America is facing an educational crisis. As the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, no one knows that better than Geoffrey Canada. Geoffrey works every day to help the low-income children in his community work against the odds and make the most of their educational possibility.
Geoffrey's passion for education stems from his own childhood. "My upbringing was very much like that of the children in Harlem that I work with today," he said. "My mother struggled to keep us fed and clothed and on track in school, but the neighborhood was, in many ways, a terrible environment with violence and inadequate schools being the norm."
Even as a child, he realized that this was not an environment fit for children to grow up in. "I vowed that if I ever got out, I would come back and try to help kids like me who had the odds stacked against them," he said. He did exactly what he said he'd do, attending Bowdoin College and then the Harvard School of Education. He went to Harlem in 1983, and began working in the field he still dedicates himself to today. "I was fortunate enough to find other dedicated people who were similarly committed to doing whatever it takes to help poor children educate themselves," he said.
Getting the organization off the ground was not easy. "In the 1990s, our organization [then called Rheedlen] was doing some great work with kids and families, but their success was often derailed," he said. "They might get sick, get evicted or get shot by a stray bullet. We also saw that despite our success with a few kids, we were losing the war to save the community."
Instead of giving up, Geoffrey and his colleagues just worked harder. "We began by addressing as many problems as we could in a single building, then a block," he said. "Eventually [we] created a business plan to expand what we called the Harlem Children's Zone to where we are today at 97 blocks, serving more than 8,800 kids and 6,600 adults."
The HCZ's reach is broad. They start with children as early as possible to ensure that they are able to educate themselves and enter the high-skills job market. "We are trying to level the playing field, so poor kids have the same opportunities to become happy, productive members of society," he said. "We start with kids as early as possible, even working with expectant parents and then support the children through a variety of high-quality programs until they graduate from college."
Geoffrey recently brought HCZ to the national spotlight with his appearance in the documentary Waiting For "Superman". He hopes that people who see the movie will walk away knowing three things: that there is a national crisis in education, that there are ways to fix the problems the system faces, and that the country must work for education reform. "Some people have framed the movie as 'charter schools vs. teachers unions,' but they are missing the larger point," he said. "Virtually our entire public education system needs radical and immediate improvement. We must tackle the challenge of improving traditional public schools, where the overwhelming majority of children are."
Despite the challenges that reform presents to the country, Geoffrey has no doubts about his own role as an educator and a reformer with the Harlem Children's Zone. "I have been here for more than twenty-five years and I still get up each morning excited by the prospect of going to work," he said. "Helping children to reach their potential is a great source of satisfaction. I can't imagine doing anything else with my life."
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