THE BLOG
02/12/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Education Advocate Canada Says 'We Need Different Schools in NYC'

On Bloomberg EDU this week, Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) president and CEO, discusses poverty, "no excuses," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, early childhood education, public charter and traditional schools, and parent engagement.

Recognized nationally as a leader in comprehensive community services and the cradle to college "pipeline" to break the poverty cycle, Canada was in Washington, D.C. last month when President Obama announced the country's first five Promise Zones, which will be based on the HCZ model. In a separate conversation with Jane Williams on Bloomberg EDU, the Harlem native announced he will be passing the leadership reins to current Chief Operating Officer Anne Williams-Isom on June 30th. He will continue as president of the HCZ and Promise Academy Boards.

Below are highlights, audio and a transcript of the first conversation.

On Poverty, No Excuses
I think this has been part of the challenge in our work is that there's a group of folk who believe that if you say poverty matters, that kids who are growing up under war-time conditions, where they're hearing gunshots and they're feeling threatened, that this has an impact on their ability to learn, is the same as saying we can't teach them, right?

So we have a no excuse policy. Our children have to learn regardless to all of these things, but we don't think it's fair that some children have to deal with these issues and try to compete with kids who are growing up with what we would consider to be a more normalized environment. We think this is about leveling the playing field.

Mayor de Blasio, Charter and Traditional Schools
...we think that there's this artificial argument going on in the city right now that I am hoping the mayor will bring an end to. It's as if there are two different systems, meaning that the charter school system is not part of the traditional public school system. All of us in education are under the sort of authority of the mayor. I believe in mayoral control, I fought for it. I think one person has to be responsible for the education of New York City's children, all of the children.

And that is right now Mayor de Blasio. It's not like the charter school kids get to get a different mayor. He's their mayor too. And so we would love to see the mayor embrace all of the children of this city and say, "You are all my children." It doesn't mean that you can't say, "I think I want to make sure that this group of kids, that we level the playing field," but I think there's the sense right now that the mayor is opposed to charter schools. I simply don't believe that is true.

I know Bill de Blasio. These poor African American and Latino parents who send their kids to school trying to find a better option for their kids is something that I know resonates with this mayor and part of what I would just say is we need different schools in New York City and the charter schools haven't been great, right? Some of them aren't very good, they haven't done the right thing when it comes to ELL, English Language Learners, and special ed.

We don't have the same numbers as the traditional public schools and we don't take kids over the counter. These are real objections, meaning it's not apples to apples when you compare our test scores with traditional public schools. So that is true and we should fix that. But we shouldn't be angry because some schools are different. None of us are angry that Brooklyn Tech is different, you have to take a test to get into it. Or Bronx Science.

We've always said in New York City let's embrace our educational differences because it helps the whole system. And I think we should do the same. And I'm waiting, I know this is going to happen. I'm waiting for this mayor to really step out and say, "You know what? All of these are my kids and I care about all of them equally."

On Parent Engagement
I'm one of those folk who believe that your environment really matters. That very early on young people's brains are often stimulated in ways that aid their education or they can actually retard their education by exposure to violence and poor-quality sort of pre-education language skills. And so people have been afraid because race and class come into this to talk about what science says.

So if the science says that parents who struggle where you have just a single parent and you don't have the affordability of high-quality child care, that those kids get behind very early and it's very hard for them to catch up. When you begin to point out the groups who suffer from that people feel like you're making a class or a racial statement. I think those of us in this business have to confront the fact that there're a set of environmental factors that if we can't help kids get through it is going to retard their growth.

So we absolutely have to help parents learn how important it is to use complex language with young people. We absolutely have to make sure kids aren't growing up with a bunch of negativity in terms of language and violence, domestic abuse, child abuse in their life. It actually impacts that brain development and we know that.

Alcohol, smoking, we know these have real impacts on those young brains, so there's lots we can do I think to try and level this playing field. But it means getting messy. We've got to get in there with families, right? You've gotta go in and say, "No, this is not the right way you're doing things." We have to change some of this stuff. And I think that's part of our job.

