published Monday, February 21st, 2011

Cook: From war zone to Promise Zone

The single mother living in the Harriet Tubman housing project was too frightened to tell me her name.

She was afraid gangs would attack her children.

"If you print my name in that newspaper, they'll come after my kids," she said. "They'll blow up my place."

Down the street, Geoffrey Canada had just finished speaking to a packed Hardy Elementary School auditorium. Teachers, pastors, politicians and parents took notes and nodded in agreement as Canada — the superhero of American education today — told his story.

"We were tired of watching our community disintegrate," he said. "We were tired of watching generation after generation of kids fail and go to jail."

More than 20 years ago, when Canada began his work, Harlem was burning. Abandoned buildings the mayor tried to give away for free. Blatant crime. Street-corner crack and heroin bought and sold without shame or fear. Many declared it the worst neighborhood in the eastern United States.

"We realized no one else was going to do anything for our kids," Canada said. "So we started the work. Block by block."

Today, Canada and his Harlem Children's Zone are at the front of a turning point in American education. Promising cradle-to-college education, the HCZ has transformed the lives of 11,000 teenagers living in 97 city blocks. This 21st century Harlem renaissance is now the favored model for education reform across the nation.

One scientist compared Canada's work to having cured cancer. Others compare him to Superman. America is so hungry for his ideas that wherever he goes — from the White House to Hardy Elementary — two things happen: crowds flock to see him, and they always ask him the same question: How can we make our schools like your schools?

His answer is always the same: I can't save your children. But you can. And it's hard work.

There is much work to be done. The U.S. military recently produced a study whose results are startling. Seventy five percent of American youth are unfit to serve in the military.

They are either unable to pass the entrance exam, do not have a high school diploma, have committed a felony or are too overweight and unhealthy.

"It is a national disaster," Canada told four audiences at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga last week. "It is much worse than you might think."

The U.S. imprisons more of its people than any other nation on earth. While our schools fail, our prisons flourish. Only two countries on the planet use metal detectors at the entrances to their schools: Iraq and the United States.

The conscience of our city demands we act, which is why Canada's visit here was so well-attended. It was as if he was carrying a message from another world, an olive branch to people so starved for dry land.

That night at UTC, we all stood and applauded. And then I remembered the terrified single mother and her three children — each with passing grades — who spoke to me earlier that day.

"At night, we hear gunshots," she said.

The gunshots echo and haunt the night here the same way they did in Harlem. The kids in our poorest neighborhoods cry the same tears as the kids in Harlem.

"Whenever we started, no one believed we could do it," Canada said.

And that also means these kids in Chattanooga can have their lives transformed just like the kids in Harlem. Efforts are under way here to create a Chattanooga Promise Zone.

There's a good chance it will start at the Harriet Tubman Development.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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chattyjill said...

Good Gracious, NC & indian - where's your humanity?! All your blather about camps and executions makes you no better than gang members. Gangs use guns to achieve a means and your suggestions are just as ridiculous. "Open season" at Harriet Tubman!!?? That's crazy talk. Seems law enforcement needs to be watching you too.

The article is about education and upward opportunity for children and families. I'm all for education reform (and gun control!) Good grief.

February 21, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.
zwickau said...

Mr. Cook, this is a very inspiring and upliftin article. However, this "anonymous" individual you're alleged to have spoken with who stated she couldn't use her name for fear of someone blowing up her apartment, is an obvious exaggeration. Where or when has someone had their apartment blown up in Harriet Tubman or anywhere in Chattanooga except during the periods of segregation? Some groups often use words not fully understanding their power and influence or how they might be judged by them by the general population who are not familiar with that area.

February 21, 2011 at 3:37 p.m.
zwickau said...

I agree chattyjill. NC and indian are obviously bloodthirsty. Hopefully, they're not cops with such dastardly thoughts. They don't even realize they're no better and much worse than the alleged criminal element they attack.

Hitler had the same idea as they in his Final Solution.

February 21, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.
rmodrall said...

The real problem is the Judge that supplies the gangs and in return they pay for his campaign. Look it up. Jeffery Hollingsworth has received campaign contributions from Harriet Tubman. There would not be any gangs if there were not kingpin public officials trafficking enormous quantities of narcotics and covering it up. They also distribute from the The Sinks disc golf course and under the guise of Scenic City Recycling blatantly from state property. Punish the real criminals and the hood will clean up nicely.

February 21, 2011 at 10:17 p.m.
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