“You’re Never Lost Forever”
The hit documentary Waiting for Superman made Geoffrey Canada a star. Twelve years later, he’s more committed than ever to the work of supporting and uplifting students and families.
More than a decade ago, Geoffrey Canada was something of a superstar in the world of education. The 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman introduced Canada to a wide audience, and he grabbed their attention. The New York Daily News, for instance, called him the star of the film and “a singular voice of hope.”
But more than a great screen presence, Canada connected thanks to his work at the Harlem Children’s Zone. Beginning with The Baby College to teach new and expectant parents about early childhood development and extending all the way through college and career advising, the organization sees its mission as “ending intergenerational poverty” by supporting students through every stage of life. Starting with a small section of the neighborhood in the 1990s, the Harlem Children’s Zone now covers 97 blocks and serves more than 22,000 people each year. “No child in America should have to suffer growing up in a place they feel abandoned, where they don't feel the goodness, hope, and love that young people ought to grow up with,” Canada said in a 2012 interview.
Canada led Harlem Children’s Zone from 1990 to 2014, helping set a new standard for education reform in the United States. Instead of looking at schools in isolation, Canada and his team insisted on a more comprehensive approach designed to support the entire community. “If all we do is try to get these kids to pass algebra while leaving them to grow up in a toxic environment, then we’ve failed—failed as educators, failed as advocates,” Canada tells The Elective.
The determination at the core of Canada’s work is born from his experience growing up in the South Bronx, where he witnessed the crushing impact of violence and poverty on the ambitions of young people. “I promised God, if I could get out of this, I was going to do everything in this world to help other people do the same,” Canada says. “I think about the way I’m now able to help my grandkids get into college, and then I think about a community where the grandparents are gone, so many of the men are gone, all of those supports are gone—how are you going to break that cycle?”
I have admired Geoffrey Canada for as long as I can remember. We spoke recently about the legacy of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the value of second chances, and why love and courage are the secret ingredients to school success. The conversation is a reminder that, even if the glow of Hollywood’s spotlight has dimmed, his commitment to students and families and the work of supporting and uplifting them is as bright as ever.
One of the things that set Harlem Children's Zone apart from other school reform efforts is how comprehensive it is. You’re not just trying to help kids in the classroom, but providing programs for their families, friends, and entire community. How did that approach develop?
I began to think about what success might really look like in a place like Harlem. You have to remember, back when we got started, Harlem was full of broken buildings, trash all over the street, open-air drug dealing on the corners. The environment gave you a sense of fear and chaos, and you just had to live with that.
My view was that this had to be about much more than a failing school system. You simply can’t put it all on the school system when kids are growing up in that kind of environment. In some places in this country, the odds are so stacked against children that education by itself is not a powerful enough tool to break that cycle of poverty. I talk about the gravitational pull of the culture.
If all we do is try to get these kids to pass algebra, but we leave them to grow up in a toxic environment, then we’ve failed—failed as educators, failed as advocates.
I love that phrase, “the gravitational pull of the culture.” Can you be a little more specific about how that affects someone’s life and their educational trajectory?
When you’re 15, 16, 18 years old, you tend to do what your friends do. If your friends all drink, you drink. If your friends all smoke, you smoke. Kids do dumb things together!
But stupid things have different consequences in different places. Go and drink too much with your friends at college, and it’s very different than if you’re out drinking on the street, where you can make one decision that can ruin your life forever. In college, you’ve got people who are trying to protect you from those consequences. But not out here in Harlem. So two underdeveloped teenage brains do a dumb thing, one in a safe space and one in a place where there are going to be permanent, life-altering consequences.
It seems like we’ve made some progress in understanding the ways that culture and environment can set students up for success or failure. Is that encouraging?
It is encouraging—if we can actually apply what we’ve learned. The Zone really grew out of me trying to follow the science around trauma and child development, which was still new at the time.
Now, we know a lot more about toxic stress, and about how kids experience post-traumatic stress and how it affects their ability to focus and learn. That stuff never leaves you. It stays with you and it has an impact not just mentally, but on your physical health. We didn’t have that same level of understanding back then, but you can see that same idea in the way we set up Harlem Children’s Zone. We have to make sure kids are living in a stable environment before we can ask them to learn.
And you try to do that by reaching parents, right?
We’ve always talked about a two-generation approach. You can’t save the children without saving the parents.
Now we have all this great information about brain science, about all of the important things that happen to kids from 0 to 3 in the development of the brain, all this great insight about early childhood. It made an enormous amount of sense to me, and I could see how it would make an enormous difference to the people in my community.
But those people weren’t getting all of this information. All the folks in college are getting this, but not our families. So we created what we call The Baby College, and we applied for pre-K funding, trying to make sure our parents knew all of this stuff in time for it to make a difference. Do our parents know why you should sing to kids, why you should read to your kids, why you should have window guards and cabinet locks? That’s not going to ensure those kids are going to pass algebra. This is about keeping kids alive and out of the system, so that when they get into our pre-K system, we can look at better outcomes.
Another feature that sets Harlem Children’s Zone apart is how long you stay with your students—from Baby College to regular college. Why is that such an important part of the model?
We tell our parents, “We’re going to be with you until your kids graduate college.” And that’s because we always want to have the opportunity to catch you up, to give you that second chance, from 1st grade to 12th grade. We want those redundancies built into our system.
If I don’t reach you in second grade, I’ve got a shot in fifth, I’ve got another shot in ninth. You may be a C+ student the first half of high school, but if you have a good junior year and a good senior year, I can still get you into college.
We always have more work we can do: after school, evenings, and weekends. If you’ve fallen behind at some point, then we’ve got to lean in heavier with you. You’re never lost forever. We know we’re going to be celebrating when those kids are graduating and heading into college, and we celebrate when they come back with college degrees.
There’s a lot of discussion now about college alternatives: training or certificate programs, more investment in technical and vocational education. You’ve stayed very focused on higher education as the key goal for your students. Why?
Our mission is getting our kids into college and getting our kids through college. There’s been some debate about whether our kids should be thinking about technical school or plumbing or these other things.
Having college as a goal sends a powerful message to young people. It says, “I’m not dumb, and I might actually be kind of smart.” Once you internalize that, you’re open to all kinds of different learning.
If my teachers thought there was an off-ramp for some of our problem kids, they’d put them on that off-ramp so fast your head would spin. No, you’re not putting him on the vocational track. You’re going to figure out why he can’t pass that test, why he’s struggling, and you’re going to stay with him. College keeps that focus.
What does it take to stay invested for that long, to show kids that you’re going to be with them no matter what?
Kids need someone to love them, to care about them. All my kids know I’m the taskmaster, but they know there is no one in that place that loves them more than I do.
If you really want to save your community, really go out and make a difference in people’s lives, you have to have people who are willing to show up in difficult places. Folks in our communities are traumatized, and they want to know that we’re willing to share that risk with them, that we understand where they’re coming from.
Our kids know if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and they call me, I’m going to be there. I’ll be there when you’re scared. I’m going to be there to rescue you. When you experience that kind of devotion, you understand that’s what you need to be doing for the people in your own life.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.