And How are the Children..?

Harlem Children’s Zone in Chicago Wrap-Up

Posted on: March 6, 2010

These are my final thoughts on Replicating Harlem Children’s Zone in Chicago,  an event hosted by Loyola University last week featuring Paul Tough, and a panel of local human services and education experts.  Tough is the author of Whatever it Takes, a book chronicling Geoffrey Canada’s work creating and managing the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.  I attended and wrote a live blog of the event last week.

During the Q&A session, there seemed to be an air of skepticism in the room, which is not surprising.  One woman asked very plainly, how can this mixed funding structure work in a state where the budget is not doing well, and human services has taken such a big hit?  The essence of that statement is not so much a question of where matching dollars will come from, but rather, if we don’t have the collective will to pull it together and fund the myriad programs and services already in place, then how will we manage to get something like HGZ going?  Paul Tough described Geoffrey Canada’s statement to potential Promise grant hopefuls at the HCZ conference, in which he told them, basically, ‘If you only think you can do this with the grant money, you should leave now.’  It’s a hard statement, but a necessary one.   Budget troubles of the past year make it quite clear that the most powerful among us have not been prioritizing the well-being of people who are poor, who have the most need.  To be realistic, we have to question whether or not the dedication is there.

Chicago would have a truly formidable system of comprehensive social supports for families that struggle with poverty and lack of resources, if only the programs that currently exist could pull together under a common/shared set of goals.  If service providers would view themselves as links in a chain, they could be so powerful.  It is unfortunate that many service providers are fairly uninspired, and end up serving to perpetuate the status quo.  And as panel member Azim Ramelize stated, if things are going to change, it won’t be business as usual.  I think it is difficult for many people who have been serving in non-profits for years to see anything beyond business as usual.  But I also think that there are many, many people in non-profits who are tired of business-as-usual, tired of feeling like their work is a drop in the ocean, tired of talking themselves into believing in what they do every day.  Some of those people must have been in the audience that night, looking for a thicker strand of hope to pull on.

From what I’ve read, hope is much of what Geoffrey Canada’s concept is riding on now: hope with an almost desperate promise of metrics, if we could all be patient for a while.  And many of us are willing to be patient, because we believe as we have believed for years, that he’s making it happen – he’s doing it.  He’s doing what we thought should be done all along: comprehensive services, for all stages of childhood, supportive of the family and community as well as the child.  This is the silent promise we’ve been imagining, and Canada actually managed to speak the promise out loud.  And it’s a little tense, because we have this seed of fear deep within us that something bad will happen, and when the math is all done, it won’t be proven.  Our children won’t succeed, even with all of this money and effort, and then no one will invest in them ever again.

But I do believe.  I think it must work, once all is said and done.  These families that are going through the Harlem Children’s Zone will be generally better off, better prepared.  These children who are starting in the Harlem Gems, and going through the HCZ schools and programs will do better than they would have done, statistically speaking, and will advance further as a group.  I am reminded of the new Illinois Action for Children mission: Strong families, powerful communities, where children matter most.  The HCZ model essentially creates a community environment where children do matter most; where money is spent on their education, and they are shored up on all sides.  We shall see how it all plays out, but I think that it really does take this much money and effort to level the playing field, considering how much goes into throwing it off-balance. When the panel responded to the woman who asked about state funds, each response resonated along the same lines: it’s not that we don’t spend money on children, it’s that we spend it on the wrong things.  I appreciate that they were willing to name this as a problem.  This kind of programming would reflect an increased dedication to the success of children in all of our communities.

It was good to hear the perspectives of the different experts, but with such a diverse audience, I would have liked to have heard more of a conversation between the panel and the audience, or even among and between the panel members.  Less lecturing, more interacting.  Ultimately, I don’t think we got a good sense of what it would take to bring Promise Neighborhoods to Chicago, besides hearing people say the phrase “political will” over and over again.  One issue that was touched on, though not in-depth, was the fact of Canada being a charismatic leader who drives the program with his own determination; Can anyone expect to replicate that?  It makes me think of that book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, in which his colleagues admit that at a certain point, the organization that he founded was essentially advancing based on Mortenson’s reputation and personal character.  Not that other people were not involved or highly dedicated, but when one person’s relentless will and determination breathe life into a project, it is difficult for someone else to take the helm, or to create the same effect without that charismatic leader.  Can Promise Neighborhoods work with dedicated teams that are not led by a desperately ambitious, intensely driven go-getter with a compelling personal story?  I think much could be done if a strong replication model is developed, but I also think that it is an issue worth investigating further.  Canada’s vision is genius, but genius tends to be obsessive and willing to sacrifice a lot.  Can Promise Neighborhoods find that in enough leaders besides Canada to take Obama’s money and spend it well?  I hope so.

The idea of Promise Neighborhoods and the model of the Harlem Children’s Zone is very exciting for people who want to serve children and families.  Along with that excitement, however, comes a healthy degree of wariness.  Will this happen?  Can it?  Our time and resources are so limited – will this be worth the effort?  These Promise dollars will be highly sought after, so I am confident that more events will follow.  I look forward to seeing how Chicago rises to this challenge, and whether or not we can make the most of this opportunity.


13 Responses to "Harlem Children’s Zone in Chicago Wrap-Up"

I believe too and we must embrace families leading up to and during the school years as a child’s first and forever teacher. Without that, we are shortchanging our tomorrows.

