Against all odds
Whatever It Takes
Geoffrey Canada’s Quest
to Change Harlem and America
Houghton Mifflin: 296 pp., $26
As THE gung-ho title suggests, this book is an exhausting read. I mean that in the best possible way. Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, gives a dense but clear account of the mighty struggle of a project known as the Harlem Children’s Zone to recast America’s most famous black ghetto as a locus of black success. The brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, a lean, driven man in his 50s who grew up in the South Bronx and despises the word “no,” the wide-ranging project seeks to go where no program has gone before. It aspires not to be a program at all, but an entire safety net tightly woven of everything that makes communities work -- good social services, prenatal counseling, parental involvement and, most crucially, good public schools. This is the story of how Canada has sought since creating the zone in the late 1990s to assemble an entire “conveyor belt” that will deliver to every child in the 97-block area the support and services he or she needs from birth until graduation from high school. Whereupon they will go to college, of course. That’s the idea.
What’s so striking about the story is not just Canada’s determination in the face of overwhelming odds; we’ve read that plenty of times. Tough’s book is about the magnitude of the task undertaken by one man and his staff of acolytes, but Tough is more interested in what that monumental task reveals about the rest of us. He lauds Canada’s efforts to give poor black children the opportunity he deeply believes they deserve, but he also questions why society as a whole seems not to share Canada’s view. One thing Tough puts in stark relief is the fact that the goal of equality in education has been replaced with exhortations for excellence, a nice way of saying that every community is on its own, including communities of poor black kids who need the most help and suffer the worst effects of isolation. Canada knows this. A former college radical, he doesn’t approve of the paradigm shift away from equality and justice, but he doesn’t have time to waste thinking about it, and neither do the kids. Time isn’t on their side.
Time is a huge theme here. A giant hourglass starts running out from the first pages of this book, which mostly chronicles the launch of Promise Academy, the project’s charter school, in 2004. As with so many ambitious undertakings in the ‘hood, a palpable sense of hope and expectation is tempered by history and reality. Canada wrestles with the idea that, academically, it’s already too late for a lot of the students he’s pledging to help with his new school. He has to immediately begin coaching them to hit certain numbers on citywide test scores or risk losing the faith and financial interest of the more well-heeled board members. The pressure on everyone to deliver the goods -- Canada, his staff, students and parents -- is enormous.
“Whatever It Takes” subtly but vividly illustrates the Catch-22 created by a national obsession with standardized test scores, the modern measure of school quality (and, inexplicably, equality). From the day Promise Academy opens its doors, Canada and his team sink much of their considerable energy into trying to boost test scores to respectable levels, particularly at the middle school where he knows scores will be hardest to move. He turns out to be right, though the news is not all bad: the kids improve, but they don’t improve fast enough. Tough shows us that this is where the much-touted business model of education simply doesn’t translate to inner cities. Yet the model must be followed at Promise partly because it’s a charter. Charters are quasi-businesses -- start-ups that must hit certain marks or face the possibility of being closed down. Of course, that’s almost a joke in neighborhoods such as Harlem, where schools have been functioning so poorly, they should have been closed down for bad business practices years ago.
Journalistically, Tough does a nice job of balancing theories and research on race, education and poverty with the unglamorous, on-the-ground fight to make Promise Academy and the whole Harlem Children’s Zone enterprise pull the neighborhood out of the gravity of its urban pathologies -- to kick into a high enough gear for residents to achieve what Canada calls “escape velocity.”
Though much of “Whatever It Takes” focuses on strategy, it’s the acute awareness of the overwhelmingly black staff, students and parents of just what they’re up against that makes this book absorbing and frequently touching. Within that awareness are small but steady epiphanies that are the real core of Canada’s work but that simply can’t be measured by test scores: parents learning to regularly take their kids to museums, problems collectively solved in math class, story conclusions read aloud by second-graders.
Ultimately, it’s Canada’s heart and vision that make the book. He’s a drillmaster but also an idealist and humanist hellbent on saving average kids, not just the exceptional ones. Tough makes it clear that Canada doesn’t want to be a superhero, because that’s not what the people in Harlem need: They need change. That’s a much-ballyhooed idea this election year, but Canada has been intent on it for a long time. He wants to enact not heroism but “contamination” -- spreading enough good seeds to change the very soil of Harlem so that its culture becomes healthier at the roots and it grows into a place where all residents get a decent shot at the great American life. Heal the environment, Canada says, and you heal everyone in it. It’s hard not to vote for that.