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Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America Reprint Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0547247960
ISBN-10: 0547247966
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description
What would it take?

That was the question that Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children--not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children's Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. His conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives--their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents.

Whatever It Takes is a tour de force of reporting, an inspired portrait not only of Geoffrey Canada but also of the parents and children in Harlem who are struggling to better their lives, often against great odds. Carefully researched and deeply affecting, this is a dispatch from inside the most daring and potentially transformative social experiment of our time.

About the Author
Paul Tough is an editor at the New York Times Magazine and one of America's foremost writers on poverty, education, and the achievement gap. His reporting on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone originally appeared as a Times Magazine cover story. He lives with his wife in New York City.

Questions for Paul Tough

Amazon.com: What makes Geoffrey Canada's approach to educating poor city kids different than the many reforms that have come before?

Tough: Geoff is taking a much more comprehensive approach than earlier reformers. His premise is that kids in neighborhoods like Harlem face so many disadvantages--poorly run schools, poorly educated parents, dangerous streets--that it doesn't make sense to tackle just one or two of those problems and ignore the rest. And so he has created, in the Harlem Children’s Zone, an integrated set of programs that support the neighborhood's children from cradle to college, in school and out of school.

Amazon.com: This is a short book about a long story. How did you find a way to tell the story of such a complicated, long-term transformation?

Tough: When I set out to write this book, my main goal was to tell an engaging story, to find characters and moments and conflicts that would reflect the changes that were going on in Harlem. I wanted to present Geoff Canada more as a protagonist in a drama than as a static subject of a biography. And in that respect, I got lucky in my choice of subject, because during the years I spent reporting on his work, Geoff was in the middle of some major transformations, both personal and organizational. I was also lucky to find a variety of other characters in Harlem, from teachers and administrators to students and parents, who really opened up to me, speaking candidly and eloquently about their own hopes and fears for their children and their futures. With their help, I think I was able to make the book not just an account of some important new ideas in poverty and education, but a human story as well.

Amazon.com: You've spent much of the past five years reporting in Harlem. Beyond the school successes, do you see differences between the parts of the city within the Children's Zone and nearby neighborhoods where the program hasn't expanded yet?

Tough: Harlem as a whole has improved a great deal over the last decade--a process that Geoffrey Canada can take some credit for, though there were plenty of other people and forces that played a role. On a block-by-block level, though, it's not always possible to see the difference between a street that is in the zone and one that's outside of it. The most important changes in the zone are going on out of view, inside schools and apartments and housing projects, where children are, for the first time, learning the skills they need to succeed.

Amazon.com: Barack Obama has said that he would replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 other cities. Have any other organizations begun to follow Canada's model in other places, or are they waiting to see how it goes (or waiting for Obama to be elected)?

Tough: There is a tremendous amount of interest right now in Geoffrey Canada's work among people working in education and philanthropy and social-service non-profits. And there are fledgling zone projects in a handful of cities, all drawing upon the Harlem Children’s Zone to some degree. But there's nothing yet happening on the scale that Obama has proposed. I do think people are waiting to see what Obama does. Will he take the steps necessary to put his replication plan into effect?

Amazon.com: How much of its effectiveness depends on Canada himself? Can you model him, as well as his program?

Tough: He's a unique guy. His personal story--born in poverty in the South Bronx, growing up around drugs and violence, then making it out of the ghetto and winding up at Harvard--was what gave him the passion and the commitment to create the Harlem Children's Zone in the face of numerous obstacles and widespread skepticism. So it's probably true that no one else could have built the first zone. But I think this next stage, the process of expanding the zone model around the country, will require leaders of a different type--people who are passionate about the mission of improving the lives of poor children, of course, but more importantly people who are very focused on results and how to achieve them. Those people may be rare, but they're out there.

Amazon.com: Finally, how are Victor and Cheryl [a young couple who went through the Zone's Baby College in the book] doing?

