Every Saturday morning, a crowd of adults — some alone, others with toddlers in tow — squeeze into a classroom in the heart of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to study better parenting at Baby College.
In the nine-week free program, new parents learn about their child’s brain and how to develop it. They learn how to read to young children, talk to a child who is too young to answer, provide balanced nutrition and offer loving discipline without anger.
“When middle-class parents are speaking with young children, they don’t really issue directives so much as they engage the child in a conversation, reasoning things through with them,” says Anna Egalite, an education professor at North Carolina State University.
Since its launch in 2000, Baby College has graduated 5,522 parents. It’s part of a much larger nonprofit project known as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which aims to build a stronger community that helps parents nurture and direct their kids.
HCZ is the granddaddy of nearly 50 Promise Neighborhood programsscattered throughout the United States, many seeded since 2010 by federal grants. The network includes seven neighborhood programs in the Salt Lake region and one in Ogden, all operated by local United Way affiliates.
Promise Neighborhoods are a solution to a startling challenge first identified 50 years ago by a landmark survey of 600,000 students at 4,000 schools around the country.
The 1966 Coleman Report, named for its principal author, James Samuel Coleman, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, found that school structure, teaching and curriculum had a much smaller impact on how well students do academically than long supposed. The most potent influences on academic success, he argued, were found in the home, in the neighborhood and among friends.
“The Coleman Report pushed family and community to the forefront in shaping academic success,” said David Figlio, an economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
And that’s where the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Promise Neighborhoods enter the picture.
Children enjoy career day at the Harlem GEMS preschool program, which is part of the Harlem Children’s Project’s Cradle to College pipeline. | Harlem Children’s Project
“We’ve spent a long time as a society trying to solve social complex problems with isolated, simple programs,” says Bill Crim, CEO of the United Way of Salt Lake County, which is heavily invested in the model.
If Coleman was right, tackling educational achievement gaps must begin at or before birth — not kindergarten. And those gaps will be closed not by teachers in isolation, but by supportive communities that empower parents and embrace children — before they ever get to school, and when they are outside of it as well.
Commissioned by Congress as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Coleman Report sought to close the dogged educational separation between poor African-Americans and Latinos from their better-off white peers.
Coleman’s research also played a key role in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s much-publicized war on poverty. But if the policymakers had hoped to be offered educational silver bullets, they must have been disappointed.
Coleman argued “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context” and “the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.”
With its findings on the impact of peer groups, the report had an immediate impact on school desegregation, helping to spur the controversial busing programs that peaked in the 1970s and lingered into the 1990s. To this day, researchers and advocates are still working on finding way to integrate America’s schools, which remain heavily segregated by income levels and race.
In 1972, eminent Harvard statistics professor Frederick Mosteller and Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that the Coleman Report had “turned understanding of a major area of social policy upside down as perhaps no comparable event in the history of social science.”
Today, most experts agree that the futility of education reform was overstated, but the underlying point that home and community are overwhelmingly critical has been borne out by later research.
“In the past 50 years, the research has caught up to those claims and validated his findings,” says Egalite. “There is a rich body of literature now that would stand up under any scrutiny showing that family background is hugely important.”
And yet American education reform dialogue has remained fixed on the classroom. And 50 years later multiple waves of education reform have crested and receded, and the numbers that concerned Coleman persist. The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, for example, showed that those gaps had not narrowed since 2002.
Many advocates think it’s time to return to the core findings of that 1966 Coleman Report by focusing on family, peer groups and neighborhoods. And this is precisely the space occupied by the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Cradle to career
In his 2015 book “Our Kids,” Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam details how better off families and communities provide what he calls “air bags” for their children — insulating them from shocks, helping them bounce back when they fall.
In an interview with the Deseret News last year, Putnam described a family friend whose grandchild had got charged with a drug offense while at college on the West Coast. “It’s terrible, but we’re dealing with it,” the grandmother said. The boy’s mother flew out and they hired a good lawyer. “Those are air bags inflating around the kid,” Putnam told his wife.
But many kids in Harlem get far more shocks with far fewer air bags. HCZ tallies the numbers in its annual report: Sixty-five percent of children in the zone are born in poverty, 54 percent to single mothers. One third have asthma, 30 percent have lost a family member to violence, and 20 percent have seen someone shot.
The HCZ model is a systematic effort to emulate in low-income communities the buffering and guidance that middle class kids receive in stronger families or social networks.
To this end, HCZ focuses narrowly on 97 blocks of Harlem, boasting an ambitious “cradle to college and career” objective. They call it a pipeline. Kids enter at one end in Baby College or preschool, move integrated after-school programs and mentoring, with hand-offs to caring adults along the way.
One HCZ after-school program, for example, is called Healthy Harlem. It now serves 7,000 local youths, providing an hour of vigorous exercise a day and 45 minutes of nutrition education once each week.
HCZ programs continue into high school and the college application process, and there is even a College Success Office that helps guide and buffer young adults through the bumps that would otherwise derail their studies.
