Cook: From war zone to Promise Zone

Cook: From war zone to Promise Zone

February 21st, 2011 by David Cook in News

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@