Tough: They're doing pretty well! They're still struggling with all the issues that most young adults in Harlem struggle with, like finding affordable housing and a decent job. But they're committed to their son, Victor Jr., and to the new parenting techniques they learned in Baby College. They're determined to do whatever it takes to give Victor Jr. a shot at a very different kind of future than they were able to imagine for themselves, growing up.

Questions for Geoffrey Canada

Amazon.com: How do you change the culture of a neighborhood while keeping its local values?

Canada: We are not changing Harlem's culture--we are working to provide an alternative to the toxic popular culture and street culture that glorify violence and anti-social behavior. When you are a scared kid, all this tough-guy stuff is very seductive. We are working with people from the community to provide safe, enriching, and engaging environments for children so they can develop just like their middle-class peers. By encompassing an entire neighborhood, we hope to reach a tipping point where the dominant culture is one that explicitly and implicitly moves children toward success.

Amazon.com: You say in the book, "It is my fundamental belief that the folk who care about public education the most, who really want to see it work, are destroying it." Can you explain what you mean by that? Have you been able to change any of those minds through your work?

Canada: First, let me say that I believe school staff--particularly teachers--perform one of the most important jobs in our country, and many of them are the most dedicated, hard-working professionals I know. I believe it is absolutely scandalous that they are not paid more and given more respect as professionals. That said, I believe our country's education bureaucracy has become calcified and resistant to change--and we are in dire need of change. When education self-interest groups defend practices that get in the way of improving schools for the sake of children, then I am absolutely opposed to them.

I believe that the successes we are having in Harlem are beginning to turn some heads in this country, and making people realize that things are not hopeless--that we adults can improve student achievement at a much-larger scale than we have been doing. It's obvious that the system that got us here is not the one that is going to get us out. So everyone is going to have to re-evaluate their roles, their assumptions and their positions. I think that has begun, but we are not there yet as a country.

Amazon.com: The story in the book ends in the summer of 2007. What has happened in your work, especially at Promise Academy, in the past year?

Canada: This past academic year was very encouraging and it really seemed like the school began to coalesce. The most obvious sign of that were the scores on the citywide math exam at our middle school, which had been the school with the most challenges. This past spring, 97 percent of the eighth graders were at or above grade level. For an area like Harlem, that is incredible, particularly since these were kids that were randomly picked by lottery from the neighborhood, were massively behind, and were with us for just three years. So we are very optimistic about the future of our kids.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

New York Times journalist Tough profiles educational visionary Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone—currently serving more than 7,000 children and encompassing 97 city blocks—represents an audacious effort to end poverty within underserved communities. Canada's radical experiment is predicated upon changing everything in these communities—creating an interlocking web of services targeted at the poorest and least likely to succeed children: establishing programs to prepare and support parents, a demanding k-8 charter school and a range of after-school programs for high school students. Tough adeptly integrates the intensely personal stories of the staff, students and teachers of the Children's Zone with expert opinions and the broiling debates over poverty, race and education. The author's admiration for Canada and his social experiment is obvious yet tempered by journalistic restraint as he summarizes the current understanding of the causes of poverty and academic underperformance—and their remedies. Smoothly narrated, affecting and heartening, this book gives readers a solid look at the problems facing poor communities and their reformers, as well as good cause to be optimistic about the future. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547247966
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547247960
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #26,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," which has been translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists. His first book, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America," was published in 2008. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, where he has written extensively about education, parenting, poverty, and politics. His writing has also appeared in the New Yorker and GQ and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper's Magazine and as a reporter and producer for the public-radio program "This American Life." He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. He lives with his wife and two sons in Montauk, New York.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
... and see what life we can make for our children", a quote by Sitting Bull, embraces the philosophy and vision of outstanding educator, reformer, and leader Geoffrey Canada, creator of the Harlem Children's Zone. Part biography, part call to action, "Whatever it Takes" is a transformative book of the highest order, one that challenges, inspires, and calls people to do what's best for our children.

