wnyc-news/2011/jan/31/ councilman-vann-harlem- childrens-zone-help-me-help- you/
Harlem Charter School's Merits Called into Question
Monday, January 31, 2011By Beth Fertig
Harlem Children's Zone representatives defend their program at a city council hearing (Beth Fertig)
A nationally celebrated Harlem non-profit whose founder was held up as a powerful education reformer in the documentary "Waiting for Superman" was called into question Monday during a City Council hearing on a study that questioned its effectiveness.
Harlem Children's Zone, which is run by Geoffrey Canada, did about the same as other Harlem charter schools in terms of academic achievement from 2007 to 2009, according to a study released by The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute last year. The City Council held a hearing Monday to discuss its effectiveness.
The Zone funds and operates what founder Canada calls a "pipeline" of social services for low-income families in about a 100-block area. It spends an average of $5,500 per child, thanks to generous funding from corporations (Canada is featured in American Express ads). It also runs two charter schools.
Given HCZ's prominence in New York and President Obama's call for similar "Promise Neighborhoods" around the country, Brooklyn City Councilman Al Vann said he wanted to hold a hearing over concerns raised in the Brookings study.
The federal government has already awarded planning grants to 21 groups that want to create programs similar to the Harlem Children's Zone. Two of them are in New York City: Lutheran Family Health Centers in Brooklyn, and Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem.
Three representatives of the HCZ attended the small hearing, held by Vann's Committee on Community Development, armed with a slideshow demonstrating their program's effectiveness.
The HCZ's Director of Education Research, Kate Shoemaker, told council members that the community programs have led to high rates of childhood immunization and prepared 99.5 percent of participating pre-schoolers for kindergarten. And she challenged the research showing schools are more effective at raising test scores than community programs, an area of national debate given the Obama administration's ambitious goals and limited available funds.
"There's no way, we believe, that supports alone, comprehensive supports alone, in the absence of a strong school will produce the results that we want," Shoemaker said. "In fact, that's why we began our own charter school a few years ago."
The HCZ's Chief Operating Officer, Geoffrey Canada, didn't attend the hearing. But he has taken issue with the Brookings report — stating that it didn't include a long-term look at his participants.
Vann said he wanted to hold the hearing because he worries some congressional representatives may not believe efforts to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone deserve to be fully-funded. President Obama has requested $210 million.
"What would you want us to say to them?" he asked Shoemaker and the two other HCZ representatives who attended the hearing.
"Communities and our children and families are facing multiple challenge and our work to date as a nation has been very siloed and our work to date has not been very coordinated and integrated," Shoemaker responded, adding that coordinated services stand a better chance of success. "That's what we believe it takes to break the cycle of poverty."
There was an awkward moment when Bronx councilwoman Helen Foster asked how many staffers at the Harlem Children's Zone come from its local community. Shoemaker told her 50 percent of her staff is locally hired.
"I'll be very honest," Foster responded to the all-white panel. "When I walked in and looked at the room I thought maybe I misunderstood because Harlem Children's Zone, I thought maybe there would be someone talking to me who looked like the kids and the families that we're saving. And that is still most shocking to me. Because right away I then have to put down my guard of the crunchy, earthy white liberal that's going to come save us from ourselves, and 'Look what we've done.'"
Foster went on, choosing her words carefully, to say "it would be very interesting to have heard from someone that is black or Latino that either has or has not come out of the cycle of poverty talking about a program that I think, an operation, that I think is very important and has results."