Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America First Edition, Kindle Edition

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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 The Washington Post

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Donna Foote Three questions lie at the heart of Paul Tough's important new book. Why are poor people poor? Why do they stay poor? And what would it take to get them out of poverty? Theories about the causes of lasting poverty and cures for the problem have long fueled debate and wide public policy swings. Throughout, generations of a disenfranchised underclass have remained stuck in a cycle of perpetual penury. Enter Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic black man on a mission to deliver his people. Born in 1952 to a single welfare mother of four, Canada defied the odds, finding his way out of a South Bronx tenement and into a single-family house in the burbs. He has made it his life's work to enable others to do the same. But as president of a nonprofit that ran a handful of youth programs, he found his reach limited and the effects of his efforts often short-lived. That got him thinking about what it would really take to get Harlem's poor children into the mainstream. Canada came up with a social experiment so radical and potentially transforming that Barack Obama has promised a "few billion dollars a year" to replicate it in 20 cities should he become president. Canada's idea: Instead of offering discrete programs to ameliorate certain aspects of poverty, he would do it all. He would create a safety net so tightly knit and widely spread that not only would it prevent an entire community of kids from falling through, it would actually propel them out of poverty. In fact, the net would be a continuous series of integrated interventions beginning with pre-natal parenting classes and intensive early childhood programs up to college. More than anything else, the poverty-busting project would imbue poor black children and their families with solid, middle-class values that would become contagious. "If we touch enough kids at the same time with the same message, then it won't seem unusual to think, 'I should do well in school, I should speak proper English, I should do my homework,' " reasoned Canada. Without Canada's bona fides, the plan could have easily been dismissed as cultural imperialism. But coming from him, a program to develop the cultural mindset by which poor black kids could acquire the same attitudes and cognitive skills as their more privileged and successful peers made sense to the community and wealthy backers. Canada called his crusade the Harlem Children's Zone and chose a 24-block section of Harlem as his laboratory. Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, began tracking the effort in 2003. The result is Whatever It Takes, a you-are-there recording of the project's development, amazing growth and potential promise -- and an informed primer on the correlation between race, poverty and the achievement gap in America. This is a serious book about a pressing issue, but Tough manages to make it an easy read with a cast of sympathetic characters. Eager students in the Zone's Baby College, a nine-week parenting course, include Victor Boria, a high school dropout with a criminal record, and Shauntel Jones, a 32-year-old expectant mom whose other children have been taken away from her by the city's child welfare agency. The benefactor who keeps the belt running is Stanley Druckenmiller, a quiet Wall Street honcho and registered Republican. But in this fast-paced narrative of trial and triumph, the undisputed hero is Canada. The dramatic tension in the book derives from the problems plaguing urban education. A few years into the project, when he realized that crummy local schools were a major snag in his net, Canada opened his own charter school called Promise Academy. He started the elementary school with two grades: kindergarten and sixth. As each class advanced, he intended to add a grade until the school spanned grades K-12. Though he believed that closing the achievement gap required a wholesale change of the environment in which poverty breeds, he also embraced the outcomes-based, no-excuses approach of education reformers like KIPP, the successful charter-school chain that insists that schools must compensate for the disadvantages of dysfunctional families and lousy neighborhoods. "I'm for vouchers, I'm for charter schools -- I'm for anything that blows up the status quo," Canada tells the author. To the parents who show up for the lottery that will determine which lucky few get a spot in his new charter, he says: "If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. We're not going to say, 'The child failed because they came from a home with only one parent.' " Three years later, Canada had to eat his words when the inaugural sixth grade class failed to achieve the academic results he had expected of them in eighth grade. The ultimate pragmatist, he put the school's expansion into high school on hold, leaving angry parents scrambling to find new schools for their dejected children. Missing from the book is a clear explication of what went wrong. Students in the lower grades at Promise Academy appeared to thrive, validating research that indicates the importance of early intervention. But the middle school, despite huge investments of time, energy and resources, suffered from the high rates of teacher turnover and student attrition endemic to urban education. Canada placed the blame on teachers; the staff pointed to parents and students. We don't know how this story will end. Time will tell if Geoffrey Canada has hit on what it will take to break the cycle of poverty in America. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the Harlem Children's Zone -- about the power of an idea, the role culture plays in student achievement, accountability, the indomitable human spirit. This book should be on every policymaker's reading list.
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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