Author Paul Tough writes a compelling and highly readable story of Geoffrey Canada's struggle from social service agency manager to this hugely comprehensive program designed to hold students in a web of great education and accountability until they enter college. Frustrated by seeing too many students who were in need of help and not receiving it, Canada envisioned a dream in which the children would be taken care of, from womb to high school, so that they wouldn't be haggled the by overwhelming needs that often interfered with their development and hence, education. Canada dared to ask the hard what, "What if?", and now, years after asking it, the Harlem Children's Zone is proving it's results.

What's interesting about the book is that Tough doesn't sugar coat anything. The HCZ has had it's ups and down, its issues and celebrations. Canada's philosophical battle with the Promise Academy's first principal Terri Grey, shows the conflicts that arose; two people with the same intentions, disagreeing on the way to go about it. Often, in a book like this, there is a temptation to be upbeat and happy about something new and innovative, probably so as not to give potential critics ammunition to shoot it down. Tough paints its honesty. It's simply refreshing. Dealing with students in poverty comes with no easy answers.
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Format: Hardcover
"Whatever It Takes" is a very good book with some significant limitations that prevent it from becoming a great book.

The book's strengths include the following:

*** It provides some profiles of the challenges facing individuals in poverty in Harlem.
*** It provides an in-depth description of the workings of the Harlem Children's Zone, focusing in particular on its parenting programs and middle school programs.
*** It provides an interesting profile of Geoffrey Canada, the creator and director of the Harlem Children's Zone, who is certainly a fascinating man who deserves the spotlight.
*** It provides a good and user-friendly summary of the research literatures on the influence of parenting practices on how children do in the short-run and long-run, the disparities in parental environment across socioeconomic classes in the U.S., and how quality preschool programs affect how children fare as adults. It also includes some brief but interesting discussions of the KIPP charter school program.

What are the book's limitations?

*** It never provides a real summary of what Geoffrey Canada's vision would cost if implemented on a large scale. What would it really cost for the nation to provide parenting classes, high quality preschool, longer and high quality school years, and high quality after school programs, for all parents and children who need these services? This omission of cost estimates prevents the debate over the merits of Geoffrey Canada's vision from being fully joined in this book.
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Format: Hardcover
The book is an excellent narrative of an inspired yet incomplete effort to transform urban education in a way that seeks to transform a community. It's a thoughtful description of some of the contending philosophies on poverty and education. It dramatically describes the required flexibility and willingness to change course (sometimes effectively and sometimes not) in developing a new model. It reflects the inevitable tensions between the range of stakeholders that a visionary like Canada must manage. I bought 25 copies for the teaching and management staff at our school on the West Side of Chicago--Austin Polytechnical Academy--and eagerly await the discussion.

Dan Swinney, Center for Labor and Community Research
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Format: Hardcover
Everyone should read this book. I suggest listening to the 30 minute radio story before reading. Search for "This American Life" series from National Public Radio. The episode that contains this story is "Going Big" which aired late September, 2008.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This afternoon I was sitting in our church's annual meeting where all of the ministries are reviewed for the members of the church. Our church is an urban church, mostly middle class, mostly white. I had just finished reading "Whatever It Takes" last week. I was struck by the similarity between the programs of our church and those put in place by Mr. Canada. We have the early programs for new and continuing moms (and their husbands), nursery school starting at age 2 1/2, preschool, and myrids of programs for youth up through college. (And of course, beyond.) This is a main line protestant church. What is missing for us is the recruiting program to get into the neighborhood and bring in people to the program who don't know of the nearly free approach to learning about parenting and learning from the ground up. I think the challenge for us is to be willing to become passionate about extending the Harlem Children's Zone Concepts we have taken for granted. We who are in charge of the "White Conveyor Belt" must agressively work to include those in our community who wouldn't naturally know of it. Of course, this population is mostly African-American. One could get passionate about the design of the Harlem Children's Zone on the basis of the excellent read provided by the excellent descriptions provide in this book.
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