Michael Ray

“We have to save our nation’s children”

By - Oct 25th, 2010 04:00 am


Geoffry Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone students. Photo courtesy HCZ.

“Education is the only business I know of where you can change anything you want, as long as you change nothing.” –Geoffrey Canada

For 20 years, Geoffrey Canada has led the full-service community school mission at the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). He has appeared on 60 Minutes and the Oprah Winfrey Show, and starred in the recent film Waiting for Superman. HCZ has been tapped by the federal government as a model for 20 major cities. Friday morning, Canada delivered the closing keynote address for the Alliance for Children & Families’ conference held at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, speaking to a crowd of eager and enthusiastic attendees.

Deeper than the message of simple education reform, Canada believes that many of the problems children in this country face are interconnected. The nation can change only as individual communities rise up and decide that this is a necessary fight, a fight no one else can win.

“If we’re going to save the nation’s children, it’s us” Canada said.  “If we don’t do it, it will not get done. If we continue down this path in our country then we’re going to destroy this nation for the next generation.”

The path, Canada said, is rife with evidence of a broken system:  American children often trail their global peers, often failing to place even in the top ten; 25 percent of young people don’t even graduate high school; jobs are disappearing with the onset of technology and they’re not coming back.

Not only are they not prepared to compete globally, Canada said, but many are not even prepared to fight for this country.  Citing a document entitled “Ready, Willing and Unable” that has been signed by over 40 major generals, Canada said that 75 percent of young people in our nation can’t even qualify for the military because of obesity, felony arrests and failure to complete high school.

If this sounds scary, that’s his point.  Without fear, he said, there is no need for change; and without change, everything falls apart.  Not that change comes easy.  It’s taken two decades for the White House to ask for funding for these types of programs nationwide and the message – conveyed in Waiting for Superman – has faced harsh criticism from the American Federation of Teachers.

But it’s hard to argue with the charismatic Canada in person. The crowd applauded him at every turn and laughed at nearly every joke.  There is little doubt that he genuinely cares about the kids he’s helping, about their families and their communities.  Yes, there were amusing anecdotes, but each one pointed right back to his central message—the need for change. He said that he won’t stop at simply educating children, because success cannot be measured simply by education.

Canada emphasized the importance of wraparound care, of following children from birth through college and teaching  parents how to be parents. Children in HCZ have access to dental care, sports activities, counseling and a first-rate education.  Anything less, he said, and this will become a country of third-rate opportunities

“In America, there’s a double standard,” Canada said. “There’s what we do for our own kids and then what we do for those poor kids.”

Geoffry Canada. Photo courtesy Black Scholar Index

Teachers should be held to a higher standard, Canada said, and should be preparing kids to be competitive. If teachers aren’t doing their jobs properly after an extended period of time, then he believes they should be removed. The focus and concern needs to be on what is best for the child, not what is best for the teacher.

Rather than accepting failure, Canada believes, teachers must be held accountable and must be willing to put in the extra time and energy to fix the problems that exist.  Canada likened the situation to a business model—if a business is failing, employees don’t get three months off to think about how lousy things went.  “If you have a mission, then you have to do your mission,” he said.

Canada’s own mission is to put every child in his program through college, but it also seems to be waking up audiences to the idea that there is a real problem in this country.  Whether through movies or Oprah or through speeches like this one to packed crowds, he is pursuing his mission.  There is no three-month off period.

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