On Friday night, in a packed Marshall Auditorium, renowned education activist, author and Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada was greeted like a movie star, which is appropriate, since he is one of the stars of Davis Guggenheim’s recent documentary, Waiting for “Superman.” Before signing copies of his books, Canada gave a rousing talk, sponsored by the Students Council Speakers Committee, in which he proclaimed that “unless we start doing something about our schools and our children, our country is in real peril.” (He name-checked, for instance, a shocking report, “Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve,” that posits that 75% of American young adults, age 17-24, are ineligible for the military, because they either didn’t graduate high school, are physically unfit or have a felony criminal record.) Though the many educators and educators-in-training who strained the capacity of the room no doubt have first-hand experiences with the failing school system that he described, everyone was energized by Canada, an engaging and charismatic speaker who eschewed notes and spoke off-the-cuff as he paced the stage.
Canada, whose ambitious work with the Harlem Children’s Zone aims to serve 10,000 children in 97 blocks in Harlem with a comprehensive range of “cradle-to-college” services designed to support learning and development and break the cycle of poverty, said that his goal for his HCZ kids is the same one he has for his own four children: they should go college. He advocates high expectations for students and requires teacher excellence, saying that students don’t fail, teachers fail them. “When you don’t allow failure,” he said, “you get success!” He also stumped for longer school days and years, something he has implemented in his own charter schools, because if children in poor schools are already falling behind, according to Canada, they can’t catch up following the same schedule as their middle-class peers.
The issue is money, Canada says. While the $5,000-per-child price tag that Canada says his work requires may sound like a lot of cash to some, he argues that if that child drops out (or is otherwise failed by our schools) and turns to crime, it costs roughly $35,000 a year to incarcerate him or her—a much higher figure that society doesn’t balk at paying.
Before a thoughtful Q&A session with audience members (many of whom identified themselves as fellow educators), Canada offered two challenges to teachers: to think outside the box and to teach children optimism. Considering the giddy enthusiasm of the students who introduced Canada an hour earlier as their “hero,” it is a challenge that many in attendance seemed up to.