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Harlem Children’s Zone, the renowned nonprofit providing social and academic support to low-income families in Central Harlem, has announced a new initiative to replicate its community-based model of family and educational services nationwide.

The initiative will start with six cities — Oakland, California; Minneapolis; Chicago; Detroit; Newark, N.J.; and Atlanta — that Harlem Children’s Zone, through a previous outreach effort, is already assisting with at least $26 million in Covid relief funding.

“We believe the time is right to leverage our two decades of experience to advance cradle-to-career initiatives across the U.S.,” said Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Kwame Owusu-Kesse. The cities were selected due to the presence of “high-performing organizations on the ground, with a track record of success.”

Breaking the cycle of systemic poverty and low academic achievement takes a long-term commitment, he said, and even after 20 years of focusing just on Harlem, the ultimate successes are only now coming into view.

Falilou Barry, right, was nine years old when his mother, Fatoumata Diallo, left, enrolled him in one of Harlem Children’s Zone’s afterschool programs. Today, he’s an analyst at a private equity firm.

“I was the first in my family to go to college,” said Falilou Barry, a 26-year-old Harlem native whose introduction to Harlem Children’s Zone came 17 years ago when his mother enrolled him in one of its after-school programs. Today, he works as an analyst at a private equity firm and takes great pride in both of his younger siblings’ following his path to college. Within a single generation, his family has staked a claim to social and economic opportunities often viewed as out of reach in low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods.

To foster these kinds of outcomes in other cities, Owusu-Kesse enticed Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone’s founder and former CEO, out of semi-retirement to lead the initiative, which Owusu-Kesse sees as “a national hub” for local groups. It would promote a holistic approach to anti-poverty and education services while also connecting them to the organization’s broad network of funders. 

 “Our aim is to be able to share best practices around the model, and complement that with resources and technical assistance,” said Owusu-Kesse.

While education experts welcome the attention and resources that a well-known, well-funded organization like Harlem Children’s Zone can bring, some caution that similarly ambitious efforts to expand the pairing of family services with academic enrichment have been attempted for at least a decade, with mixed results.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education launched the Promise Neighborhoods initiative in low-income neighborhoods across the country. Since 2010, more than $430 million in multiyear grants designed to foster cradle-to-career systems to combat generational poverty has been awarded to nonprofit groups in a total of 17 cities.

Related: Can a successful model from Harlem deliver ‘Promise’ to rural schools in Mississippi?

“The Promise Neighborhoods’ goal was to replicate the work of Harlem Children’s Zone — a federal grant program to do in neighborhoods across the country what Geoffrey Canada did for Harlem,” said Megan Gallagher, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy think tank.

And some of the best parts have indeed been reproduced in Promise Neighborhoods. “They have a very strong accountability framework and place heavy demands on data reporting and its role in decision-making,” Gallagher said. But, she added, “It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.” The challenges can differ significantly among cities. Sharing actionable data between school districts and local service organizations can be difficult. And the federal grants are only for five years.

Kwame Owusu-Kesse, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, adjusts the uniform of an eighth grader at the organization’s Promise Academy I charter school in Harlem in 2018. Credit: Harlem Children's Zone

A look at some Promise Neighborhoods, doing much of the work that Harlem Children’s Zone proposes, highlights not just how varied the needs are from one community to another, but also how difficult it can be to measure success, requiring a long-term evaluation marked by interim gains rather than quick turnarounds.

In West Philadelphia, one of the poorest areas in that city, a five-year, $30 million Promise Neighborhood grant went into effect in 2017. In the most recent, pre-pandemic school data available, only 31 percent of elementary school students within the Promise Neighborhood zone were scoring at proficiency in English, and only 16 percent in math. That’s below the figures for the overall city population, though the gap has narrowed slightly each of the last two years.

“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight,” said Amy Carroll-Scott, co-lead of policy and community engagement in Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative. Drexel is the lead partner in the grant, which encompasses seven public schools, including one charter school, in a two-square-mile area. In this majority-Black neighborhood, 50 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line

“We’re working in neighborhoods where the schools have been historically disinvested in; there’s no workforce development, no career pipeline,” said Carroll-Scott, who noted that while Drexel has a large institutional footprint in the area, “this community has long been economically excluded from its benefits.” One of the initial challenges, then, was simply establishing meaningful relationships with the neighborhood’s residents.

“There’s years of mistreatment and distrust of big institutions in these communities. That’s not overcome in five years,” said Joanne Ferroni, who, as director of university and community partnerships at Drexel, oversees the implementation of the grant.

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The progress is there, she said, if you know where to look for it. “We see the number of parents who encourage their kids to read has risen because of our early childhood supports. We have seen the medical home rate — the number of kids who have a primary care doctor — in the 93 percent range, which is incredibly rare for a population with this level of poverty and unemployment. This shows that our safety net is working.”

The Promise Academy is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. A polarizing aspect of Harlem Children’s Zone’s strategy was its decision to fund lottery-admission charter schools, which spend more money per student than the average district school. Credit: Jules Antonio/Flickr

These positive trends, Carroll-Scott argues, are the cornerstones of future academic progress.

“Housing stability, food insecurity, behavioral health needs of the child or their family — all of these things affect achievement in school,” she said. “So, to only look at performance in school … that’s just such a naïve marker of progress.”

At Reynolds High School in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, students participating in a recently launched Promise Neighborhood program are showing lower absentee rates than their peers, said Melissa Hicks, director of the Promise Neighborhood Initiative at the nonprofit group Self Enhancement, the grant recipient. In only the second year of the 2019 grant, one of the program’s unique challenges is reflected in the very boundaries of its neighborhood zone. The grant covers students in both the Albina community in North Portland  and the Rockwood neighborhood of Gresham — a suburb more than 15 miles to the east. Albina used to be a majority-Black neighborhood, but decades of gentrification have forced residents to move farther north and farther east, including Hicks herself.

