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The Superman of Harlem: An Interview with Geoffrey Canada

The Superman of Harlem: An Interview with Geoffrey Canada

The founder of the Harlem Children's Zone on why it takes a whole community to educate a child.

When Geoffrey Canada launched his pilot school program in the late-1990s, it stretched just one block of East Harlem in New York City. Today, the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) covers 97 blocks and reaches over 8,000 children in one of the hardest areas of the country to get a decent education and escape generational poverty. HCZ's success, rooted in the belief that public education must be part of holistic community development, has made Canada an educational expert of our time, garnering praise from President Obama and a leading role in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Named one of Time magazine's top 100 in 2011, Canada recently spoke with Allison Althoff, reporting on behalf of the City project, shortly after the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, where Canada addressed the importance of faith and education. There, he explained the mind, heart, and soul behind HCZ—and how Christians can play a part.

One of the founding principles of the HCZ is that children's education cannot be divorced from where they live. Why is "place" so central to educational success?

In our country, we've allowed some communities to become toxic for children. These are places where the schools don't work and young people don't feel safe. There's crime, drugs, and violence in the streets and often in children's homes. Without real support in a community, the kids who don't go to a "good" school will end up in trouble with really negative outcomes.

We thought one way of approaching this problem was to literally draw a line around our community and say: "All of the kids in this community, regardless of if they go to our school or not, will make it, and the community will begin to heal itself and become a safer and a better place." We want our community clean, without filth on the streets; we want the adults to have a sense of pride in their community, and want young people to learn a sense of service. We believe school is an essential part, but rebuilding community is really critical to our work.


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September 04, 2012  4:58pm

What strikes me is Mr. Canada's emphasis on the importance of someone investing in a young life in a way that sends the message "You matter." That is essential to the child's education but also to the messenger's faith and the community's healthy valuing of children.


September 02, 2012  11:47pm

I was blessed to meet & visit with Mr. Canada a few years ago. He is a great encouragement for others of us--as administrators & community leaders--striving to hold our teachers accountable...in a time when too many are allowed to continued to receive compensation & benefits for less then responsible teaching & mentoring! I was impressed how he stuck to his guns...fired & then hired teachers willing to actually REACH OUT TO & TEACH the kids! We need many, many more people like Mr. Canada willing to say NO to teachers AND teachers' unions that are NOT willing to do the job! Just as a business man knows that the customer is "always" right, so too administrators should know that "students" are ALWAYS right. A failing student is at least in part failing BECAUSE the teacher(s) failed to effectively teach skills in a way the student could truly LEARN them. A HUGE part of being an effective teacher IS understanding the students' environment(s) --something I learned in my 1st year of teaching.


August 31, 2012  8:57pm

Very much enjoyed reading this article, for two reasons. The first is that I just wrapped up a copy of "Whatever It Takes" by Paul Tough to give as a gift to a friend of mine who will begin teaching 1st grade at a public school in the South Bronx in just a few days. Secondly, my church in the Bronx is currently raising money to finish our church building (the first one we will have had in the 40 years' we've been in the Bronx) so that we can start a street school in it Fall 2013. Am freshly encouraged by Mr. Canada's words about starting on one block and taking it from there. http://www.bhof.org/building08.html


August 31, 2012  8:41pm

Mr. Canada: You have been an inspiration to the faith-based institution that I work for (focused on youth programming in Boston's struggling neighborhoods). Thank you so much for your book and this interview.


August 30, 2012  5:25pm

Allison, thank you for interviewing Mr. Canada. His every word rings true, and I hope it will challenge teachers, school administrators, and parents, as well as church and community leaders, to never give up on a child, regardless of that child's context. We haven't even come close to trying everything, as he says, and I hope his work will inspire nationwide creativity in reaching children and helping them develop into responsible, confident, contributing adults.


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