I was just talking with my son (a senior in college) who is considering going into the Peace Corp for a couple of years after college and I want to bottle his inspiration and enthusiasm. That belief and the actions to back it up will help the Harlem Experiment become a reality in Chicago.

I’m hoping when I am in the NY area later this spring to be able to visit the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Hi Atena,

I really enjoyed this post. HCZ and its replication always raises a lot of important questions for me. Such as, what is it that we really expect schools (and teachers) to do for children? I don’t think that as a nation or society we have a clear answer for this. We expect school to be the great equalizer or the cure all for society’s problems, which isn’t realistic. I like the idea of organizations with specific purposes working together to share the load.

Great blog Atena!

Megan – thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always! I think you’ve brought up such an important point here: We do NOT know what we expect from schools or teachers as a nation or society. I think this stems largely from the fact that schools have never had one single purpose, and different kinds of schools developed for very different reasons in the history of the United States. The history of child care alone is enough to make heads spin. Adding what is now elementary education to the mix creates quite a conundrum of intent, purpose and direction.

I agree about sharing the load. What I particularly like about HCZ is that the web of programming is woven so tight. I think we need to see more of that.

Also – I found this interesting thing: a wiki on the “Ten Big Questions for Education!” I really like the idea of a well-moderated wiki as a tool for teaching and learning, especially for educators to use among each other.

One of the 10 big questions is ‘What are schools for?’ Check out the wiki. I bet you could contribute some worthwhile content to the entry:


This was a great wrap up. Thank you for both posts on HCZ, one of the most inspirational programs ever!

As someone who has been in the field for almost 30 years, I am continually frustrated with how slowly we embrace the national changes and pressures that impact our work, and how painful it is for us to demand the change we KNOW we need to make on behalf of children and families. We need to think about changes in terms of funding, sustainability, and most of all, what it takes to move our agenda forward.

Funding and sustainability:
It’s time for our field to look for new ways to supplement their government and private funding to sustain their work. I have a friend who suggests we all stop relying on government issued crack. I think that statement a little dramatic, but it does wake me up! He’s right that it’s time to embrace the concept that more government funding isn’t always the answer, especially when it comes to sustainability. It’s time for our field to embrace social enterprise ( as the new order of doing business.

Moving our agenda forward:
Geoffrey Canada is a visionary. Marion Wright Edleman is a visionary. There a many incredible visionaries with passion and grit in our field. While we all can’t be the charismatic personalities these folks are, we can carry forth our common vision for young children. I personally know many incredibly passionate, brilliant and dedicated early childhood educators in Chicago who are perfectly capable of carrying this mission forward. No more nay-saying. As Nike says, “just do it!”

Finally, and most importantly, we must be more demanding of the legislative change we need. It’s time to stop being so nice and start playing very tough at legislative levels. We need to take a page from the “never-say-die” attitude, grassroots grit, and technological savvy of our sisters (and brothers) at Mom’s Rising ( to form our own movement on behalf of children and families. There are dozens of groups working independently to try to make changes, and when they come together, they can’t find a common cumulative vision with enough “oomph” to get the job done.

These are unprecedented times. We actually are poised for the possibility of the kind of change we need with an administration that takes our issues seriously and as a high priority. We need to unapologetic ally exploit this moment of time.

Thanks for posting such a thought-provoking and rich article.

Fran Simon
Engagement Strategies

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Hi Atena,
Nice blog and nice entry. Sorry you missed Paley’s event, I’m reading one of her books for Cog this semester.

Thanks again for participating in the Erikson alumni event.


Thanks so much, Julian! Good luck with the end of the semester!

Very nice write up, however, just a quick note, the HCZ if done correctly should not be an attempt by some in our community to create a system and take it to our community to fix itself. As you are aware, system cannot care, it is the job of community to care, it is at the communal level that real change can and must occur. Also we have not addressed the issue of race which is always the white elephant in the room. Always growing up the people who were supposed to be giving me the most help were the ones doing the most harm. As the saying goes, the road to hell is pave with good intention. Lastly, it seem as if some may think that they have a leg up on this process because of their connections. It is my hope that this process is fair and transparent, only time will tell. Thanks for caring about our youth as the Indians have a saying, “we inherit the earth from our children.

Do you have information on the groups in Chicago who are working towards replicating HCZ? I have tried to find them, without much success. If I understand correctly, there is a group in Woodlawn who are fairly close to starting such an endeavor. I would LOVE to teach in a school like HCZ. I love Canada’s vision and loved the book about him. Thanks for any information you might have.
Peggy Rios

Peggy – there are a few initiatives in Chicago to get a HCZ replication going… Check out this article in Catalyst Notebook: It’s from February, so there may be new contenders. I’ll look into it.

I am familiar with the Catalyst site and their reporting….thanks though! If you hear of a specific person to contact, that would be great. One of my former principals lives in Woodlawn and tends to know a lot about a lot of things. I need to get a hold of him. I will let you know if I find out anything more specific and would appreciate any info you have.
Really, HCZ needs to be replicated right here in Rogers Park. We have sooooo many needy, undereducated, not-college bound by any stretch of the imagination kids in this neighborhood who could be just as educated as my own kids, given the proper support. I do wonder how many families don’t make that a goal because they are not legal and can’t attend college because of that.
Anyways, I will keep my ears open too!

I’m an experienced school administrator who is very interested in working for the HGZ in Chicago. How should I proceed?

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