The Harlem Children's Zone

How One Man's Vision To Revitalize Harlem Starts With Children

Harlem has long been the spiritual capital of black America. In its heyday during the Harlem renaissance, it was a wellspring of politics, music and art. But over the years, the neighborhood suffered a steady decline and came to symbolize the worst of urban poverty and decay. Today, there's a new renaissance under way in Harlem, with the construction of new buildings, businesses and schools.

One of the people leading the charge is Geoffrey Canada. As correspondent Ed Bradley reports, his vision, quite simply, is to save children, and he has amassed a staggering amount of private money — more than $100,000,000 — to realize his goal. His testing ground is a 60-block area in central Harlem that he calls "The Harlem Children's Zone."

The Harlem Children's Zone is an area that covers less than one square mile and is home to some 10,000 children. On the ground, the neighborhood is slowly coming back to life, with newly renovated townhouses standing side by side with buildings that have fallen victim to violence and despair, local businesses next to national chains. But despite all the renewal, nearly all the children live in poverty — and two-thirds of them score below grade level on standardized tests. That's why Canada, a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Harvard School of Education, has claimed this territory as his own and is trying to save it, block by block, child by child.

He has made a bold promise to the parents who live in the zone.

"If your child comes to this school, we will guarantee that we will get your child into college. We will be with you with your child from the moment they enter our school till the moment they graduate from college," Canada vowed during a speech.

Canada's ambitious experiment aims to prove that poor kids from the inner city can learn just as well as affluent kids from the other side of America. He has flooded the zone with social, medical and educational services that are available for free to all the children who live here.

"They get what middle-class and upper middle-class kids get," Canada explains. "They get safety. They get structure. They get academic enrichment. They get cultural activity. They get adults who love and them and are prepared to do anything. And I mean, I'm prepared to do anything to keep these kids on the right track."

He has raised a lot of money to try to do that. The budget of the Harlem Children's Zone is $36 million a year — and growing. Only a third of it comes from the government; the rest comes from private donations. That money made it possible for Canada to open his own charter school in a new $42 million building. It's called "The Promise Academy."

Classes have a ratio of one adult for every six kids as well as state-of-the-art science labs, a first-class gym, and a cafeteria that looks more like a restaurant. Only healthy food is served here, to help fight obesity.

But living in the zone doesn't guarantee a slot in the Promise Academy, which opened its doors a year and a half ago to only 200 kindergarteners and sixth graders. It is adding new grades every year and will soon educate some 2,300 kids through high school.

Because of the enormous demand, admission is by lottery. Parents watch as the wheel spins for the highest stakes imaginable: the future of their children. One mother learned that her son's number did not come up.

"We spent a lot of money trying to make sure these kids get a good start because we wanted them to go into our school," Canada told the disappointed mother. "I know, yes they have a good start," she replied. "And so, I'm as disappointed as you all are that your child didn't get in," he told her.

"After my first lottery, I said, we're gonna have to open more schools. You sit there and watch those parents, it's the saddest thing I've seen. It really is," Canada tells Bradley.