, Salem, MA

September 2, 2013

Watson: Schools and family are key to race relations

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — In my last two columns — discussing black-white race relations — I mentioned that both races have plenty to do to promote improved mutual understanding. I described how differently the Trayvon Martin case can look to the two races, and why.

But I also pointed out that a major area of agreement exists on the subject of child development and education. Both races agree that — regardless of the skin color of a child — one of the best ways to promote healthy, competent and successful young people is to support them with outstanding educational institutions.

Last week, I read “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough. The book is about Geoffrey Canada, who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone, a 97-block area in Harlem that Canada and his staff have turned into one big, comprehensive initiative where almost all activities are measured by their effectiveness in creating and supporting smart and thriving children and — not incidentally — capable and productive parents and adults.

Canada is black, and so is almost everybody else in the zone. But what he has learned about child development, about schooling, and about all of the ingredients that go into making successful young adults (and adults) applies to all children, regardless of color or ethnicity.

Sometimes, when talking about schools, race and family and the persistent dysfunctions and low performance that accompany the generations-spanning cycle of poverty, we get into arguments about which factor is more to blame — bad schools or broken home life.

Canada has no patience with that argument. He believes that both factors — schools and family — play such critical roles in the development of a child that we must ensure the effectiveness of each.

Canada did not start out that way. When he first began as a teacher, he thought he could transform radically underperforming ninth-graders and have them ready to go to college by graduation. He soon learned otherwise.

So, he said, let me start with sixth-graders, before they’re so behind luckier peers. Same thing. He learned that intensive remediation efforts can lift students to their actual grade levels, but he described these interventions as “heroic” and decided that a wiser course of action — one that could truly break the cycle of poverty and lift an entire precinct, Harlem — would be to just never let children fall behind, from the day they are born.

Consequently, the Harlem Children’s Zone starts with classes for pregnant mothers who, often for the first time, learn the benefits of properly feeding, nurturing, stimulating and talking to their infants. Those parents learn that their toddlers’ brains are being wired — their cognitive faculties are being developed — from the moment of birth. By age 3, a toddler can already be quite underdeveloped.

The Harlem Children’s Zone contains an unbroken continuum of programs for youth from preschool to college. This comprehensive approach is being replicated in many cities across the country, and it is meeting with some success. It is worth noting that they aren’t actually doing anything radical and haven’t discovered anything new. In a large sense, they just gather, organize, structure and teach the best practices of child-rearing, family life, discipline, work ethics and effective schooling that already characterize healthy, middle-class American communities — of any color.

Canada works with at-risk kids in the inner city. The Harlem Children’s Zone consists of charter schools, because he felt that the existing Harlem schools could not deliver the intensity and degree of attention that his youths — still surrounded by a lot of negative influences — absolutely require.

He is asking for responsibility from his black, urban families. And he is trying to complement their efforts with that of his schools. It’s a two-way pact.

But significantly, the blending of ingredients for success is ultimately not about racial differences. It’s simply about best values and practices.

I spoke with Sean O’Neil, executive director of Salem Academy Charter School, a grade six-through-12 school here in Salem that enrolls a diverse student body of every color, ethnicity, risk and income level. He echoed Canada’s philosophy that it is the simultaneous attention to all facets of a child’s growth and development that best assures a youth’s acquisition of the knowledge and skills necessary to graduate high school and attend college.

At O’Neil’s charter — like Canada’s — good teaching by caring adults, a family-school partnership, and a school culture that addresses the academic, emotional, social and health needs of the students are among the ingredients that contribute to an effective school and productive young adults.

By now, we have a pretty good idea about how to break the cycle of poverty and stop the waste of so much dropped-out youth. And if our nation can provide — from birth on — the nurturing that infants, children and young adults need, we will simultaneously start to solve the tension between races.


Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at