Harlem Children’s Zone

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine has a fairly compelling cover story about the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and its founder, Geoffrey Canada. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Magazine as an evaluator of social programs. Evaluation is a tricky business, and the Magazine is too focused on personal profiles and anecdotes to be a reliable source. However, it is a good guide to what is currently influential. Marian Wright Edelman and William Julius Wilson are quoted in praise of HCZ, which tells us that important people are watching the program.

Mr. Canada hopes to make a huge difference in the lives of 6,500 Harlem kids for about $4,200 per child per year. If that can be done, then we have no excuse for not doing the same for all poor Americans.

HCZ asserts that 100% of the students in its pre-K classes test as ready for school at the end of the program, compared to a rate of 84% for all American kids. One might suspect that HCZ students are relatively well off to start with, since their guardians have placed them in a voluntary program. In that case, the 100% readiness rate might be a function of the population rather than the program. However, the Times story emphasizes that HCZ works relentlessly to sign up the most disadvantaged children in Harlem. If that’s true (and if the “Bracken Scales of Conceptual Development” are a good measure of readiness for school), then a 100% pass rate is impressive indeed.

HCZ also organizes classes for mothers, afterschool and tutoring programs in public k-12 schools, employment placement services, nutrition services, neighborhood beautification efforts, an asthma clinic, and family crisis counseling. It has recently launched a charter school. In one way or another, its services reach 88% of the kids in Central Harlem.

I can’t quite figure out what’s most significant about the enterprise as a whole: that one institution is providing services to most children in a large urban district; that the institution is a nonprofit with corporate donors, rather than a municipal agency; that its services span health, education, and other fields; that there’s a deliberate effort to reach the worst-off within the ghetto; that the nonprofit has a corporate-style business plan and collects a lot of data; or that Geoffrey Canada is a skilled, committed, and effective individual. We can’t clone Mr. Canada, nor is there enough corporate philanthropy to fund private non-profits on this scale in every city. I hope, therefore, that HCZ is successful because of factors that could be borrowed by local governments.

3 thoughts on “Harlem Children’s Zone

  1. Hellmut Lotz

    We might not be able to clone Mr. Canada but we should be able to specify the conditions under which individuals like him can pursue the public good. For example, it is very difficult to be creative and efficient if one has to answer to the school board, the city council, the mayor, the state legislature, the governor, and the US department of education. Clearly, autonomy grounded by competition and school choice can do a lot to promote innovators and achievers.

    By the way, the current debate about school choice poses the false choice between public and private education. It is possible to create choice and competition within the realm of public education. (Your demand for rigorous experimentation becomes relevant in this context).

    There was a similar story in the LA Times (June 18, 2004) about a charter school in Latino neighborhoods that managed to place 100% of their first graduating year in college or trade schools.

  2. lerxst

    My take on the article was the what was MOST significant about the project was the multi-pronged approach rather than a band-aid approach. Essentially it tries to not only fix the schools but also deal with peer, neighborhood and other community influences. In the economics literature, thus far, evaluations of (randomized) programs such as Move to Opportunity have not shown demonstrably strong effects. On the other hand most programs typically analyze only one intervention at a time. The hope is that multi-faceted intervention might be of value and cost-effective.

  3. Kautilyan

    Harlem’s Children Zone

    Peter Levine has a couple of posts (here and here) that discuss a New York Times magazine article from a few weeks ago that discusses an innovative approach to tackling the problems facing poor children in Harlem.

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