A Harlem schools programme shows how education can counter, rather than reinforce, brute-luck disadvantage.
As social divides deepen in advanced countries, some, including France and the United States, bear the brunt more than others. The public-policy agency France Stratégie notes that the hexagon ‘faces significant inequalities of opportunity, especially at both ends of the social distribution’. These inequalities, it says, have ‘weak or negligible’ relationships with age, gender or any migration background, compared with social origin—‘opportunity inequality in France is primarily educational inequality’.
On the other side of the Atlantic, it is increasingly unlikely that Americans move up (or down, for that matter) the wealth scale. Contrary to the rags-to-riches ‘American dream’, their chances even decline with age. The United States is one of the most unequal members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and education plays a major role in this.
To achieve positive outcomes in education for the most vulnerable and ensure social mobility, it is crucial to address all the detrimental consequences of poverty from an early age. The success of a unique initiative, Harlem Children’s Zone, shows this is possible.
The story began in 1970 with a programme in the New York neighbourhood to combat school absenteeism, under the auspices of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. Harlem was plagued by poverty, violence and drugs. Visiting dilapidated buildings where young African Americans appeared more and more disengaged, the programme’s facilitators realised that profound work was needed before real change could occur.
It was not until 1990, however, that Geoffrey Canada, charismatic new president of the Rheedlen Centers, made a pivotal decision. He transformed the organisation into the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).
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In the 1970s, as a Harvard student, Canada had already vowed single-handedly to solve the education problem throughout the US, at a time when student performance was beginning to stagnate. Driven by this ideal, he sought with HCZ to break the cycle of generational poverty transmission in Harlem—hoping to influence the entire country later. Over time, HCZ started to attract the attention of donors and financiers, who have supported its development until today.
Its programmes also draw inspiration from the theories of the Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, who early on analysed the pressure exerted by a globalised economy on impoverished classes, particularly African Americans, and the chain of problems arising from the geographic concentration of the poorest: family dislocation, isolation and so on. To curb this ‘cumulative adversity’ required tackling holistically the multiple dimensions of inequality.
This holistic vision permeates. And in 2019 HCZ established a research institute named after the authority on urban poverty, to share its expertise and provide technical assistance to other institutions eager to replicate its successes.
Fighting the challenges
Today, in a neighbourhood where the poverty rate was 28.4 per cent in 2021 (compared with 18 per cent on average in New York), HCZ prides itself on fighting the challenges poverty generates by supporting children (and their parents) from ‘cradle to career’. It does so through the educational excellence offered by its free-tuition ‘Promise Academy’, but also via its early-childhood-education programme (‘Baby College’), parenting courses, after-school support and free breakfasts. HCZ provides guidance to its students all the way to university, assists in obtaining scholarships, internships or summer jobs, works to prevent delinquency and offers support with health and wellbeing issues.
The Promise Academy is a set of ‘top-performing K-12 charter schools’, from elementary through middle to high schools. In 2019, its students outperformed more privileged white students on New York state mathematics and English tests. By 2022, 930 were enrolled in college, with 166 earning degrees. Over a decade, a total of 1,315 students have obtained a university degree.
At HCZ, high-school scholars can also ready themselves for careers in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and technical arts. This is thanks to the school’s Employment and Technology Center, where ‘scholars learn to use cutting-edge technologies, gain career-ready skills, and grow a network of professional contacts’.
As poverty increases the risk of obesity, under the banner of ‘Healthy Harlem’ HCZ supports healthy eating, knowledge of nutrition and physical activity. It provides targeted interventions for young people who are overweight or obese and fosters a culture of health and wellness across central Harlem. Other services offered by HCZ even include free, on-site help with filing tax returns to community members below a threshold income.
Education at any cost
To operate this initiative, a team of nearly 2,000 people serves 34,590 beneficiaries (about one-third students and two-thirds parents) across 97 blocks in central Harlem. The annual operating budget reaches $100 million. The federal government contributes marginally, ensuring HCZ’s autonomy. By comparison, each New York prison inmate—also disproportionately African-American—costs the city over $500,000 annually.
It favours an education-at-any-cost approach so that, according to the school, its students can achieve ‘everything a middle or upper-class American family would desire for their own children’. A student can enter the ‘pipeline’ at any point, together with his or her family. Even relocating children can receive support in their educational pursuits, securing internships or seeking guidance. Those not enrolled still benefit from various forms of support.
HCZ has served as an inspiration. Using it as a model, during his two presidential terms (2009-17) Barack Obama shaped some 50 ‘Promise Neighborhoods’ in impoverished communities across the US. HCZ has attracted visitors from more than 70 countries. A documentary, ‘Harlem Rising’, even traces the history of the school and its many activities over the years.
Geoffrey Canada may not have solved the education question entirely, but he has certainly set a course.