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Guest Commentary: Harlem's Under-Dressed Emperor [upd]

Doublebowtie_crop Guest contributor Helen Zelon, author of one of the most in-depth looks at the Harlem Children's Zone, weighs in with her thoughts on what the Zone does and doesn't offer for the children of Harlem and the rest of the country, including a helpful explanation of how the selection and participation pipeline works within the Zone and an update on the Zone's attempts to expand into East Harlem.  Many thanks to her and to City Limits for joining in. 

[UPDATE 3:00 pm:  See discussion of disputed quote below.]

by Helen Zelon:

Fallout in the ed-policy sphere yesterday was thick with talk of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Brookings report that examined how the HCZ charter schools compared with other local charters. 

In fact, Brookings lopped off one of the two HCZ charters -- “to avoid confusing results” -- effectively limiting their comparison to HCZ’s flagship school, Promise Academy I, and obliterating outcomes from its partner school Promise Academy II.  (Which gives me more than a moment’s pause, but hey, I’m a journalist, not a think-tanker.)

What can I add to the debate?  Here are a few things that come to mind:

The pipeline is a porous thing; it does not embrace all 17,000 people HCZ says it serves, nor the 8,000 children who participate in Zone programs.  That’s because the pipeline narrows at a significant entry point -- very early in a child’s life, at age 3 -- when the school lottery separates the lucky children who secure a place in the Promise Academy schools from the less lucky rest. 

HCZ’s Baby College -- a 9-week parenting education program -- enrolls hundreds of parents a year in multiple sessions at multiple locations.  There’s no guarantee that kids whose parents attended Baby College will go to HCZ schools, especially as the Zone finds it tough to track and follow the parents who participate. 

HCZ’s Harlem Gems preschool program admits 3-year-olds -- ample time to prepare kids for school.  So the kindergarten lottery was rolled back to age 3, when kids who gain a seat begin the rigorous, intensive HCZ education program, attending preschool 11 months a year for an extended day that can reach up to 10 hours.  That’s where the Promise Academy pipeline starts. 

After that point, access to the schools is limited and inconsistent.  Even then, however, getting into a Zone school is no guarantee a kid will get to graduate from one.  When the school first opened, they had lotteries for kindergarten and for middle school.  But the kindergarten students were judged to be wildly under prepared (and the middle schoolers so rambunctious and difficult to wrangle) that HCZ closed the middle school -- for two years.  Funny how a charter can do that, say ‘oops’ and get a do-over.  The students who were bounced out of the middle school after 8th grade graduation?  HCZ doesn’t know what became of them --where they went to school, or how they’re doing.  “They’re not our kids,” HCZ spokesman Marty Lipp told me* last fall, for an investigative report I wrote on the Zone for City Limits magazine.  So much for that cradle-to-college pipeline. 

[UPDATE:  *Lipp disputes having said this. In her original City Limits article, Lipp was quoted as follows:  "We don't track them in the sense that we evaluate our own kids..We don't track them as a group, like we would our eighth-graders."  There is apparently no audio tape of the conversation with which to verify things.

What about the 17,000 people served by the Zone?  That big round 17,000 number so often cited by HCZ advocates (and media acolytes) encompasses just 1200 kids in the HCZ schools and is mostly made up of  thousands upon thousands of others, kids whose after school programs are run by HCZ, adults who turn to the Zone for annual tax help or one-shot housing guidance.  The kids in the schools get great health care at the school clinic, but the coverage doesn’t extend to siblings or families.  Others like to call it a pipeline or a conveyor belt, but if so that’s a pipeline with big holes, and kids who aren’t lucky enough to land seats at the schools are falling straight through. 

Last but not least, it's important to note that some small amount of community pushback has begun against the HCZ juggernaut (see City Limits article here).  The HCZ approached the New York City Housing Authority about placing a brand-new school and community building within the St Nicholas housing project in East Harlem.  They crafted a $100 million deal, with $60 million in public funds and $40 million raised privately -- roughly equivalent to the cost of their shiny headquarters building at Madison and 125th.  But when NYCHA and HCZ brought their good news to the people of St Nicks, they met resistance from residents who didn’t want the school in their project.  The residents didn’t want the physical changes -- a new road that will open a cul de sac, relocated play spaces and parking lots. They were concerned about how the school’s planners didn’t account for special-education and high-needs students who might not make it in the Zone schools.  When one resident asked Canada what he would do for the local, high-need kids, he said they hadn’t been considered -- yet, Canada said, revealing what I would call a kind of myopia, where high-need kids either find their way, with support, in the Promise Academy schools, or are educated elsewhere.  In this case, the kind of benevolent paternalism that has long characterized Canada and his HCZ was not welcome.  

So it seems yet again that the HCZ spin doesn't match the reality on the ground: the HCZ programs are not universally embraced, and only a small minority of the ‘17,000 served’ actually get the cradle-to-college treatment.  The air-tight, life-proof pipeline sounds great  for the kids that get in -- but it's narrow and closes early, and we won't know for real about the Zone schools until we see retention and graduation data.


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