THE BLOG
03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harlem's Miracle Man

Geoffrey Canada has been at war with the education status quo ever since his days at P.S. 99 in the South Bronx.

The tracking system there placed Canada in the "smart" class. But his brother wasn't so lucky.

"My brother Dan took his time and thought about things before he spoke," Canada said in an interview with HuffPost. "So people thought he was slow. I spoke immediately, so people said, 'This kid is bright.' Nobody pretended it was anything other than a caste system. Basically, once you were assigned to one of these classes, you stayed there."

Now, more than 50 years later, Canada has developed a cradle-to-college educational formula that may enable thousands of minority children to break the cycle of poverty. He also represents the hopes that educational reformers - and the Obama administration - has invested in charter schools.

The federal government is dangling $4 billion in education grants in front of local school districts to prod them into making changes like expanding the number of charter schools - publicly financed schools that are run by groups outside the system.

Promise Academy, the charter school run by Canada, has gained national renown for its success in educating minority students. In fact, Promise students appear to have achieved the holy grail of public education: closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

"I am hoping that there will be a generation of talented young Americans who will see our work as a starting point," said the 58-year-old black educator. "I'd like to see the spread of this idea of creating comprehensive support for kids that gets them through to the finish line, which is college and a degree."

Promise Academy is part of Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, where more than 10,000 children in central Harlem receive a variety of social and education services.

Canada's formula includes a long school day and year (only three weeks off) for Promise Academy students. Students also get free medical and dental services, as well as a nutritious breakfast and lunch. (Brown bags are banned.) Students who do well can earn incentives that include cash and trips. Canada has striven to attract talented teachers and to remove those who fail to measure up. (Like most charter schools, Promise has no teachers union.)

There is also a pre-kindergarten program and even a "Baby College" where expectant moms and dads are taught parenting schools.

Canada's achievements have been documented in a study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer and a colleague, Will Dobie. The study shows dramatic improvement in math and English for Promise elementary school students - gains that put them on the same footing as white students in New York City.

Not everyone is convinced. Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia's Teachers College, argues that it's much too soon to make that kind of judgment.

But Canada's program has attracted admirers that include Obama. He has earmarked $10 million to develop plans for "Promise neighborhoods" in other American cities.

The man who built the Harlem Children's Zone spent his own early years rebelling against New York City's public school system. Unhappy with the tracking system at P.S. 99, he was even less enamored with the one at his junior high school, which had 22 classes that divided children into a brutal pecking order.

"It was thought that those in 7-1 and 7-2 would probably finish high school and might go on to college," Canada recalled. "By the time you hit 7-10, there was no expectation that these kids would do anything, and everybody knew it. It had a devastating impact on me because my friends were in these classes, and they were perfectly smart young people who just weren't given the opportunity to learn."

When it was time for high school, Canada tried, but failed, to gain acceptance to any of the city's handful of elite public schools. Rather than attend the "huge factory school" in his neighborhood, the 14-year-old made a dramatic decision: He would leave his mother and three brothers to live on Long Island with his grandparents, where he attended Wyandanch High School, a small, predominantly black public school.

"It made all the difference in the world" Canada said.

After graduating from Wyandanch in 1970, Canada moved on college at Bowdoin, a small, private (and then all-male) college in rural Maine. He weathered a near-disaster when he failed to acknowledge the school acceptance letter. When he finally called the school to say he was coming, he was told by a secretary that he was too late, and could no longer be admitted.

Desperate, Canada played the race card. "The only reason you're doing this to me is because I'm black," he said.

To his surprise, it worked. The secretary's voice changed, and Canada was placed on hold. "What I didn't know was that Bowdoin, like many small elite colleges, was doing everything in its power to recruit blacks with minimal success. I could imagine the secretary telling the dean of admissions, 'We got one!'"

After four years in the wilds of Maine, Canada picked up a masters' degree at Harvard and went into nonprofit work. He watched as succeeding drug epidemics ravaged Harlem and decimated its educational system. "No one was getting out of school," he said.

Canada set out to change that and the Harlem Children's Zone was born in a small area of central Harlem in the 1990s. The zone now covers 97 blocks with an annual budget of $75 million. Most of that money comes from private sources, and Canada spends about 40 percent of his time on fund-raising.

His key to attracting money is simple. "I spend most of my time trying to get people to come here," he said.

"If they see this school, they get it."