Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), spoke at the
University of Dayton last week as part of the university’s diversity lecture
series. (You can read Dayton Daily News’ nice coverage of it here.) Fordham’s hometown of
Dayton is the perfect place to hear Canada’s message. It’s one of Ohio’s
poorest cities, and despite all of our efforts on the ground there,
the city is a constant reminder of how tragically difficult it is to improve
outcomes for poor kids. In Dayton Public Schools, over three fourths of kids attend a
school rated D or F. No children go to a school rated Excellent.
for Dayton – and the nation – is right. Our communities simply can’t afford to
have so many young people unemployed (or in jail), especially African American
boys. It’s an issue of global competitiveness and our economic health, but more
than that – a moral and spiritual imperative.
Beyond that, one
piece of his message really stood out: here in Ohio, we’ve been busy for the
past several years thinking about state-level policy issues that inhibit
districts and schools from serving kids better, and pushing to lift roadblocks
when it comes to reforming K-12 education.
Now perhaps more than ever, the Buckeye State stands a chance at successfully
rolling back senseless laws and requirements, and untying districts’ hands so
that they can pursue meaningful reforms. However, there still remains a gap
between what state or local-level policy can achieve, and what it takes to
actually exterminate achievement gaps. In that space resides a level of
leadership, activism, and drive (that Canada embodies perfectly) that is both
difficult to measure and hard to foster. It’s not like you can just plant a
Geoffrey Canada down in Dayton and other urban communities and wait for
grassroots reform to grow.
As Canada described
how HCZ’s work unfolded, it was a good reminder of the role that local
leadership and home-grown reform plays in K-12 transformation: “No one from the
federal or state or whatever level of government was going to come in and fix
it for us. We didn’t ask permission; we just did it.” The 21 Promise
Neighborhoods across the US (winning federal grants to try to create similar
“zones”) will illustrate the extent to which the concept can be replicated.
Until then, Canada’s
words both inspire and cause slight anxiety: “Hope is as infectious as
despair.” That’s true, but only comforting to a small degree because it’s far
easier to work in the realm of policies, legislative language, regulations, and
rules than it is to deal with the more enigmatic aspects of the human spirit
and translate these qualities into tangible improvements for kids. At the
risk of sounding like a broken record, human capital matters enormously in
strengthening communities – both drawing in talented individuals and keeping
them. Even if Ohio can make great progress in changing policies/legislation,
issues of human capital loom large and
are integral to the state’s long-term ability to help kids most in need. Kudos
to Canada for the reminder.