Obama Developing 'Baby Colleges' to Combat Poverty

President's anti-poverty initiative is modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone.

April 24, 2009, 4:58 PM

April 25, 2009 -- President Barack Obama's signature initiative to combat poverty is to create as many as 20 "Promise Neighborhoods" around the country modeled on Geoffrey Canada's "Harlem Children's Zone."

Obama laid out the proposal in a July 2007 campaign speech and followed through earlier this year by including the public-private venture in his budget outline.

At the president's direction, officials at the Department of Education are currently working on the Promise Neighborhoods initiative with the White House's Domestic Policy Council and an assortment of other government agencies.

Obama's goal is to begin taking grant applications next year. The program does not yet have a price tag but Obama said as a candidate that he expects it to cost the government "a few billion dollars a year" with half of the funding coming from philanthropies and businesses.

"The philosophy behind the project is simple," said Obama in his July 2007 speech. "If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works."

Obama's model for the Promise Neighborhoods, the Harlem Children's Zone, is a holistic system of education, social service, and after-school programs addressing the needs of more than 8,000 children and their families who live in a 97-block area of New York.

Before the kids ever get to school, the program offers parenting classes for new moms. The program operates two intensive public charter schools. It also offers a "Harlem Gems" pre-k program, provides free tax assistance, and teaches community organizing techniques.

Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, recently spoke with ABC News about President Obama, his experience in New York, and what it would take to replicate the program's successes around the country.

You met Barack Obama five months before he publicly pledged to replicate your program around the country. How did that initial encounter happen?

"Obama had been invited to a small gathering of Wall Street finance folk and my board chair, Stan Druckenmiller, asked me if I wanted to come, and I said 'Yes.' And I met him there and surprisingly enough he said he knew both me and about the work. He had actually been keeping tabs on what we were doing in Harlem it seems for some time."

During the recently completed presidential campaign, your program was touted not only by Obama but also by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate for president. What do you think accounts for the bipartisan popularity of your approach to changing the lives of poor kids?

"Republicans loved the fact that I wanted to fire lousy teachers, hold ourselves accountable, tell people that if we don't do the job, don't give us the money. So they were like, 'Yeah, Geoff's my man.'"

"The Democrats loved the fact that I said teachers were woefully underpaid, that we really need to make investments in our communities and children, and government really matters and could make a difference and they would say 'Yes, that's my man, Geoff.'"

An Education Department official working on Promise Neighborhoods for Obama has told me that the federal government will begin taking grant applications in 2010 with the goal of giving out implementation grants in 2011. What should the Obama administration look for in someone who wants to start a Promise Neighborhood?

"There are a couple principles that we think are very important. The first is that the entity that applies ought to have some demonstrated capacity to do a very complex kind of planning. The second is that there has to be the ability to raise private dollars over a sustained period of time because in the end you are doing something that is going to take years to really deliver the kind of results that I think the president wants and you've got to make sure that you've got the capacity to continue to support the federal dollars. The third thing is that the programs have to be committed to data and evaluation. Fourth, there has to be a really committed board or management structure to ensure that the dollars are appropriated and accounted for accurately."

The Obama administration official with whom I spoke told me that there will be local discretion on the exact mix of services offered in a Promise Neighborhood. I was told, however, that a quality school, whether it be a traditional public school or a charter school, must be at its heart. The Harlem Children's Zone runs two well-regarded schools. What do you think are the ingredients of a strong school?

"I think there are a couple of things that are kind of universally agreed on: (1) A great leader: You've got to have a great principal who puts the education of children above everything else. (2) You have to have the flexibility to do whatever it takes. In poor communities, schools have to be open longer: longer days and a longer year. The kids are behind and there is no way to catch them up with their peers if schools stick to a rigid schedule as if this was a factory and the whistle blows at 3 o'clock and everybody stops making widgets and goes home. (3) There has to be a commitment to data and the use of data in real time. So it's not just testing at the end of the year, or in the middle of the year, it's regular evaluation, whether it's weekly or every two weeks, and sitting down and saying, 'These are the kids who are doing well and these are the kids who aren't.' This use of data is absolutely critical in my opinion. (4) The last thing is we've got to make sure that the schools are prepared to work with others. And the others are after-school help, mental health, social work. The schools must not see themselves as fortresses which put up barriers and say, 'We can do all of this by ourselves.' Great schools are absolutely critical but in these communities we need to make sure that young people are getting all their needs met."

What's the key to engaging parents in their children's education?

"Schools found out a long time ago that the way you get parents into school is you have their kids perform, you have their kids do things. So, good schools have great choir and drama programs, art programs, so there is a constant flow of parents coming in and saying 'Oh, this is great, this is wonderful.' And then you can develop a relationship with these parents over time where they respect the school, they respect the principal, and when, and if, there are issues, it's not the first time a parent is coming and meeting all of the players. One of the problems is that in tight fiscal times the first things that get cut are all of these kinds of programs that allow parents to find great excuses to come to school to celebrate teaching and learning through the arts and the sports and those kinds of things."

The Harlem Children's Zone offers parenting classes or what you call "baby colleges." How do persuade someone to participate in a parenting program without feeling a stigma? How do you keep parents from saying: "I know how to raise my own kid?"

"First is the quality of the programs we offer. Our partner - Dr. Berry Brazelton - is the most famous pediatrician in America. All the parents are excited about meeting Dr. Brazelton. Second, we use aggressive outreach to the entire community. We don't just limit it to poor families although 85 percent of families who come are poor. We try and get everyone in the neighborhood."

What are some of the things that parents learn in Baby College?

"The first thing they learn is brain development: why it's important to read to your child, play with your child, why the language you use is so important."

Are you going to leave Harlem and come to Washington to oversee the Promise Neighborhoods for Obama?

"If there is one administration that I would love to be part of, it is this one. But even for this president, I would not leave the Harlem Children's Zone. Our work is at such a critical stage right now. However, I think this is a great opportunity in America and a great leader will be able to do great things in my opinion with Promised Neighborhoods."

When do you expect Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to announce who is running the program?

"I am thinking that there will probably be some decisions made in 6-8 weeks, in my opinion."

Obama said during the campaign that he wants to create Promise Neighborhoods in 20 cities around the country. Is he biting off more than he can chew?

"I would suggest that coming out of the chute with 20 at the same time would be a lot. But absolutely, he should do 20 in his first term."

"What I have argued is all of these may not work. So within the 20 there may be some that don't work but it won't mean they don't work because the concept is not good. In some places, it will take hold. In other places, they may struggle.

What role did Superman play in motivating your life's work?

"One day my mother told me Superman wasn't real. I was absolutely stunned and broke into tears and she thought it was because of how much I loved Superman. What she didn't recognize was that I realized that if there were no Superman then no one was coming to rescue us. And I always thought Superman would get around to the South Bronx once he took care of Lex Luthor and some of the other villains in the world."

"When I realized there was no Superman and nobody was coming, I thought that if I ever made it out and got an education I would make sure that at least for the children that I could touch they would never feel like they needed a superhero to save them."

ABC News' Ferdous Al-Faruque contributed to this report.

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