Where is Superman?
Exclusive Interview with Geoffrey Canada
Given the sensational response to David Guggenheim’s film, “Waiting for Superman,” which the New Yorker called a “hot-under-the-dollar documentary about the failings of the American school system,” and given, as well, the subsequent media blitz visited on the New York City-based educator and social activist Geoffrey Canada, who is featured in the film as a kind of miracle worker, Education Update was fortunate to have been able to catch up with Canada. In “Waiting for Superman,” he is shown as one of the country’s education heroes, a leader who turned around low expectations for the young urban poor in his district, mostly minorities, especially boys, and became for them a kind of Superman, the mythical savior of Canada’s own childhood fantasies.
The 58-year-old Canada was born in the South Bronx and was raised by his mother in an area he described in his recently revised book “Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America” as full of crime, decay, chaos and disorder. His second book is also significantly titled — “Reaching Up For Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America.” He made it, getting a B.A. from Bowdoin College and a master’s in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And then he was on the move, eventually conceiving of and implementing an academic charter school mission that would encourage poor youngsters to make it also — through high school and college.
Since 1990 Geoffrey Canada has been the president and CEO of the now-famed Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). Originally an area covering 24 blocks, it now includes 97 blocks and serves close to 10,000 kids in and out of the zone. The data and testimony have been so impressive that President Obama late last year declared that HCZ should be a model for 20 other cities. Indeed, to extend the Superman metaphor, Canada’s hope for the next decade is that HCZ will fly — if not yet in every state, at least, as in Race to the Top, in enough states to show that its innovative ideas and strategies can be replicated. In ten years, enough HCZ youngsters will have moved through the pipeline, data will prove the success of the “experiment” and HCZ will be considered the “grandfather of the field.”
Canada has heard the nay-sayers on charter schools (and related social services), and he responds, “I can’t accept that.” Imagine, he says, if the world’s first heart transplant in 1967 had been dismissed as an experiment that could not be duplicated. The charter school says let us try. Not a day passes, he adds, that he does not get calls from individuals who have seen the film and want to get involved. What can be done and how can it be done, they ask. Canada interprets the challenge this way: what must be done differently?
Contrary to some impressions, HCZ is not solely a charter school operator. It also supports seven public schools in the zone by supplying teacher assistants during the day and for after-school programs that work with traditional public school kids. Failing schools tend to continue to do the same old thing, he observes. Individuals must become educated about their schools and become politically connected to organizations dedicated to change – not just in the schools but in the communities. “It’s our responsibility to go into the schools and say, “I expect my child to become an A student,” not a passing student, but an excellent one. What can schools working with communities do better?
Canada is pleased that “Waiting for Superman” has attracted so much attention because it is “elevating the discussion on education from the local level to the national” and because it suggests that “there are solutions.” People tend to regard education from the narrow perspective of their own communities; indeed, some question, that if their local schools are doing well, why they should care about those that are failing. His answer is that education in the United States is a “national crisis” that affects “the health of the entire country.” He is, for example, an advocate of longer hours and more days, pointing out that The United States is woefully behind every other industrialized country in the world in providing sufficient school time that also allows for arts, sports and addressing medical and societal issues such as obesity. The film has awakened the nation’s conscience in dramatic ways. “It was designed to be entertaining in an educational way, it has plot, drama, humor.” As for those who cannot afford to see it, Canada points out that organizations, such as the Robin Hood Foundation, have already worked out ways of ensuring that families get tickets. #