Last week, I sat in a room with Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. It wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed the privilege of listening to Canada’s message and experiences. He is a major figure amongst education reformers. He was early to the most recent wave of reform, and is perhaps most easily associated with his no-excuses vision for what is possible in the lives of our most marginalized young people. He is also a man of tangible grace, class, and notably, humor.
But Canada’s vision for kids is deadly serious: All kids go to college.
He is resolute in this vision. It doesn’t matter how poor, how disabled, or how challenged the young person – Canada is adamant that college is the pathway out of poverty and struggle. He’s been at it in Harlem for 30 years now, and much of his success is also surely due to his longevity in one place. He describes the power and impact when graduates come back to the community and mentor and teach the rising generation – fueled by a deep belief that college is possible for EVERY SINGLE STUDENT. They know it is possible because it is the story of their lives. They’ve already lived it.
That deep belief in what kids are capable of really is at the heart of the struggle for leadership in our schools. For Canada, he knows what is possible because he has lived it. He opened his discussion referring to the fact that all but two of his childhood friends have already passed on. At the age of 65, most of us from a middle class upbringing wouldn’t expect that high a mortality rate amongst our childhood friends. For Canada, the impact of poverty is stark – how is it that something as seemingly simple as learning to read and write and gaining access to post-secondary options could have such an outsize impact on something as fundamental as life expectancy?
I love watching the room when Canada speaks. His stance is not an uncontroversial one. “But what about (insert student name) who has (insert list of challenges)? Surely we can’t expect him to go to college.” Yes we can, and we must. He told story after story about kids who should have been the college-going exception, who somehow made it. For some of them, the struggle was daily. Canada’s recommendation? Do what it takes to move that student forward for that day, and be grateful for it. Days string together into weeks, and months, and then years.
I was particularly interested in the way the topic of race was discussed. Again with the wisdom and grace of someone who has been doing this work for an entire generation, Canada had a very compelling perspective. “We’ve found that race is not a predictor for who will be our top performers in the classroom. Our country currently needs and will continue to need white teachers who teach students of color. But they have to ‘get it.’ They have to hold deeply the belief that the kids are capable of college.”
Canada doesn’t discount the struggle. For leaders, you have to work consistently to get everyone in the organization to believe that it is possible – all our kids go to college. You have to work consistently to help families catch the same vision. And if the leader doesn’t belief it, then nobody else has to. You have to imbue the organization with your expectations.
Has every graduate of the Harlem Children’s Zone made his or her way to a college degree? No. But those exceptions are just that, unexpected exceptions – and the system isn’t afraid to own the failure. They hold themselves accountable for the outcomes – even when doing so might seem unreasonable or unfair to your run-of-the-mill observer.
Can you expect a school system to ensure that every single student makes it to college? Canada’s response is constant – we can and we must. He knows the questions that follow, the furrowed brows and insistence on defensible exceptions. Despite his touch of humor and warm smile, Canada doesn’t seem terribly interested in salving the disappointment of adult educators in the room who may want to rationalize the inability of their students to get to college on poor student choices or insurmountable life challenges. It’s an unflinching commitment to outcomes that immediately exposes what we truly believe is possible for our students.