Jul 28, 2011 by Cory Armes, M.Ed.

Recently, while driving down the street, I saw this billboard:

Harlem Safe Zone

While that may be a bit extreme, education has been evolving to better meet the needs of today's students, since many children have not been successful with the system employed in years past.  Oftentimes, the majority of these students ‘lost in the system’ were those born into poverty.

Research studies done over the last few decades on the impact of poverty on learning have established that the majority of children born into low income families enter school significantly behind their more affluent peers in language 1, cognitive skills (memory, attention, etc.) and noncognitive skills (patience, ability to follow directions, self confidence, etc.) 2,as well as general learning experiences. Even with special programs designed to develop and strengthen these skills, the improvements typically last only as long as the programs; there is little long-term impact on academic success without ongoing effort and support systems in place.

Geoffrey Canada was a child who began life in poverty, but his situation was unique--he had an educated mother who was determined to keep her children out of the typical downward spiral of failure. Canada determined to do something that would impact children in poverty and his efforts have been chronicled in the book Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

Canada's target area has been central Harlem.  From the start, he knew that significant changes had to be made in family practices from birth and beyond to give these children a chance at success. He believed that if he began with the final outcome he wanted to achieve, and then determined what was needed to realize that goal, he could create a process to change the cycle of poverty.  With the help of many people, he has created a continuous, cohesive and comprehensive system designed to change the overall culture of the area.  This neighborhood ‘safety net’ is called the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Harlem Children’s Zone began with efforts to improve parenting skills that would help mothers and fathers work on educational skills with their infants and toddlers.  Over time, additional programs have been added to provide extensive support from birth to kindergarten so these children would be prepared for school in a way that few Harlem children had ever been in the past.  For children that have reached “school age”, the provision of extra time in the classroom to focus on individual needs has set the Harlem Children’s Zone apart from other well-meaning efforts.  And now, the Harlem Children’s Zone model has moved beyond Harlem, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announcing last week that some of his state’s cities will begin using Canada’s community-based approach.

Children who learn critical skills at an early age are better able to master more complex skills later.  The best way to escape poverty is through education, and that education must begin at birth – or before.  The Harlem Children’s Zone has shown that if you provide the key skills needed to offset the disadvantages of a child’s birthplace, you may be able to remove the seemingly insurmountable obstacles seen in the cycle of poverty of the past.  Truly, we all must be willing to do whatever it takes.


Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America(New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

1 Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children(Baltimore: P.H. Brookes, 1995). 

2 James Heckman, “ Lessons from the Bell Curve,” Journal of Political Economy 103, no. 5 (October 1995).

Related Reading:

Limiting Young Children’s Screen Time for Long-Term Health

Engaging Children in the World with Words