“I used to live in North Portland but had to move out [to Rockwood] because it became so unaffordable,” said Hicks. In what was a predominantly white suburb as recently as 2000, the student population at Reynolds High School is now 69 percent students of color. These students come from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Hicks recognized early on that before addressing educational outcomes, Self Enhancement, which has traditionally served an African American population, would need to partner with organizations that had strong ties to the local Latino, immigrant, Asian and Native communities.

Related: Buffalo shows a turnaround of public schools is possible, but it takes a lot more than money

“In our refugee community you may have former doctors or lawyers, successful people who come here and their credentials mean nothing,” Hicks said. “That poverty looks very different than a Black family that’s a single mom with three kids trying to maintain a stable household.” Addressing those varying needs requires creating deep and meaningful partnerships between local service providers and schools.

Geoffrey Canada, left, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, talks to a participant in the HCZ Summer Olympics, Aug. 18, 2004, in New York. Canada is coming out of semi-retirement to lead a new initiative to export HCZ’s model to other cities Credit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

In an effort to understand the needs in the community, Promise Neighborhood programs are required to conduct door-to-door surveys of families in their catchment area. In Camden, New Jersey, that interaction is seen as vital.

“What goes on outside of the school day for that student is going to impact their success,” said Megan Lepore, director of development and sustainability at the Center for Family Services, which administers Camden’s Promise Neighborhood. In an area with academic proficiency levels that are 20 to 30 points below the New Jersey state average, the center’s 2017 surveys tackled a range of issues, from food insecurity to the employment skills of the adults in the house. It’s a time-consuming but crucial element of not only trust-building in the community, but  also making sure the program partners are delivering what the community needs.

Before the survey was conducted, Lepore said, her partners did not have a strong workforce development system in place. “Now we have employees who are dedicated to job training, interviewing and soft skills,” she said.

While social and family services have a huge role to play, it is through the relationships built and maintained with local school systems that the most easily defined markers of progress are shown.

“In some places you’ve got really strong district school partners, and in others you have absent school partners,” said Gallagher of the Urban Institute. “What it comes down to is whether the schools see this as a threat. Whether Promise Neighborhoods are integrated into schools or not is the big question.”

“There’s years of mistreatment and distrust of big institutions in these communities. That’s not overcome in five years.”

Joanne Ferroni, director of university and community partnerships at Drexel University

And perhaps no aspect of Harlem Children’s Zone’s work is as polarizing as its decision to pour its considerable financial resources into lottery-admission charter schools. The organization, whose board is populated by major philanthropists and hedge fund managers, spends  thousands of dollars more per student than the average New York City district school does. While the majority of students in these charter schools routinely exceed statewide proficiency standards, it’s an open question as to whether the schools hold replicable lessons for programs partnering with neighborhood district schools, given the outsize differences in funding, as well as the self-selecting nature of lottery-admission schools. 

“Harlem Children’s Zone has so much money that where there wasn’t local capacity, they just created it,” said Gallagher. This fuels concern over just how closely a national outreach initiative can follow the organization’s approach. “Do they have the appropriate model for groups of kids different than those they may have served in Harlem? Are they prepared to work with existing district schools?”

In reply to that question, Owusu-Kesse said, “Our commitment is to work with organizations that are accountable for delivering high-quality outcomes with a comprehensive strategy that includes quality education in all forms.” And, pointing again to the comprehensive approach required to tackle generational poverty, he added, “While quality education is essential to the strategy, it is not a silver bullet, and schools should not be the sole focus.”

Related: Will turning schools into hubs for services help revive dying cities?

Indeed, Owusu-Kesse points to a reality all too familiar to those who have already embraced a cradle-to-career model: The issue of poor academic performance in low-income communities cannot be solved exclusively within the walls of any school building. The foundational work to build trust in the community and equitable partnerships among service providers and institutions is crucial. And it takes time.

“I wish this was a longer-term grant,” said Hicks of Portland’s five-year Promise Neighborhood program grant. “Because I literally could have spent all of the first year just planning and prepping, strengthening those relationships, to make sure our partners don’t feel like we’re coming in and doing this to them — that this is a collaboration.”

None of this work is easy or can be adequately judged over the course of just a year or two.

“These first five years are like finding yourself,” said Lepore. “It’s an opportunity to find out what’s working, what isn’t and what we need to invest in.” Which means that the success or failure of any Harlem Children’s Zone initiative isn’t likely to be fully understood for years to come.

For Barry, the biggest success goes beyond his own career, to what it has meant for his younger siblings to see his journey firsthand. “They knew if I could do it, then they could definitely do it because they saw the process. They saw exactly how I did it,” he said.

This story about the Harlem Children’s Zone was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Amadou Diallo is a journalist, playwright and photographer whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wirecutter, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera America and The Christian Science Monitor. He has been...

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  1. I would read alphabet books to my kids since they were born. Each day for their first two years of their life, I showed them one letter a day, and would repeat the sound that the letter would make. By the time they were two, they both could identify every letter sound. By the time they were three, they were starting to read. Today, they are voracious readers, and are straight A students in all honors classes.

    Forget what the so-called experts are saying, forget sight words. Kids need to learn the letter sounds which is significantly more important than the letter name. It will work. Take any newborn and do this every day for 2-5 minutes, two or three times a day, and you will have a lifelong learner and reader.

    For math, we would count blocks as we stacked them “1 block, 2 blocks, 3 blocks…” Math is now my kids favorite and strongest subject.

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