But a man named Geoffrey Canada may have figured out a way to close that racial achievement gap. What he's doing has been called one of the most ambitious social experiments to alleviate poverty of our lifetime. His laboratory is a 97-block neighborhood in Harlem, which he has flooded with a wide array of social, medical and educational services available for free to the 10,000 children who live there. It is called the "Harlem Children's Zone."
Harlem Children's Zone
The Education Innovation Laboratory
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Ed Bradley first reported on Canada three and a half years ago, but back then there was no way to tell if his Children's Zone was working.
Today, however, results are in and they are nothing short of stunning, so much so that the White House is now taking notice.
For Geoffrey Canada however, it is just a start.
"You grow up in America and you're told from day one, 'This is the land of opportunity.' That everybody has an equal chance to make it in this country. And then you look at places like Harlem, and you say, 'That is absolutely a lie,'" Canada told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
"So you're trying to level the playing field between kids here in Harlem and middle class kids in a suburb?" Cooper asked.
"That's exactly what we think we have to do," Canada said. "You know, if you grow up in a community where your schools are inferior, where the sounds of gunshots are a common thing, where you spend your time and energy not thinking about algebra or geometry, but about how not to get beat up, or not to get shot, or not to get raped, when you grow up like that, you don't have the same opportunity as other children growing up. And we're trying to change those odds."
He's trying to change those odds on a scale never before attempted. His goal: to break the cycle of poverty in an entire neighborhood by making sure all the kids who live there go to college.
"You really believe that's possible, to break that cycle?" Cooper asked.
"I absolutely know we're gonna do it," Canada replied.
Canada remembers well what it was like to be a kid in the inner city. He grew up not far from Harlem in another tough New York neighborhood, the South Bronx.
Abandoned by his father, he and his three brothers were raised by their mother, who was barely able to get by.
"When I first found out that Superman wasn't real, I was about maybe eight. And I was talking to my mother about it. And she was like, 'No, no, no. There's no Superman.' And I started crying. I really thought he was coming to rescue us. The chaos, the violence, the danger. No hero was coming," he remembered.
A teenager, his grandparents moved to the suburbs and he went with them. He got into Bowdoin College and then the Harvard School of Education.
He's been working with kids in Harlem virtually ever since.
"You know, one of the first things kids ask me when they really get to know me, they say, 'Mr. Canada,' I say 'Yes sir.' 'Are you rich?' And I say, 'Yeah, I am.' And they're so excited, because they think I finally know somebody who has power. What they really want to ask is, 'Is there any way that you can help me figure out how to get a nice car and maybe get a house?' And I think they want someone to say 'Yes, you can.' I got out, you can get out. There's a way. And I'm gonna help you do that."
To do it, Canada decided to build his own school in the Children's Zone. Right now there are some 1,200 kids enrolled from Kindergarten through the tenth grade. It'll eventually expand all the way through the 12th grade.