published Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Geoffrey Canada challenges Chattanooga on education reform

by Kelli Gauthier
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    Staff photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Feb 15, 2011 -- Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of Harlem's Children's Zone, speaks to an audience including Girl's Inc., Tuesday afternoon at Hardy Elementary in Chattanooga, Tenn. Canada urged Chattanooga residents to provide a better education for their children.

If education can turn around the poorest neighborhoods in Harlem, there's no reason it can't do the same in Chattanooga.

That was the no-nonsense brand of education reform that social activist Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, brought here Tuesday.

"If we don't fix [education], we're not going to continue being a superpower," Canada told those present at his lecture Tuesday evening at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "Over the past five years, I've met several presidents, several secretaries of education ... and there is no plan. If you want to save your children, you're going to have to do it yourself. It's just us."

Prior to his speech as part of the George T. Hunter Lecture Series, Canada first spent an hour in the gymnasium at Hardy Elementary School, participating in a question-and-answer session packed full of parents, teachers and community members.

Canada, who is featured prominently in the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman," told the audience at Hardy that the issue of poor education outcomes in certain communities isn't unique to Chattanooga.

"What we find across the country is that we've allowed certain kids to fail and that failure has no penalty; in poor communities that have struggled, there is no penalty for failure. In fact, failure is the norm, and it's been going on for so long that it's expected," he said. "It's difficult to talk about. Often there's race involved, there's class involved ... so people talk around the topic."

Notable quotes from his speech:

"When you don't know quite what to do, do what rich people do. I have yet to meet any adults who are wealthy and have three kids who say: 'Harvard, Yale or hairdressing school?' ... That's our job, that's what we get paid to do; we have one set of expectations."

"If you go into a community that has challenges ... it is my professional duty [as a teacher] to make sure those kids learn. I can't blame the parents, can't blame the environment, can't do it. If these kids don't learn, it's our fault. ... If we can't fire the lousy teachers, then we should send them all to the upper-middle class neighborhoods ... in the end this is about real accountability. If you take the money [to teach], you're responsible for those kids."

"If you have a school where kids are behind and they're in school the same number of days that other kids are in school ... why would we expect these kids to ever catch up? They have never caught up anywhere in America. We've got to rethink schools, but no one wants to do that. You know what we do instead of rethink schools? We fire superintendents."

"We decided we didn't know how to save everybody, but we could save some people ... there are 11,000 kids in our area, and those are my kids. Those are the kids I'm going to save."

When Canada started the Harlem Children's Zone in 1997, he took 24 blocks of the poorest neighborhood and provided each child with $5,000 a year of extra educational services from birth through college. The successful program has now expanded to 100 blocks of Harlem, and is being used by President Barack Obama as a model for education reform around the country.

"We intentionally work with children whose parents we know are not going to be able to support them. We went to the places where we knew the parents didn't have it together ... when you give people like me money to educate your kids, then you've got to hold me responsible for educating those kids. That's the point of being a professional," he said.

Leaders with the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies hope to replicate Canada's success in Chattanooga through a program called the Chattanooga Promise Zone, whose epicenter would be Hardy Elementary.

Canada told the group at Hardy, many of whom hope to be involved in the efforts, to start small.

"My theory is to start small, but get those small victories in," he said. "It's routine, it's regular and it's relentless. We just refused to go away."

Edna Varner, a former principal and chairwoman of the advisory committee for the Chattanooga Promise Zone, said she hopes the momentum of Canada's visit will ignite the project.

"It'd be great to have a million dollars, but it's the human resources [that are important]," she said. "We're looking at what we can do in the next six months."

Varner will hold another community meeting at Hardy on Saturday at 10 a.m. for brainstorming on where to begin.

Contact Kelli Gauthier at or 423 757-6249. Follow her on Twitter at

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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clinthardwood said...

More propaganda from the policy wonks who fundamentally believe that the the state-and thus teachers-are kid's daddies, and thus, all accountability lies with them. No accountability at all for the real parents, or the kids themselves. This attitude has reached a point where teachers are told that violence, disrespect, and a total disregard for the importance of learning is their fault, and they shouldn't expect backup when a student is out of control. This philosophy has entered some schools and it is creating havoc, lowering standards, and ruining morale in the profession.

February 16, 2011 at 8:13 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

It's clear that Geoffrey Canada's main message is that we need to set goals that expect and require success in education. That kind of plan needs to be carried out by the entire community. It's good to hear that people in our area are emphasizing the importance of education. Anti-intellectualism and a defeatist attitude will get us nowhere.

The activity described in the story above is called leadership. Making everyone fend for themselves, with no regard for anyone, is not an effective strategy. Sometimes people need support and leadership.

I have full faith and confidence that Chattanoogans can succeed as well as anyone else. We can do this. I applaud the community's efforts. Let us see more.

February 16, 2011 at 9:19 a.m.
clinthardwood said...

Let's actually discuss this speaker's plan. We're going to spend 5,000 dollars per student per year for every child who is below mean performance. Where is the parent's involvement? Are you ready to pay for that?

February 16, 2011 at 9:42 a.m.
BigRidgeGOP said...

I wonder if some of the above critics fully read the CTFP article or even tried to research Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone. The money is not funded or provided by the school system or local governments. The money raised for the Harlem Children's Zone and for the soon to be formed Chattanooga Promise Zone will come from individuals, foundations and local businesses.

As for parental and community involvement, this is a key part to the approach Canada preaches in reforming public schools. But unfortunately, that is not always possible with today's society. We cannot force parents to do the right thing (unfortunately), but we cannot let these kids falls through the cracks if we want to break the cycle of poverty. Canada's main belief is get parents and the community involved in low-performing schools, train teachers on how to teach/educate child’s attending a low-performing school, provide additional resources that will help students improve their academic performance.... then, hold the teachers and principals accountable for the results.

There is no one, single answer to this issue. But, I believe this is a step in the right direction and something that is truly needed in Chattanooga city schools.

February 16, 2011 at 10:07 a.m.
zwickau said...

Parental involvement is key, but only if the schools are receptive to parents being involved. Many schools, although not openly, haven't been receptive to parental involvement. Of course, they won't admit this openly when the cameras are rolling, but it's the truth.

I also believe praise over punishment is key to studnet success. Unfortunately, in many of these low performing schools they remain too focused on punishment for everything. Which only cause the students to shut down and tune out over time.

Finally, if the parents school experience was negative while students, those parents are the most reluctant to be involved in their own childrens education. After all, no one wish to return to any place that brings back bad memories.

February 16, 2011 at 3:04 p.m.

Stupid people shouldn't breed...

February 16, 2011 at 6:02 p.m.
Humphrey said...

well then, Muhammad, I want to commend you. I think it is great when people who don't have children take an interest in public education.

February 16, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.
airmoore21 said...

Anyone who opposes Geoffrey Canada’s philosophy should take the time to research his program through the internet and read his book “Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America.” It is May easily be the solution towards poverty in America. I deeply believe in his ideas, and anyone opposing his ideas should at least take the time to understand his philosophy.

March 13, 2012 at 9:16 p.m.
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