The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is a non-profit organization that funds and operates a neighborhood-based system of education and social services for the children of low-income families in a 100 block area in Harlem, New York. The HCZ education components include early childhood programs with parenting classes; public charter schools; academic advisors and afterschool programs for students attending regular public schools; and a support system for former HCZ students who have enrolled in college.  Health components include a fitness program; asthma management; and a nutrition program.   Neighborhood services include organizing tenant associations, one-on-one counseling to families; foster care prevention programs; community centers; and an employment and technology center that teaches job-related skills to teens and adults.

The HCZ has received remarkable media attention, including a best-selling book, Whatever it Takes, and a 60 Minutes feature. Presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned on replicating the HCZ as the first part of his plan to combat urban poverty:

The philosophy behind the project is simple — 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.  And we have to focus on what actually works . . .  .  And it is working . . . .  And if we know it works, there's no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem.

True to his campaign promise, President Obama instituted a Promise Neighborhoods Initiative intended to replicate the HCZ in 20 cities across the country.  The program received a $10 million appropriation from Congress in 2010, under which 339 communities applied to the U.S. Department of Education for planning grants to create Promise Neighborhoods. The administration has requested $210 million in new funding for the 2011 budget year to move from planning to implementation. The influence of the HCZ is not limited to these shores.  It is a regular stop for international visitors interested in education reform.  The Hungarian government intends to replicate the program to address social and education problems with their largest ethnic minority, the Roma.

What is unique and attention-getting about the HCZ is that it is designed on the assumption that it takes both effective, achievement-oriented schools and strong social and community services to support the educational achievement of children in poverty. The presumption is that effective schools alone are insufficient.  In this the HCZ and Promise Neighborhoods are aligned with the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, an advocacy position taken by an influential group of proponents of the view that public investment in the communities and society in which children are reared is a necessary condition for education reform.

The nation's education policy has typically been crafted around the expectation that schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning . . . .  [T]here is solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement. The persistent failure of policymakers to act on that evidence — in tandem with a schools-only approach — is a major reason why the association between disadvantage and low student achievement remains so strong.

Mr. James Moore

Mr. James Moore

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