For the past 10 years, Geoffrey Canada has dedicated his heart and soul to making the Harlem Children’s Zone a success. As President and CEO of this non-profit organization, Canada has instigated the growth of innovative social programs and charter schools throughout the community. His goal is always the same: to provide underprivileged families a path out of poverty. However, it wasn’t until “New York Times Magazine” editor, Paul Tough’s 2004 article brought Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone to the national forefront of the education debate that the rest of America took notice. Now Tough’s literary debut, “Whatever It Takes” (Houghton Mifflin, $26), picks up where his editorial left off, probing deeper into Canada’s remarkable philosophy of change. ESSENCE.com talked with the author about the time he spent with Canada and why the rest of the country should be following his example.
ESSENCE.COM: Is it true that you followed Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone for the last 5 years to write your story and then this book?
PAUL TOUGH: Yes, I’m interested in the subject of poverty because it always seems so unsolvable. I read a brief mention about Geoff and the Harlem Children’s Zone in a newspaper. There was something about the simple explanation of what he was doing, taking this 24-block neighborhood and saturating it with services for poor kids from birth to college. It just seemed so new and it attracted my attention. Also, the organization was going through a transition at the time because they were about to move from an organization that was mostly social services to something that was combining education and social services.
ESSENCE.COM: Why is education is such a popular topic right now?
TOUGH: There is nothing more important that people want from the government or even out of life than good schools for their kids. This debate has been stuck for a long time between those supporting or opposing the No Child Left Behind Act. There doesn’t seem to be a solution one way or another. There is a real spark of new ideas. Now, there are all these experiments like the Harlem Children’s Zone that are using different approaches with impressive results. I hope other educators will imitate the way Canada has integrated services. He’s not just building a great charter school, he is weaving (school and social services) together.
ESSENCE.COM: How much time did you spend with Canada to complete the book?
TOUGH: I did four things at once. I spent three years at the middle school, a year at the elementary school, a few months at the pre-K and nine weeks with the Baby College program. Then I talked to Geoff every two weeks… He has a personal connection to what he’s doing because of how he grew up. He hopes that he can see a path from what he’s doing to a real transformation that will manifest itself all over the country.
ESSENCE.COM: Has he read the book yet?
TOUGH: Yes, he’s enthusiastic. I was pretty nervous when I gave it to him because he’s a candid person. I also wrote about when things weren’t working and the school was going through hard times.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
TOUGH: I want people to realize that there is a lot more that we can do to change the lives of poor kids. There are ideas that have a lot of science behind them and a high success rate that we’re not putting into play. Any voter who cares about this and wants to understand what’s going on in a part of the country that doesn’t get a lot of attention can connect to this issue and get a sense of how things are changing.
Do you believe the “No Child Left Behind” Act has had a positive impact in our education system?