After 24 years as the chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), Geoffrey Canada is stepping down.
An educator, social activist and charter school advocate, Canada, 62, has been known for his work on education reform and his work serving children and families in the Harlem section of New York City.
Canada gained attention for the “cradle-to-college” social, educational and medical services offered by the HCZ, which covers over 100 blocks, and includes a preschool program, parenting classes and network of three charter schools serving over 12,300 students and 12,400 adults.
The goal of the nonprofit organization has been to break the cycle of poverty by providing a safety net for children throughout the targeted neighborhoods.
The New York Times Magazine called the Harlem Children’s Zone “one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time,” and Canada has touted its 95 percent college acceptance rate among its high school seniors. A new $100-million Promise Academy school was completed last year.
Further, Canada was featured in the 2010 film Waiting for Superman, which focused on the challenges facing public education in the U.S., and offered charter schools as an alternative for children. “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist,” Canada said in the film. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because there was no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
Moreover, in 2009 President Obama announced his plan to replicate the HCZ model in 20 cities. In January, the president announced the first five Promise Zones based in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio, southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
Despite the successes and his own celebrity status, Canada and the HCZ have faced criticism.
For example, opponents of education privatization have held charter schools responsible for funneling resources and children away from public schools. “I have been heartbroken as I have watched generations of black and Latino students failed by our public school system, then descend into unemployment, drugs, crime and, often, untimely deaths,” Canada said in The New York Times. “This has been going on since I was a public-school child myself in the South Bronx in the 1960s, so I am baffled that the opponents of charter public schools claim that charters caused this problem.”
Canada and others have been cited for condemning the public schools and blaming the teachers unions for the decline of public education, while the HCZ head has earned a $400,000 salary and his nonprofit has benefitted from billionaire philanthropy. HCZ has assets of over $200 million, and with revenue last year of nearly $100 million, there’s no shortage of financial resources, advantages which the public schools lack, critics say.
Mark Naison, professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s urban studies program, is wary of what he calls Canada’s “tunnel vision” in his grim portrayal of growing up in the Bronx, and of inner-city public education. Naison notes that while Canada claims the private sector would never tolerate the failure seen in failing public schools, he believes Canada has failed to examine the role of business in the decline of America’s inner city neighborhoods.
“While public schools in these communities remained open, factories shut own, banks closed their doors, insurance companies and banks redlined the areas, landlords abandoned and burned properties, and whole business districts disappeared. In many cases, it was neighborhood public schools, hard pressed and occasionally disorderly as they were…were the one place where young people could find support and inspiration when they were abandoned by private capital, and savaged by government cutbacks,” Naison said.
“To now hold these very same public schools up to scrutiny as failures in an otherwise successful society can only be done by erasing what has happened in inner-city America in the last 40 years. Global economic trends, coupled with government policies which siphoned wealth upward, destabilized and in some instances destroyed inner-city neighborhoods, not teachers unions and poorly run public schools,” he added.
Most charter schools do not outperform public schools, and only 1 in 5 charter schools are highly successful. Despite the resources of the Harlem Children’s Zone and their portrayal as a miracle success story, its schools have faced challenges. In 2010, 60 percent of fourth graders in one HCZ school and 50 percent in the other were not proficient in reading.
In addition, while Canada boasted a 100 percent graduation rate for his charter schools in a TED talk, there was a 36 percent dropout rate, or a 64 percent graduation rate, based on available data.
According to Dianne Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and a former U.S. Assistant secretary of Education, on two occasions Canada expelled an entire class of children because “their persistently low test scores embarrassed the bankers and lawyers on his board.”
“When I debated Geoffrey Canada at Education Nation in 2011, I asked him why he kicked out the class, and he denied it. He said that he had closed the school because its performance was not good enough,” Ravitch said on her blog. “That won him a round of applause from the sympathetic audience, but I knew he had not closed the school…. He fired the eighth graders in May, when it was difficult for them to find high schools that had room for them in New York City’s choice system.”
Further, some studies have even cast doubt on the benefits of the HCZ method of providing social services to children in need. A paper in the American Economic Journal from Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer finds that success of HCZ comes from the school and not the social services provided. Similarly, a study from Brookings researchers Grover (Russ) Whitehurst and Michelle Croft concludes the HCZ Promise Academy has not increased test scores as high as other charter schools that did offer social services to its similarly disadvantaged school body.
“We have made huge strides in changing the odds for our kids and have achieved milestones no one thought possible,” Canada said in a press statement. “As the model for the nation, our work has tremendous stakes–and there is so much more to be done.”
Replacing Canada will be Anne Williams-Isom, who is currently the chief operating officer of HCZ. Canada will remain as president of the nonprofit board.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove