Harlem Program Finds Ways to Help Kids, Revive a Community
Cox News Service
Sunday, August 26, 2007
NEW YORK — In a worn building in the heart of Harlem, up two flights of well-used stairs and down halls dotted with proud plaques and bright murals, 14-year-old Alec Strong sits before a shiny white computer learning Web site design and pondering a future full of possibilities.
One floor up, beside a small gym favored by baby-faced basketball players, 6-year-old Bria Jordon yells and knocks down two men more than twice her size. She bows to her martial arts sensei, who smiles as another lesson in discipline and fitness is completed.
A few blocks away is the public school where Aisha Tomlinson attended "Baby College" classes and learned there was a lot she didn't know about being a parent.
At nearby Promise Academy elementary, 8-year-old Noah Brown begins each school day reciting a pledge that ends with the words: "We will go to college. We will succeed. This is the promise. This is our creed."
All these faces belong to the Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious project spanning nearly 100 blocks in one of New York's poorest neighborhoods.
As many cities struggle with pockets of crime and poverty, the zone has become a rare national beacon, widely admired and studied by local governments and charities because of its success in bringing education, social services, medical help and a sense of community to thousands of children and families.
The program has lately become part of presidential politics, touted by Democratic candidate Barack Obama as the basis for his poverty strategy. He called the zone "an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance."
Obama said in July that, if elected, he would spend billions of dollars to apply the zone's approach in 20 U.S. cities, spurring debate on whether the government can effectively replicate the program.
Many dedicated and generous people work to make the zone a reality, but it exists largely because of the vision and sweat of Geoffrey Canada, who overcame a poor and violent childhood in the South Bronx and dedicated himself to giving back.
"In communities like Central Harlem it's not just one thing that's really going badly for children, it's everything," said Canada, the zone's president and CEO. He said individual programs that address issues such as early childhood education or teen pregnancy are not enough to ensure that kids succeed.
The response, he said, is not to fight one battle, but to fight them all.
"That's how you reach the tipping point, really creating a conveyor belt that starts from birth with programs like Baby College and Harlem Gems for 4-year-olds," he said. "It supports young people straight through college."
Getting kids all the way through college is key, Canada said, noting that a high school diploma is not enough to ensure success in today's world. Helping new graduates stay connected to their community creates a positive cycle, he said.
"That's how you really begin to grow a young adult population which is prepared to take responsibility, by making sure young people feel that they have a place that they are responsible for and they have the tools to make a difference," Canada said.
The children's zone is part of a broader economic revival in Harlem that includes new construction and an influx of business after years of decline.
The zone grew out of a program called the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families and began providing services to a 24-block area of Harlem in 2001. That area included about 3,000 children, most of them black and nearly two-thirds living in poverty.
It now encompasses 97 blocks and serves more than 9,000 kids and their families.
Children in zone schools have longer days, shorter summer vacations and many after-school options. Teachers are held to very high performance standards.
The zone's approximately 20 programs range from a family crisis storefront facility to Harlem Peacemakers, which trains young people to keep neighborhoods safe and puts them in classrooms to work with elementary school kids.
The scope of the effort is clear at the program's recently built $42 million headquarters on 125th Street, which houses a community center, sports and medical facilities, a cafeteria serving healthy meals and upper grades of the Promise Academy.
A conference area here resembles a war room, with a map of the zone's blocks dotted with program sites. Another map shows the high levels of obesity in Harlem compared to the rest of New York. Still another pinpoints the schools where hundreds of children from the zone have made it to college.
Leaders from cities from San Francisco to Miami have come here to learn what makes the zone tick.
The zone's annual budget is $50 million, with one-third coming from federal, state and city funds and the rest from private donations. Much of the private money stems from hedge fund wealth and Wall Street donors among the program's trustees.
The zone's results can be found woven through the lives of people like Harlem mom Flo Brown and her three sons.
Noah, who soon starts Promise Academy's 3rd grade, passed 3rd grade state reading and math tests a year early. Jeremiah, soon to be 4, will begin at the Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten in the fall, and 1-year-old Caleb also has the zone in his future.
The two older boys already talk about going to college, Brown said.
"I'm fully aware of the epidemic of our black men going to jail, dropping out of high school, or on drugs or being killed," she said. "Having three black men that I'm raising is very frightening for me."
"Trying to raise a family in Harlem in this day and age — we really couldn't afford a private school," Brown said. "I don't know that I could have done this in this environment without the Harlem Children's Zone. It's also created a village of sorts for me."
That village provided help beyond schooling. Brown said a zone asthma program, needed in a neighborhood with some of the worst asthma rates in the nation, helped Noah get through a time of frequent emergency room visits.
Brown also attended the Baby College, which teaches moms and dads about parenting. One often eye-opening class concerns discipline and how to punish children without hitting.
"All that stuff is embedded in you, so you think because this is the way you were raised this is the way we are supposed to raise your children," Brown said. "My husband and I are talking to our son, we're explaining things to our son."
Aisha Tomlinson, 42, said Baby College classes about seven years ago also taught her the importance of reading to her kids.
"The things that you didn't have, you definitely want your children to have," she said.
Older kids in the zone have programs like TRUCE, The Renaissance University for Community Education. The program provides after-school and summer activities for kids 12-19, focusing on academics, arts, technology and nutrition and fitness. Students here produce a cable TV show, a newspaper and have a Web site in the works.
Alec Strong has been part of TRUCE since he was 10. He said he wants to be a video game designer and the program provides an early step.
"Some students really have nothing and this program gives students something to look forward to," he said. "I'm looking forward to going to college."
On the Web:
Harlem Children's Zone: www.hcz.org