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.