Audio

Full Transcript
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

JANE WILLIAMS:
Thanks for joining us for Bloomberg EDU today, I'm Jane Williams. And I'm happy to welcome back ed reform leader and Harlem Children's Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada. Welcome.

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Thank you, Jane. It's just great to be back with you.

JANE WILLIAMS:
We just spoke with Education Secretary Arne Duncan who was saying that both he and the president have been profoundly impacted by your work, Geoff, and they're trying hard to take to scale some of what you're doing. For people who may know you but don't really know what Harlem Children's Zone is really all about, describe it for us.

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, I think the thing that is different about our work is that we believe in some places in our country it is more than just one thing going wrong for children. This is not just kids are going to bad schools or they're getting inadequate healthcare or it's dangerous and kids are around folks who sell drugs.

Everything has broken down in those communities and so our approach has been we have to get in and begin fixing everything all at the same time. So it's comprehensive, we organize block associations, we clean things up, we remove graffiti, if there are gangs out we put adults out on the street so young people don't feel like the teenagers are taking over the community. And we try to provide our kids with great educational options.

We run our own charter schools, but there're nine traditional public schools in our zone and we support all of those schools. I have my staff in those schools, inside the classrooms, working along with teachers. And the idea is let's deal with education, let's deal with health, let's deal with mental health, let's deal with the families, let's provide these young people the best we've been able to figure out, which in my opinion is what those of us who are middle class take for granted.

JANE WILLIAMS:
It's interesting to me to see now the country kind of starting to come back to this concept that it can't all be done in schools. It can't all be done in silos. Whole communities do need to get together.

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, you know, I think this has been part of the challenge in our work is that there's a group of folk who believe that if you say poverty matters, that kids who are growing up under war-time conditions, where they're hearing gunshots and they're feeling threatened, that this has an impact on their ability to learn, is the same as saying we can't teach them, right?

So we have a no excuse policy. Our children have to learn regardless to all of these things, but we don't think it's fair that some children have to deal with these issues and try to compete with kids who are growing up with what we would consider to be a more normalized environment. We think this is about leveling the playing field.

JANE WILLIAMS:
So what's going well at Harlem Children's Zone?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, you know, we have right now 926 of our kids in college. The idea of creating a pipeline where you're bringing kids in at a baby college between zero and three and then giving them great pre-K and then staying with that cohort throughout their elementary, middle school, and high school years, getting those kids into college, and then getting them through college, that pipeline is sealed and we know that we see the light, right?

It's not even at the end of the tunnel. We are now stepping into the light as these kids are coming out with degrees and we're trying to really help our young people get jobs. So we think that part is really going good. There are a couple of areas that I think are exciting. One is we built a brand new school directly in the middle of one of the most troubled spots for children, the Saint Nicholas housing complex, which is a housing project in our zone, which has always had the worst outcomes for children in our zone.

And our belief is that we're gonna change the culture of what it means to grow up in that housing development. So every three year old in Saint Nich automatically gets into our charter school and we think in six or seven years you're going see, because most of the kids will then be my kids, you're gonna see a total turnaround in terms of educational and social outcomes for that group of folk. We're very excited about that.

The other big issue we're dealing with right now is obesity. We have an epidemic in this country that's literally destroying the livelihoods and life chances of millions and millions of Americans and the poorer you are the more likely you are to fall, I think, as a victim to this disease right now, which is over-consumption of the wrong kinds of foods and not getting a proper amount of exercise. And not knowing enough about nutrition so that you can really protect yourself and live a healthy life.

We've got, I think right now we've got one of the largest initiatives in the country. We'll be working with over 3,000 children and we're gonna scale the up to working with 7,000 children over the course of the next couple of years to reduce those BMIs and get those kids to live a healthier lifestyle.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Do you get their parents involved in that conversation? Because it can't be the kids alone.

GEOFFREY CANADA:
No, you know what? I tried this and found out the hard way. You know, I think you know, Jane, I taught martial arts for a long time and I taught my kids all about healthy eating and I sent them home telling their parents, "You should cook--" you can imagine a ten year old telling their parent, "I don't want you to cook like this anymore," how well that went over.

