Paul Tough, a New York Times writer and editor, is one of America’s foremost documenters on poverty, education and the achievement gap.

His book, Whatever It Takes is an inspiring portrait of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a ninety-seven block laboratory in central Harlem, is the site where Canada has conducted one of the most potentially transforming social experiments of our time.

The Harlem Children’s Zone model is geographically based, i.e. it takes place in a neighborhood, which means it has the benefits of all participants and services being local, i.e. within walking distance of each other.

On top of that, the Harlem Children’s Zone utilizes an “intensive conveyor-belt strategy” which includes:  Baby College (a series of parenting workshops for parents of children 0-3), all day pre-kindergarten, the Promise Academy (extended-day charter schools), college admissions and retention services, as well as supplemental family, social service, health and community-building programs. According to Canada, the point of the HCZ has always been, “to weave disparate programs into a seamless whole” (p. 194).

Canada’s “new approach was bold, even grandiose: to transform every aspect of the environment that poor children were growing up in; to change the way their families raised them and the way their schools taught them as well as the character of the neighborhood that surrounded them” (p. 19).

This comprehensive approach emphasizes the need for interventions to extend well beyond schools and begin changing the cultural context of the students’ families and neighborhoods. This is much easier to accomplish in a geographically based and neighborhood based effort.

Thus far evaluations of the Harlem Children’s Zone are hopeful.

Tough (and Canada) base their thinking on research from a variety of fields, including some studies that have previously been summarized in this blog (see Moynihan, Coleman, Hart and Risley, and Lareau).  In summary, Tough argues that the two key advantages middle class children gain are not directly from money, but “come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey,” (p. 52).  Translation: lots of language and lots of supportive nurturing are necessary.

Perhaps this is a hopeful conclusion.  If as Tough states, “…the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods”, then new and creative ways to respond to these circumstances should be available to community activists, parents and reformers.

Tough, Paul. (2008). Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. Part I

Part II of this blog on Whatever it Takes will summarize this research in depth.