School-Community Partnerships Meld Academic Discipline and Social Services

John Mooney | July 21, 2011 | Education
Geoffrey Canada, head of Harlem Children's Zone, shares the stage with Gov. Christie to announce a new community-school initiative in Paterson

Credit: (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)
Geoffrey Canada
Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the famed Harlem Children’s Zone, is no stranger to New Jersey — or to Gov. Chris Christie. Yesterday in Paterson, the two stood together for a third time since Christie’s election to talk about replicating the New York City program on this side of the river.

The two were at a downtown nonprofit to announce a partnership between Canada’s organization and the state. The goal is to create a model of school-community collaboration, one in which a whole spectrum of social services — from parent workshops to health clinics — is available through or closely tied to a school.

The event was heavy on speeches and Canada’s star power — he was the lead in the pro-charter film Waiting for Superman and equally light on details. Even project planning looks a few months away, and as yet there’s no commitment as to public funds

In fact, the concept of school-community partnerships, sometimes called community schools, is not new to New Jersey–or to Paterson.

The Paterson school district is already in the early stages of a separate community-school initiative involving three schools. And Newark has a high-profile project involving a half-dozen schools in one of its toughest neighborhoods.

No Quick Fixes

Still, community-school projects have proven neither quick nor inexpensive fixes to struggling school systems, as Canada’s experience demonstrates.

Launched more than 20 years ago, the Harlem Children’s Zone spans 100 blocks and encompasses seven public schools and two charters, as well as preschools, after-school facilities, health services and other programs. Canada stresses that partnerships with existing services and schools are just as important as creating new schools and programs.

“We get written about because we have charter schools,” Canada said. “But folks don’t understand that we work with all public schools. Of the 600 kids we have in college, all of them are from the traditional public schools [inside his network].”

Meanwhile, the two charters associated with the Harlem Children’s Zone have shown only mediocre student achievement thus far, according to New York City’s
annual school progress report.

Canada appeared very much the center of attention yesterday, his national stature a political boost to the controversial governor. At one point, Christie deflected yet another question about his own national ambitions with a semi-serious endorsement of Canada for the Republican presidential nomination.

Like the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Paterson project — called Promise Communities — looks to be more about collaboration and coordination of existing services than the creation of new ones.

The project’s premise is that schools in high-poverty cities like Paterson can only benefit from improved job training, counseling and other public services for families and the larger community.

“Struggling schools happen in struggling communities,” said Rochelle Hendricks, the state’s higher education secretary, who will head the planning effort in Paterson. “What this is about is that everything matters.”

Christie said it’s a model he hopes to take to other cities as well.

“I truly believe it is the model for the way forward,” he said. “The approach is comprehensive, pulling together people from inside and outside of government.”

Unanswered Questions

Still, local advocates and others were struggling yesterday to imagine what Paterson’s Promise Communities will actually be.

School Superintendent Donald Evans said he looked forward to be part of the planning process and the partnerships to come, but added that commenting on specific details at this point would be “premature.”

“My first reaction is this is great for Paterson,” said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund. “My second reaction is, ‘What is it?’ I open the box and nothing is in it yet.”

She added that she was at a meeting of 35 nonprofit community groups in the city yesterday, and none have yet been recruited in the new effort.

Sterling said she does believe in the idea of building out social services around schools, and pointed to the “other” community-schools project already underway in the city thanks to a $2.5 million federal grant.

“We have had a really good first year, but we are still waiting the results of the state tests,” she said. “This is not just a feel-good thing. We want to see real outcomes, and we don’t know yet.”

Still, she said the idea that the state may provide more funds to expand community schools elsewhere is welcomed, as long as it doesn’t drain existing resources.

The Global Village

Community schools are also well known to Newark, where they’ve been at the center of one of the most sweeping school improvement initiatives now underway, one in which seven elementary and secondary schools in the city’s Central Ward have banded together in the Global Village Zone.

With Canada also part of that launch three years ago when Jon Corzine was governor, the project has seen notable achievement gains in the school at the center of the project, Central High School. Last year, passing rates on the state’s high school tests doubled in both math and language arts.

But they still remain below the state averages, and even Pedro Noguera, one of its chief architects, said it is still evolving, with some of the social programs planned for engaging parents only starting this fall.

“Particularly when working in high-poverty communities, you need to focus on both the academic and the non-academic,” said Noguera, professor of education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “It’s not one of the other, you need both.”

A self-professed fan of Canada’s and his Harlem Children’s Zone, Noguera said his one concern is that the Harlem project has focused more on social services without yet mastering the academic ones.

And having visited some of Paterson’s schools, Noguera said there needs to be significant changes in the academic programs as well. “What we have done [at Central] is focus on improving the instruction and meeting the academic needs of these kids,” he said.