Promise Neighborhood grant. Unfortunately they were never officially offered the grant, but they received vast support and advice from the Promise Neighborhood Institute, thus classifying them as a Promise Neighborhood. Margaret Bernstein at The Plain Dealer, a local newspaper in Cleveland, explains that CCPN has significantly less funding for its program than HCZ whose budget exceeds $75 million a year and has two billionaires on their board (Bernstein, A). But, CCPN does not focus on its lack of funding, rather they focus on a cost effective model with the same types of programs that HCZ uses, they call this “collective impact.” This meant that Cleveland wanted to establish cross-sector collaboration, including health, housing and education, to ensure that families were getting all the help they needed.

In a recent New York Times article by Paul Tough, he explains, “when parents get the support they need to create a warm, stable, nurturing environment at home, their children’s stress levels often go down, while their emotional stability and psychological resilience improve” (Tough). Both communities, Cleveland and Harlem, are starting the healing process with entire families, instead of just the students. Tough addresses the fact that a stable family life gives children the continuous care and support they need to be successful and stay in school. However, this goal has not fully impacted all of the parents in Cleveland Central yet. The idea and concept of Promise Neighborhoods is less well-known in Cleveland than in other parts of the country. Most parents do not understand who plans the afterschool activities and school tutoring for their children, and how beneficial it is (Bernstein, A). In another Plain Dealer piece from Margaret Bernstein, she writes, “a movement can’t take hold if it’s not begun from within. At Marion-Sterling, that starts with a team of moms and dads who fan out over the neighboring housing projects to invite parents to school events, hanging invitations on doorknobs when families aren’t home” (Bernstein, B). Parents like Brandy Davis in the Central Cleveland area are mobilizing other mothers and fathers to get involved with their children’s school. There is no excuse not to help, and CCPN provides all the resources needed to take action. Currently only about half of the parents are involved with community and school activities. This shows a flaw in Obama’s plan for Promise Neighborhoods, certain districts are not reaching success at the same speed or with the same amount of funding. Although, CCPN is moving in a positive direction, the lack of parental involvement or interest shows that no idea or model can ever be exactly replicated in a new environment. There are many outside factors that contribute to the success of a program, not just the amount of funding or the type of model you use.

Author Maurice Dyson argues that just because programs and schools are given money, it does not make them all successful. He writes, “In the quest to replicate success, it becomes paramount to separate fad from fact in order to examine the actual underpinnings that meet the academic needs of high-poverty minority students” (Dyson 725). Dyson goes on to explain the importance of school culture and how this has a bigger effect on students than funding, something Geoffrey Canada defined at the very start of Promise Academy. The most important way for a program like CCPN to succeed, is to provide positive reinforcement and support. Although Promise Neighborhoods across the United States are having different outcomes, they are all working towards a supportive, loving community to inspire success. Through the examples of Fresno, California and Cleveland, Ohio, you can see that Geoffrey Canada’s model is impossible to identically replicate. But, both districts are moving towards the success of HCZ by using their ideas and model. Politicians and supporters need to address specific problems in the areas in order to make our Promise Neighborhoods the most successful they can be.

Work Cited

“About — Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood.” Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Bernstein, Margaret. (A). “Central’s Anti-poverty ‘Promise’ Effort Not Letting Lack of Funding, Name Recognition Deter It: Margaret Bernstein.” The Plain Dealer, 03 June 2012. Web. 01 May 2017.

Bernstein, Margaret. (B). “A Cleveland School Where Parent Engagement Work Is Slowly Taking Hold (gallery and Video): Margaret Bernstein.” The Plain Dealer, 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017.

Dyson, Maurice R. “Promise Zones, Poverty, and the Future of Public Schools: Confronting the Challenges of Socioeconomic Integration & School Culture in High-Poverty Schools.” Michigan State Law Review 2014.3 (2014): 711-736.

“Fresno Nonprofit Receives $500K Academic Grant.” Business Insider., 22 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

“Reading and Beyond | Our Mission.” Http:// Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

“Resources — Promise Neighborhoods.” Home. US Department of Education (ED), 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Tough, Paul. “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 May 2016. Web. 05 May 2017.

Tough, Paul. Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.