No, we actually have started a project working with Weight Watchers and working with our families because we think this is a family initiative. A child is not going to eat differently than his parents and his other siblings or her other siblings. So this is really a family and it's a community issue because we want more water available so kids grow up with water. We don't want the only thing for you to find when you're thirsty, right, is either a bottle of water that's so expensive you can't afford it or something that's really sugar and it's bad for you.

JANE WILLIAMS:
We're talking with Geoffrey Canada. Up next more about poverty, class mobility, and the American Dream. I'm Jane Williams and this is Bloomberg EDU.

JANE WILLIAMS:
It's great to have you here for Bloomberg EDU today, I'm Jane Williams and I'm talking with Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone. Geoff's also an author and a poet. As he mentioned he taught martial arts, he got his B.A. at Bowdoin College and a master's at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. A couple other things about what's going on in New York right now, Geoff, before we talk nationally. We have a new mayor, a new schools chancellor, who want to have universal pre-K. Good idea?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
I think this is a great idea. I am really thrilled. I think one of the places that I feel like we've helped influence the country is the importance of getting in early. The data and the science on this is really terrific. It does matter if kids get a full day, a part day doesn't really work that well. A full day, quality, quality matters. This is not babysitting. You have to hire people who actually know about youth development and early childhood development, pre-K services. And so I think that the mayor is going in exactly the right direction in pushing for universal pre-K for children.

JANE WILLIAMS:
We've been reading this week about a tension, kind of a zero-sum situation set up between more funding and space for charter schools and funding and space for pre-K. Where do you come out on that?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, you know, we think that there's this artificial argument going on in the city right now that I am hoping the mayor will bring an end to. It's as if there are two different systems, meaning that the charter school system is not part of the traditional public school system. All of us in education are under the sort of authority of the mayor. I believe in mayoral control, I fought for it. I think one person has to be responsible for the education of New York City's children, all of the children.

And that is right now Mayor de Blasio. It's not like the charter school kids get to get a different mayor. He's their mayor too. And so we would love to see the mayor embrace all of the children of this city and say, "You are all my children." It doesn't mean that you can't say, "I think I want to make sure that this group of kids, that we level the playing field," but I think there's the sense right now that the mayor is opposed to charter schools. I simply don't believe that is true.

I know Bill de Blasio. These poor African American and Latino parents who send their kids to school trying to find a better option for their kids is something that I know resonates with this mayor and part of what I would just say is we need different schools in New York City and the charter schools haven't been great, right? Some of them aren't very good, they haven't done the right thing when it comes to ELL, English Language Learners, and special ed.

We don't have the same numbers as the traditional public schools and we don't take kids over the counter. These are real objections, meaning it's not apples to apples when you compare our test scores with traditional public schools. So that is true and we should fix that. But we shouldn't be angry because some schools are different. None of us are angry that Brooklyn Tech is different, you have to take a test to get into it. Or Bronx Science.

We've always said in New York City let's embrace our educational differences because it helps the whole system. And I think we should do the same. And I'm waiting, I know this is going to happen. I'm waiting for this mayor to really step out and say, "You know what? All of these are my kids and I care about all of them equally."

JANE WILLIAMS:
Looking at the charter picture nationally, as you say the quality is mixed. Charter schools now serve about 6% of our kids. In the long view of education, Geoff, are charters here to be a long-term alternative to district schools, to eventually replace district schools, or to be a lab for district schools and ultimately to merge or some combination of those?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, here's the thing that has frustrated me in this debate, Jane. Charter schools will never replace traditional district schools. They will always be a small percentage of schools in our city and in this country. The original idea for charter schools was to spurn innovation. And I'll tell you where I think we've done well and where I think we've done poor.

I think we have really innovative charter schools that are trying a bunch of different things. My school is open 11 months out of the year, other schools are going longer days, other schools are all single-sex schools. And the idea is can you come up with a unique set of educational options that help poor kids be successful. So those innovations we should really applaud. Some of them are going to work and some of them are going to fail. Where it doesn't work we should close those places down.

