What it takes

I took advantage of the long weekend to read Paul Tough‘s Whatever it Takes, his account of the evolution of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone into one of the most ambitious community development programmes in America. 

Canada’s central idea is that when it comes to fighting inner-city poverty, you have to start with the outcomes you want to achieve, and work backwards from there. Once you know what you want, then you have to do whatever it takes to get there. His goal is to see poor children, no matter how disadvantaged, grow into full participants in middle class life. To do that, he needs to get them through adolescence, into high school, and preferably graduating from college. And how do we do that?

The solution, in the end, is what he calls a “conveyor belt” of support programmes, parenting clases,  schools, and so on, all designed to provide the appropriate and necessary intervention at the point in the child’s life when it is most needed and most likely to succeed. And so he conceived the HCZ, an interlocking and overlapping series of programmes that will carry every child from birth to graduation, giving them every advantage that middle-class parents provide their own children as a matter of course.

Tough’s book is the distillation of four years of reporting he did on the HCZ, while working for the New York Times magazine. It traces the evolution of Canada’s efforts, narrating both the wonderful successes (such as the Baby College that teaches even the most inept and unprepared parents how to properly foster their child’s cognitive development) as well as the failures — the most heartbreaking of which is the summary expulsion of an underperforming class of eighth graders from his charter school, the Promise Academy. 

It’s a short book, but it deftly and unobtrusively braids together a number of touchy themes, including race,culture, poverty, class, educational theory, and philanthropy. If there is a single takeaway from  Geoffrey Canada’s experiment, it is that it is further confirmation that for interventions to work, the sooner they are implemented the better. If you want to help a child out of the poverty trap, you have to intervene preferably in infancy; by the time the kids get to kindergarten it is too late. 

Harlem is one of the most complicated, fascinating, and exasperating neighborhoods in North America. Geoffrey Canada is a remarkable man, and Paul Tough has written a small masterpiece about him and his community.

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