Denise Johnson: The aggressive educator

  • Article by: Denise Johnson
  • June 8, 2009 - 7:45 PM
FROM APPEARANCES ON CNN, "60 MINUTES'' AND OPRAH, Geoffrey Canada has become a familiar national commentator on strategies to close the achievement gap in education among low-income students. ¶ Raised in a tough New York neighborhood himself, Canada earned a graduate degree in education from Harvard, then returned home to teach. Frustrated that traditional schools weren't making progress with poor African-American students, he designed a system of social and educational services, including charter schools, to surround kids and families with support. Called the Harlem Children's Zone, the effort is now a $60 million program that serves about 8,000 youths. He is also the author of several books about raising boys and about the culture of violence. ¶ Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks praised the Zone's "no-excuses'' approach for producing student gains that have eliminated -- not just narrowed -- black/white disparities. Minneapolis Foundation leaders recently brought Canada to the Twin Cities. Following are excerpts from a speeech he gave and from a separate conversation with Star Tribune editorial writer Denise Johnson.


Our country has a crisis [in education] -- a real crisis. We have adopted a set of policies that are simply preparing us to be a second-rate nation. We are competing globally against folks who are investing -- people in India and China who understand that the race is not to figure out how much bauxite you can extract from the ground but how many engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers can you produce. And here in this country, we're still acting like it's 1950. We are so far behind the curve. ...

If you care about your children, you're going to have to do it yourself. No one is coming to rescue Minnesota's children. In Harlem, we have to save our own kids.


We started with one or two blocks in Harlem and expanded to 100 blocks where we do what it takes to make sure kids don't fail. The area has so many issues that any one thing you do is not powerful enough to be successful [alone]. So you've got to do everything. Provide all the support services that families need -- health care, dental, meals -- to support education.

Our program has six major principles. First, begin early. So we started Baby College to work with pregnant moms, and the first of those kids are now fourth-graders at or above grade level. We intend to keep them there. Second, continuity. Give them a great program, then protect the investment by sending them on to another great program. Every cycle of a child's life is just as important as the one he just left.

Third, parents have to be our partners. It's primitive, but this is what we do for the least-engaged parents: We bribe them. If a $25 gift certificate to Best Buy will get them to come in and learn about their kid's brain development -- fine. It's about outcomes for kids. And if kids don't come to school, we go out and get them. ...


The fourth thing, which gets me in a lot of trouble, is that schools have to be redesigned for success. Nothing is more important than getting this right. Education has a certain physics, and we pretend that doesn't exist -- like trying to make believe gravity isn't there. So you keep pushing kids off cliffs, watch them fall and wonder why that keeps happening.

The school year is designed for middle-class students to make about one year's progress in about 180 days -- so that's what it will produce. In my schools, kids are two or more years behind. So I can change everything -- the facilities, the teachers, even the community -- and with poor kids, the physics say that a year later those kids will still be two years behind. You've got to invest in a longer school day, a longer school year.

And this is considered heresy to say: If you can't teach, find another job. ... And you need school leadership that simply won't accept failure. That's among the things public schools must do to get this right.


Fifth, we've got to make communities a positive, supportive environment. You can just look at some neighborhoods and see that they aren't healthy. So we spend time cleaning up parks, creating playgrounds, engaging adults in building community. Lastly, use evaluations to drive student outcomes. We keep failing the kids instead of taking responsibility as adults to learn why kids fail, then do something about it.

We need to make sure that kids have the opportunity to figure out how to save themselves. This is a challenge with shrinking budgets, because programs are being cut. But you don't know what is going to save a child -- for some it may be dance, or music, or drawing.

I'm optimistic because I'm convinced we're at the dawn of a new time in America. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will put government funding toward innovative ways to educate kids. So if we fight, we can really save our children and this nation.

Denise Johnson is at

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