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Baltimore Children's Zone?

Considering a Radical Education Strategy's Potential in Baltimore

Deanna Staffo

By Michael Corbin | Posted 1/21/2009

In his July 18, 2007, campaign speech "Changing the Odds for Urban America," Barack Obama observed, "What's most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it's so difficult to escape--it is isolating and it's everywhere." That the former community organizer, in his historic run to the White House, would regularly make such statements of fact about the lived experience of many people in places such as Baltimore is a welcome change. The hyper-segregated, impoverished communities in America have simply become immutable features on the landscape in this country. We fret occasionally about public safety, but no longer really believe, by and large, such communities can be fixed.

Even the discussion of what to do seems exhausting and exhausted. One side blames large economic and social forces and the other side simply sees bad decision making, bad parenting, and self-inflicted degradation enabled in part by the very programs set up by those on the other side.

Consensus builder that he tries to be, however, Obama has pointed to one model in particular he says gets beyond the tired debate and represents real hope--if not merely attention--to the plight of the dispossessed in Baltimore and across urban America. And as profiled in New York Times reporter Paul Tough's fall 2008 book Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, the model of the Harlem Children's Zone does indeed represent a growing social scientific consensus on the nature and seeming perpetuity of urban poverty. The "Zone" is a 97-block area in Harlem that, through the superhuman efforts of Geoffrey Canada, lots of grassroots organizing, and a ton of philanthropic dollars, has been turned into a European-style social democracy that has as its goal nothing less than a cradle-to-college conveyor belt to the American middle-class for Harlem kids.

"The philosophy behind the project is simple," Obama said in that same speech, delivered in Washington, D.C. "If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community."

The metaphor of disease is a telling recasting of American debates about poverty in Obama's rhetoric. Tough's book weaves into the story of the Harlem Children's Zone the narrative of the academic social science that Canada and Obama believe now more precisely diagnoses and prescribes interventions to cure the pathologies of poverty.

For instance, an important character in the book is Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman. "More than any other figure in the academic world today," Tough writes a bit grandiloquently, "Heckman is constructing a grand unified theory of poverty in America." That theory is that all the skills, cognitive and non-cognitive, necessary to middle-class access are all teachable when targeted at the right developmental moment in a child's life and nurtured from birth onward. Our problem is we simply don't target our interventions well enough, start early enough, or provide enough of a continuum of services. Heckman, a conservative who has become an informal advisor to Obama, proposes "a policy of equality of opportunity in access to home environments (or their substitutes.)"

Like Obama, Canada worked in urban communities before founding his Children's Zone. Unlike Obama, he grew up poor and in a violent neighborhood. The problem as he saw it then in New York--and in cities like Baltimore--was that all the various interventions by social programs, schools, recreation centers, little leagues, and the like, was that they were all scattershot, often giving help in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, through the superhuman effort of a social worker here, a school teacher or coach there, you would have the classic story of the ghetto kid who made good--like Canada himself, who made it to Bowdoin College. Those feel-good stories, however, would never and will never change the communities themselves or the lives of the vast majority of their inhabitants. What is needed, Canada's thinking went, are substitute environments.

In Baltimore, a similar consensus appears to be emerging. We simply need to take the kids out of the dysfunctional communities altogether. This past fall saw the opening of Maryland's first public boarding school. Located in Baltimore on the campus of what used to be Southwestern High, the Seed School of Maryland opened its doors last August. Modeled after a school in Washington, D.C., the school is based on the principle that a child at risk must be taken out of his or her home and community to obtain all those necessary cognitive and non-cognitive skills that allow for the hoped for social mobility.

Similarly, public schools across Baltimore are attempting to build their own conveyor belt of sorts. Andr%uFFFDs Alonso, the city's ambitious new superintendent, has introduced the idea of "Transformation Schools," combining the middle school grades with high school so as to control and provide the appropriate interventions. Kipp-Ujima Village, Baltimore's highly successful version of the national Knowledge is Power Program franchise of schools for the dispossessed, has decided it will need to add an elementary school to its sought after middle school program in Northwest Baltimore so as to align more appropriately all those necessary cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

This has become The Boys of Baraka approach to urban poverty in Baltimore. That 2005 NAACP Image Award-winning documentary about the journey of four 12-year-old Baltimore boys to Kenya and back encapsulates our own scattershot hopes. If we could only get them out to their own Baltimore Children's Zone, even if it is on the continent of Africa, then maybe we could save them.

"It's time to change the odds for neighborhoods all across America," Obama said in that same speech. "And that's why when I'm president, the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country."

Baltimore has already put its dibs in to be one of those cities. The city's school system sent a group that includes Alonso, Michael Sarbanes (director of community engagement for the school system), and Jonathan Brice (director of student support) along with representatives from the mayor's office, the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and Enterprise Community Partners to see how the Children's Zone could be replicated in Baltimore.

Canada has his own counter-intuitive medical metaphor for what he hopes to accomplish. He wants not just to save the kids of Harlem. He wants to save the community of Harlem, sometimes against the desires of his philanthropic benefactors. He wants other urban communities to survive, too, not just have their children removed and put on a conveyor belt. His metaphor is contagion. If he could produce enough support, enough quality institutions, enough academic achievement, enough hope in his little zone, he could, perhaps, infect the whole community, help it reach a tipping point, and it would change.

In Baltimore, the contagion still runs metaphorically in the other direction. We do triage on the kids, and hope, in some of our communities, we don't reach another kind of tipping point.

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