Sunday, November 02, 2008

Maybe I Should Be in Harlem

The following is inspired by a segment on This American Life. If you're interested in listening for yourself (I only skim the subject and they do an excellent job of it in 30 minutes), click the "full episode" link on the show's page and skip to minute two. If you have the time, listen to it.

Considering the fact that so many people complain about bad parenting and admit that teachers have a bit of a problem in trying to turn the products of bad parenting into educated people, it's a bit surprising that there's never been a major push to educate parents and teach them to be parents, especially in areas where the cycle of poverty and its associated social diseases are major issues.

At least in one neighborhood, there is such a program. Geoffrey Canada runs the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, where parents are recruited to place their children in the program's charter schools that run from preschool to high school. The only catch is that the parents have to give up a few Saturdays to attend parenting classes where they are taught to read to their kids, use more positive reinforcement and other parenting skills that have been shown by research to be effective in producing children who are more likely to succeed. Many of the tips seem pretty obvious to most of us who had at least moderately good parents to model good parenting for us. When you spend enough time around children and families in generational poverty, you start to understand that not everyone gets even close to that good of an example.

The program has proven to be successful so far. According to the Harlem Children's Zone site, seven percent of black eighth graders in the US are at grade level in math. At the Promise Academy, 97.4 percent of the eighth-graders are at grade level or above in math.

Canada originally worked traditional routes trying to ease poverty but became frustrated by the fact that so many of the older students seemed so impossible to reach. They may have wanted to change their lives to succeed, but many kids from poverty are so unprepared for basic life skills that middle class kids are taught by their parents from infancy that the uphill battle to catch up is too much for many of them even with close mentoring later in life. Because of this, Canada decided to start working with the kids much earlier. The only problem is that before pre-school you pretty much have to depend on the parents to do the teaching, so to teach the infants and toddlers, he began focusing on teaching the parents. The statistics for the program's success are stunning, even if you take into account the skewed sample of parents willing to make these sacrifices for their kids. The truth is, just because they were willing to make these sacrifices didn't mean that they would have known they needed to or been able to without the guidance and encouragement of this program.

I really like this concept and it really jives with my own experiences as a teacher. I've seen students in my high school courses who really wanted to succeed. They wanted to bring their grades up. They wanted to graduate. They wanted to go to college. The only problem was that they were so far behind on their academic foundations that they were impossible to bring up to grade level. Not only that, but even when it became obvious that they were trying to do the right thing, they struggled to figure out just what was the correct behavior needed to achieve that goal. In addition to ignorance of behaviors that would help them, most of them had been trained to behave in ways that actively worked against them outside of their homes and neighborhoods.

I actually got into teaching hoping that I would at least be able to consider my work as getting paid to make the world a better place, at least in a very small way. Unfortunately, it's not felt much like that. However, if I were involved in a project like the Harlem Children's Zone, I might feel a little more like my work was worthwhile. I wouldn't want to teach in the program. I honestly don't have the energy level to be a good teacher. But I do understand education and I think I might be interested in seeing about starting up similar programs closer to home. I'm good with vision and I understand education and this is an area about which I really am passionate despite my teaching horror stories in the past. My current home is in an area that suffers just as much from generational poverty (if not more) as the parts of Harlem in which Canada works, although the way the population is spread out, I wonder how I'd make it work.

I just don't have any experience in organizing and fund raising for something like this. I imagine finding the money to keep something like this is easy in New York. The part of Harlem the program focuses on is extremely poor, but it's only a small part of one of the wealthiest cities in the world. I'm stuck in an area that's not only poor, but it is poor and rural for hundreds of square miles without any major urban centers. Perhaps I would be able to start the program in Atlanta and then spread it outward into the more rural areas as I was able to prove its success. I've been thinking about trying to contact the Harlem Children's Zone to see if there'd be a way to get their guidance in starting up a similar program in my part of the country, but I wonder if I'd be the right guy for the job. Giving in to doubt has pretty much defined my life so far, so if I were putting money on my future, I'd take the odds on my taking the easy path and never trying to make this work.

Still, I'd love to be able to look back on my life in old age and know that I'll die having done more to improve the lives of others than I did to make things worse. Geoffrey Canada will be able to do that when his time comes. Maybe I'll be able to find my way too.

Too bad I missed the deadline for the Google charity giveaway thing. This would have been perfect for that.


Hank Gay said...

I think that's a great idea. If you do get funding or whatever, and you need some technical assistance, I'd be happy to help you out during my copious free time.

Julie said...

I think that if you're the one looking around and asking then you're probably the right (and only) person to make it happen.

I think that if you'll contact the school in Harlem, you'll probably find them to be very helpful.

I also think that while it might be difficult at first to get funding, there wouldn't be much funding required to get started. You might not be able to have the whole pre-k through graduation program from the beginning, but you could probably find a few fellow teachers or community leaders (or family members) to give up one weekend per month to volunteer to work with parents. Small steps can make a big difference.

Do it!

Mickey said...

That really is a revolutionary idea. The rest of us tend not to realize that parenting skills don't come naturally, especially to those with crappy parents.