In Harlem, a zone apart

N.Y. program could be model for helping impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods

Sun Special Report

June 15, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

NEW YORK - It's 7:30 a.m., and Altheo Serrao's family has just arrived in Harlem from Staten Island, a two-hour journey by bus, ferry and subway. They do this every school day to be part of a program that isn't available anywhere else in New York City - or, for that matter, anywhere else in the country.

Ezekiel, 8; Isaiah, 6; and Sarah, 5, are enrolled in the Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious project that has staked out 97 blocks of Central Harlem and seeks to draft every single family into its tight network of health, parenting and educational services that extend from infancy to college.

The Serrao siblings' backpacks bounce as they race each other into the school, where they spend 10 hours a day all year. In Staten Island, they'd be in a troubled public school where, their mother says, "they'd be expected to fail rather than succeed."

Central Harlem remains one of the toughest, poorest parts of New York City, with more than one-third of its residents living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. The zone takes on the same kinds of seemingly impossible urban problems that Baltimore and so many other cities face: poverty, crime, troubled schools, overwhelmed parents.

What makes it stand apart from other efforts to help at-risk children, say youth advocates who have studied it, is its network of comprehensive classes and programs, and a business strategy similar to that of a Fortune 500 company. Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman has called it the most promising social program for children anywhere in the country.

"Our mission is to transform an entire community by providing everything children need to succeed," says Zone founder and president Geoffrey Canada. "To tackle only one issue while everything else in a child's universe is crumbling is a failed strategy."

The project has received the admiration of presidential candidates and the attention of English royalty. Other cities, including Baltimore, are studying the Zone, with some trying to launch their own version.

"There are huge lessons there that we are looking at as we develop an initiative for East Baltimore," said Robert Blum, director of Johns Hopkins University's Urban Health Institute. Blum and other local community leaders toured Harlem in spring 2007.

Like the children it serves, the Harlem project is growing up. A decade after it began as a one-block pilot program, 7,400 children - about 75 percent of those who live in the Zone - are receiving its services.

An additional 3,200, like the Serrao children who left Harlem three years ago, come from all across New York City to attend its well-regarded charter schools or popular after-school programs.

One by one, the Zone has tried to remove the hurdles facing children born in Harlem.

Because surveys show that more than 30 percent of kids in the area have asthma, the Zone launched an asthma initiative, which it says has cut the number of emergency room visits in half and reduced their number of missed school days by almost 20 percent.

To address the poor diets common in lower-income neighborhoods, there is a monthly farmer's market, where a family can buy 25 pounds of produce for $5.

Conceived by Canada, 56, a children's advocate who grew up surrounded by poverty and violence in the South Bronx, the Harlem Children's Zone was born out of his frustration with well-meaning nonprofits that were too narrow in their focus.

In 1983, he joined the Rheedlen Centers, a nonprofit in Harlem. Over the years, he says, he began to find flaws with traditional programs that singled out specific problems, such as illiteracy or teen pregnancy.

"For every one problem a child had, there were 10 more problems," he says. "For every one child a program helped, there were 10 times the number that weren't being helped."

By 1998, he was president of Rheedlen. He pitched the idea - blanket a swath of Harlem with all manner of children's services - to Rheedlen board member Stanley Druckenmiller, a friend from Bowdoin College and billionaire hedge-fund manager. Together, the two dismissed Rheedlen's board and began fundraising for what they called the Harlem Children's Zone.

"We wanted to do it right, and we wanted to think of everything," Canada says.

The next year, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation gave Canada $250,000 and the services of a consulting agency to develop a business plan. Canada says that's a critical step that other nonprofits tend to overlook.

The Clark Foundation became so committed to Canada's vision that it had pledged $5.7 million by 2002.

Foundation president Nancy Roob says it was the breadth of the program that sold her on the Zone - that it reached out to families even before children are born, provided a continuum of services through childhood, and grew out of a neighborhood-based strategy.

"Lots of organizations do one of those things, or parts of two or three," Roob says. "But to do all of those things in one place through one organization is what makes it so successful."

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