ASCD – Geoffrey Canada


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On Saturday at ASCD, Geoffrey Canada was the keynote speaker during the general session.  The theme of his presentation was “Educating the Whole Child” and through this lens he explained his organization, the Harlem Children’s Zone.  The Harlem Children’s Zone consists of a 97-block area in New York City’s Harlem where the community is focused on improving the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.  I originally learned about the Harlem Children’s Zone, HCZ, during an episode of 60 Minutes a few months ago (the video is posted above).  Initially while watching the promo for the HCZ segment I thought, “what an arrogant man.”  However, after watching the actual statement I believed wholeheartedly he was on to something…and something I needed to learn more about.

As many readers know before making my move to the district office I taught 8th grade science at a high-tech middle school.  Demographically, the students at my middle school were not that different that the children of the Harlem Children’s Zone.  Many of these students came from single-parent homes, lived in poverty, and were academically far behind their peers at other middle schools in the same district.  As a teacher I can honestly say that I felt ill-equipped to work at that school.  I knew the system wasn’t working, but I couldn’t exactly identify the solution either.  Many nights I went home emotionally and physically exhausted, convinced my efforts were futile, only to return the next morning unsure of what I should do differently.  I left this school feeling like I never really had the answer.  Since moving the the district office this school has always been my “home” and I have continued to feel connected to the students, teachers, administrators and staff.  When I first saw Canada’s segment on 60 Minutes I felt like I might be learning about the beginning to the answer

According to Canada’s speech at ASCD, the HCZ operates with 5 key elements:

  1. Start Young
  2. As soon as children are born in the 97-block HCZ they are actively prepared to enter school.  Until children are three years of age parents attend “Baby College” where they learn how to create home environments with positive, effective instructional moments based on the science of brain development.  At four years old children start attending school.  For their first year instruction focuses on preparing students for kindergarten by ensuring they will be on grade level.  Classes are taught in Spanish, English, and French, the three most common languages in the HCZ.  Since the inception of this program every single student has entered kindergarten on grade level.  As students move beyond kindergarten the school and its services stay with the student through college.

  3. School as a Community Center
  4. The Harlem Children’s Zone is more than an educational institution.  The school is the heart of the community and on its campus students and families have access to medical and dental care, social workers, recreation, and governmental services.

  5. Accountability – Adults are Held Responsible
  6. In the Harlem Children’s Zone adults are fully responsible for the students’ education and welfare.  Canada described the school as a “no excuses” environment where all adults “do whatever it takes” to help all students succeed.  For example, when students were falling behind the teachers started a Saturday school.  Also, school calendars and teaching assignments have been adjusted to ensure all students succeed.

  7. Safe & Involved Communities
  8. During his speech Canada argued that we cannot have students living in communities where we wouldn’t live.  As a result, he has worked with his teachers, parents, and community groups to help clean up the neighborhood surrounding the Harlem Children’s Zone.  To illustrate his point Canada described a recent Halloween where gang members had threatened to stab children who were out trick-or-treating.  Rather than following his staff’s initial suggestion of closing down the school for the evening to keep everyone safe, Canada worked with his teachers, parents, and community members to have adults out and about in the neighborhood that evening.  Canada explained, “teenagers can’t run our neighborhoods” and “adults need to be in control.”

  9. Data & Evaluation
  10. At the Harlem Children’s Zone data drives everything they do from meeting instructional goals to ensuring students are actually attending school.  Part of the success of the HCZ has come from the ability to collect, read, analyze, and plan based on real-time data.

To close his keynote address Canada discussed three final thoughts for the audience as each of us moves forward in our own schools.  These ideas included:

  1. Opportunities
  2. We need to provide many opportunities for our students to succeed and find their “hooks” into school.  These can include music, the arts, reading certain books, after-school sports, and technology.  Its our responsibility as educators to repeatedly present opportunities to students and find the one thing that will connect a child to education.

  3. Working Both Ends
  4. While we need to help prepare students to enter kindergarten on grade level we also have to work with the students who are currently in our school systems.  We need to connect emotionally and intellectually with these students and “do what ever it takes.”  As Canada described, “we must save the drowners while also preventing future drowning at the same time.”

  5. Thinking Outside the Box
  6. Finally, as educators we must constantly think outside the box.  We have to be willing to try anything to capture students’ attention and interests.  At the Harlem Children’s Zone they have even gone as far as paying students for grades.

Even a few days later I still find myself reflecting on Canada’s speech.  Many districts like mine are struggling with how to most effectively help students of poverty.  As I think about my own experiences working with these students I can’t help but feel that we, are not doing enough.  Often students of poverty attend low-performing schools and with a strong desire to drastically improve test scores these schools tend to focus only on academics.  However, what we really need to do is focus on building relationships not only with the students, but with their community at-large.  The “we” that isn’t doing enough is more that just the school system.  As a larger community we need to find the”hooks” to engage students in learning and help them see the value in getting an education.


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