The history of Harlem, the troubled inner-city New York neighbourhood, is often overshadowed by its poverty, drug crime and social problems.
But Sheryl Ragland’s Promise Academy II is no ordinary school. While other public schools in Harlem struggle with high dropout rates and poor grades, this school is part of the ground-breaking Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) project.
Set up by outspoken United States educator Geoffrey Canada, the Children’s Zone is causing a stir across America by creating a centre of academic excellence smack in the middle of one of the most deprived areas of New York.
The school has been lauded by President Barack Obama, who aims to extend its model to 20 other cities.
It also features prominently in the hit US documentary Waiting for Superman, which laments the shocking state of public education and holds up the Children’s Zone as a solution.
On the face of it, the Children’s Zone appears to offer many tips for success. So popular are the two schools it runs in Harlem that they are oversubscribed and gaining entrance to them is a lottery. Literally.
In heart-rending scenes in Waiting for Superman, which was directed by An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, parents and children are shown watching as numbered balls are pulled out of a tombola. If their numbers come up they get in; if not, then it’s off to a local public school and, potentially, a very different kind of life.
Walking the corridors of the Children’s Zone’s two schools – both classed as “charter schools”, which get public money but are free of many of the rules of the public school system – it is no wonder so many Harlem families want their children to go there. For most children going to school in Harlem, the idea of going to university is a distant dream, but in HCZ schools it is an ever-present aim. The walls are lined with motivational posters.
In lessons, too, the emphasis on university is never far away. Even in kindergarten, HCZ children are already learning Spanish as a foreign language.
Yet all this is happening in an area where HCZ staff still patrol the main roads to protect pupils from drug gangs on the way home. “The services they are providing are exceptional for disenfranchised people in the Harlem community,” said Luis Huerta, professor of education and public policy at Columbia University.
The school seems to be solving one of America’s most troubling problems: the collapsing standards of much of the nation’s public education system, especially in poor, minority neighbourhoods, like Harlem.
The figures are shocking. In New York, just 28 per cent of black males graduate from high school. Roughly 1.2 million black male students drop out of school each year nationwide. In an economy reeling from the recession and high unemployment, their prospects are grim.
But it is not just minorities. Waiting for Superman points out that the current crop of US pupils will be the first generation in America to be less literate than the previous one.
Some education reformers, especially on the right, believe that charter schools are the answer, hailing Waiting for Superman and its message of schools breaking free of central control. Others think it is not quite that simple.
Teaching unions believe that charter schools are being used as a tool to break union power. They accuse Waiting for Superman of furthering that anti-union agenda and taking far too simplistic an approach to a vastly complex problem. “It was a Hollywood movie with a Hollywood solution,” said Peter Kadushin, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers in New York.
Recent school progress reports in the city also cast doubt on the idea that charter schools are a “magic pill” and more of them will solve the nation’s education woes. The studies showed that a higher percentage of city public schools were being rated as an A or a B than charter schools.
The fact is that the success of the Children’s Zone in Harlem is not built on charter schools alone.
The project, which covers a 100-block swath of Harlem, also provides social services. It hosts parenting classes for expectant couples, provides a clinic for pupils that is often their only real chance of getting healthcare, and keeps in touch with former pupils who have gone to university, encouraging them to stay there at all costs. It also works with nine local public schools – while 1400 children go to charter schools, another 8000 benefit from Children’s Zone programmes, such as after-school lessons. In short, the HCZ is far more than just a charter school group and more like an aid organisation rebuilding a community.
“We are essentially like a parent to the kids in the neighbourhood. A good parent, always hovering nearby, and we will intervene to solve a problem,” said Marty Lipp, the project’s communication director. Lipp pointed out that HCZ’s remit was basically to shepherd a Harlem child from “cradle to college”.
Huerta argues that HCZ’s blanket approach means that the cost per pupil is too high to be replicated nationwide. Or at least not until someone is brave enough to suggest spending billions of extra dollars on education, which does not seem politically likely. Observer