Today, HCZ reports that it currently has 913 HCZ students in college and boasts a 93 percent college acceptance rate from its programs for 2015.
HCZ has received intense media attention over the years, including a 2007 visit from Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. That year, the program was lauded by then-Sen. Barack Obama during his race for the White House.
“The philosophy behind the project is simple,” Obama said. “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence; failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.”
In 2009, HCZ worked with other nonprofits to found the Promise Neighborhoods Institute, and in 2010, HCZ’s CEO, Geoffrey Canada, traveled to England to speak to British leaders considering replicating the model.
It was also in 2010 that HCZ’s charter schools were featured in the controversial hit documentary “Waiting for Superman,” along with two other prominent charter models. The film was panned in some corners for its fawning and uncritical treatment of HCZ.
But momentum was real, and in 2010 the Obama administration authorized over $200 million in seed funding to create the network that now boasts nearly 50 programs across the country.
Not everyone was sold, however. A 2010 study by the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington, D.C.-based think tank, looked at one of HCZ’s two Harlem charter schools and expressed grave concerns about the resources required to expand the HCZ model.
Noting that school-only programs, like KIPP academy, had been producing comparable if not better test results, Brookings questioned whether the proposed federal funding made sense.
But a 2013 review of HCZ by Danielle Hanson at the conservative Heritage Foundation was more sympathetic to HCZ, noting that Brookings’ narrow focus on test scores in one Promise Academy misses the zone’s mission to “reweave the social fabric of Harlem.”
The problem with the Brookings review, Hanson argued, was that it focused purely on test scores, rather than evaluating HCZ on its own terms, as an community rebuilding project.
Many have focused on HCZ’s charter schools, partly because of “Waiting for Superman.” But those two charters only serve a small fraction of the community HCZ aims to rebuild. And the pipeline above stands outside of those schools.
In fact, by focusing purely on the schools, critics fall into the same error that Coleman flagged 50 years ago, thinking that education can be removed from family and community.
To truly assess HCZ, Hanson argued, “analysts would need to measure the cumulative social impact of the organization on the Harlem community, not just the specific results of the Zone schools,” adding that “education services and social services are intertwined with their long-term impact on children and their families.”
A graduation ceremony at the Harlem GEMS preschool program celebrates the final part of the Harlem Children’s Project’s Cradle to College pipeline. | Harlem Children’s Project
Hanson also called for a broader view of success beyond test scores. HCZ’s College Success Office, she noted, had 900 enrolled students in higher education with a drop-out rate of 10 percent, well below the national average of 43.6 percent.
Still, the jury remains out. Echoing one Brookings assertion, David Figlio at Northwestern notes that social resources are limited and a high bar should be set for financially demanding programs.
“We are starting to see some evidence for these “wrap-around services programs,” Figlio said. “But I think the breathlessness with which the research is being reported is probably stronger than the research justifies so far.
“I think it’s a bit too early to say if this is the way we spend scarce dollars,” Figlio said.
With a current annual budget of around $120 million, HCZ is not cheap. Much of the funds come from enormous donations from foundations. The most recent HCZ annual report lists over 40 donors with more than $1 million.
Matching that donor list to expand the HCZ model in full to other challenged communities around the country would be a daunting task.
In the Salt Lake region, for example, the United Way is working with community leaders, schools and nonprofits on six Promise Neighborhoods: South Salt Lake, Guadalupe, West Valley City, Kearns, Midvale and Park City.
Bill Crim at the United Way of Salt Lake County admits this is ambitious. And a donor list like that of HCZ is not likely.
“The answer to the funding challenge,” says Crim, “is that this money is already being spent in these communities. We just need to align and focus those resources better.”
Efficiencies begin by building on existing neighborhood schools, Crim said. At the core of the Promise Partnerships are community schools, which serve as hubs for community services, building a network that links education, health, social services, nutrition and recreation.
As the Deseret News noted in 2014, the Salt Lake Community Schools programs run interference for kids whose challenges would otherwise get overlooked. That may include getting glasses for a kid who can’t see, securing dental care for a kid with a toothache, or noticing when a kid is falling asleep in class and finding out if he’s getting enough sleep at home.
In some cases, you can save money by spending money.
In 2013, the United Way joined with local governments and major investors to fund a preschool program at Granite School District. Goldman Sachs and its partners put up the seed money as an investment. They would only get paid if the interventions saved the state money.
By 2015, Crim notes, the investment had paid off. Of 595 low-income students in the 2013-14 program, 110 had been screened as likely to need special education in grade school. Of those, only one ended up needing special ed, saving over $280,000 in a single year, based on how much the state would otherwise have been forced to spend on special education for those children.
In short, Crim says, collective impact can be made cost-effective when proven programs are combined with hard data and clear targets.
It is still too early to know for sure, but if Crim is right, then the call to action issued 50 years ago by James Coleman to address family and community gaps as the path to fixing education gaps may yet bear belated fruit.