In the 1990s, Geoffrey Canada set out to improve one disinvested block of a Harlem neighborhood as part of a mission to help children and families get out of poverty. The initiative he founded, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), has been so successful that it’s now expanded to a 97-block zone of interconnected neighborhood services, and serves as a model for similar programs in other cities.
In this episode of School’s In, Canada, named one of TIME magazine’s Most Influential People in 2011, joins Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to discuss how wraparound services, including education, wellness, playgroups, and home support, have ensured the continued success of the HCZ and the families it serves.
Getting parents on board is the first step, says Canada. He credits his own mother and her purchase of an encyclopedia set for starting him on his path. “That kind of parental intervention absolutely changed our lives,” he says. “We're sitting in this urban slum; the plaster is falling from the ceilings, nothing is working, and we're reading about Afghanistan.”
To develop one of HCZ’s signature parent-support programs, Baby College, Canada partnered with the famed pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, operating under the principle that parents need more than pamphlets during the crucial first years. Canada was struck that while new research on early childhood development was generating high-profile media coverage around the world, the science had not reached Harlem.
His team posted flyers encouraging parents to attend the first meetings of Baby College, but turnout was slim – until they came up with the idea of giving away free diapers at the sessions. Then, the line went around the block.
Canada recalls his staff members griping that the content of the program wasn’t enough to get parents to attend. “Get over it,” he said. “If they don't show up, we can't help them. Let's just get them there and save your moralizing for another time. Our job is to make sure these parents know what they need to do to protect their children.”
And HCZ provides comprehensive services and education that go far beyond babyhood – from cradle to career, Canada says. “The way you're going to ensure those kids have even a modicum of a chance to be successful is you’ve got to stay with them throughout their whole childhood.”
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