'There's lots that can be done'

October 25, 2012|Lionel Foster

In 2008, Paul Tough’s first book, “Whatever It Takes,” told the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a massive effort to leverage a pre-birth-through-high-school system of education services to change the trajectory of 10,000 children in one 97-block area. In his new best-seeling book, “How Children Succeed” — recently praised by commentators ranging from conservative David Brooks to liberal Nicholas Kristof — Mr. Tough examines the lifelong impacts of stress during childhood and the noncognitive skills, like grit and curiosity, that could help mitigate early learning deficits. Mr. Tough will speak at three free events in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday (details: www.paultough.com). I discussed these issues with him by phone and email ahead of the Baltimore leg of his book tour.

Can you tell us about the state of efforts to bring the Harlem Children’s Zone model to other areas?

The [United States Department of Education] Promise Neighborhoods program is something I’ve been following more or less since Obama proposed it back in 2007. And I’ve visited a number of replication attempts that have federal funding and some that don’t.

Part of the reason I thought the program was so promising as Obama originally proposed it is because it was going to help out on the money end. The problem is that not every city has the combination of wealth and poverty that New York does. There’s definitely lots of wealth [in New York]. [Harlem Children's Zone founder] Geoffrey Canada is very skilled at tapping into it and getting a lot of wealthy donors on his board. That’s why he has the budget that he has. But there are lots of cities that don’t have those kinds of resources. So I think that, if the federal government had come through or if they in the future come through in the way Obama proposed, that really would level the playing field, and other cities could have a better shot at having something the size and scope of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

That said, I do think that there’s lots that can be done with less money. I don’t think it can be done for nothing, but I think there are lots of cities, including Baltimore, that have the kind of philanthropic community where, if everyone was on the same page and donating to the same thing, and there was better coordination between those efforts, a lot of positive stuff could happen.

Lots of cities talk about the same things. I think they’re mostly feeling optimistic, but they talk about the fact that it’s hard to get people who are used to being siloed in their own organizations with their own accountability to [join forces] and hold each other accountable in a way that you need to, I think, in order to make a project like this work. But I also hear from people that they’re really excited about the prospect of trying, that for the longest time people just didn’t talk to each other. You had the pre-K that was feeding into the local school just down the block, and people who were running each just weren’t talking to each other. People who were running the daycare center and people who were running the after-school program, they were all just taking these kids and not communicating with each other. So I think there are lots of cities where, especially when city hall gets involved and the education bureaucracy gets involved, at the very least some promising conversations are going on. I think that will enable cities to do it for a lot less money than the Harlem Children’s Zone is spending. ...

One of the things I learned by writing about Geoffrey Canada is that philanthropy can play a really important role in the development of new ideas in education or policy, period. I think if we had just waited for the federal government to fund something like the Harlem Children’s Zone, it never would have happened. The model that Geoff has in mind and Obama had in mind when he talked about it in 2007, a real partnership between philanthropists and the government, is a really good one. Each can provide different things and together they can, potentially at least, create a really lasting model for interventions.

Are there any noticeable differences in how various cities are trying to implement the Harlem Children’s Zone model?

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