Now, where it works, the idea was then they should spurn sort of education innovation in the larger sector. And here I think this divisive debate that you have to be on one side of this or the other means that charter schools don't want to learn from the traditional public schools and the traditional public schools don't want to learn from charter schools. And so I think that's hurt education in general and I think we need to move past that point.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Let's talk about the war on poverty. You wrote a piece recently about this. Do we need a new war on poverty and what should change?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
So this is something that I've been absolutely fascinated by because I think as you know I have been concerned about the competitiveness of American children as our worldwide economic conditions change. So we are no longer just competing with other children from other states. We're competing with the rest of the world right now and I think all the evidence is clear we're not providing kids with a quality education. So this is one issue.

I am very worried about what's happening to what we would consider blue collar jobs in this country. I think they're shrinking never to come back. So the economic crisis, you know, of a few years ago increased the unemployment and we have been waiting for things to settle in. I am not sure we are ever going to get back to the good old days, which in my opinion means we're gonna have a new class of folk who are poor in this country.

We know the data is clear that wages have been stagnant for workers, that that is something that is fairly new in this country for the period of time it's happening, and we don't have this belief as a nation that your child is going do better than you do. Now people are worried that I'm going to actually have to take care of my child because they're not going to be able to go out and find a job.

To me that is a unique problem of our time and it calls for some clear thinking, and this is not a political thinking. Who's the fault, what-- this calls for a clear thinking because I think these are big macro forces in play right now and we as a nation have to come to grips with them.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Is part of coming to grips with them dealing on the micro level, as you are, with some of the symptoms of poverty in what you describe as sort of a locked-in-place class, especially a group of kids who, by the time they get even to pre-K, are already behind. You know, things like the single mothers, the dads who aren't in the picture, parents who don't read enough to their kids or talk enough to their kids, the trauma as violence as you described and drugs, parenting that isn't what it should be. Are those ways to address this issue?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, you know, I'm one of those folk who believe that your environment really matters. That very early on young people's brains are often stimulated in ways that aid their education or they can actually retard their education by exposure to violence and poor-quality sort of pre-education language skills. And so people have been afraid because race and class come into this to talk about what science says.

So if the science says that parents who struggle where you have just a single parent and you don't have the affordability of high-quality child care, that those kids get behind very early and it's very hard for them to catch up. When you begin to point out the groups who suffer from that people feel like you're making a class or a racial statement. I think those of us in this business have to confront the fact that there're a set of environmental factors that if we can't help kids get through it is going to retard their growth.

So we absolutely have to help parents learn how important it is to use complex language with young people. We absolutely have to make sure kids aren't growing up with a bunch of negativity in terms of language and violence, domestic abuse, child abuse in their life. It actually impacts that brain development and we know that.

Alcohol, smoking, we know these have real impacts on those young brains, so there's lots we can do I think to try and level this playing field. But it means getting messy. We've got to get in there with families, right? You've gotta go in and say, "No, this is not the right way you're doing things." We have to change some of this stuff. And I think that's part of our job.

JANE WILLIAMS:
We seem to have shifted from using the language of achievement gaps to using the term opportunity gap. That's the expression that the education secretary was using today. Is that an important distinction?

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Well, you know, I'll tell you in the trenches it seems like the same old thing. I just have to be honest. If you ask me, "Geoff, what were you guys fighting eight years ago and is it still out there?" Yes, you can name it differently. I think poverty matters not because poor people can't figure a way to work their way into the middle class, but poverty, when it has been sustained, and has impacted your sort of opportunities to look past your immediate environment because you feel locked in to a set of circumstances that you're helpless to change, that that really does matter.

And part of what we have to do is let people know you're not helpless. We can help change those conditions but I will tell you as a person who grew up in a family of very poor folk in a community of very, very poor people, when you are literally living from day to day trying to figure out how to survive, talking about the kind of investments we need to make to get kids and families to focus on their future is very, very difficult. And so we've got to provide some help and some support.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Well, Geoff, you've been in there doing this hard work for a long time and we so appreciate you coming to talk with us again.

GEOFFREY CANADA:
Thanks, Jane. It's always a pleasure to be here with you.

JANE WILLIAMS:
And that's gonna do it for Bloomberg EDU for this week. We hope you'll come back and join us again next week at this very same time. For all of us on the EDU team, I'm Jane Williams and you're listening to Bloomberg Radio.

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