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What it takes to eliminate the racial achievement gap, according to a top educator

·3 min read

Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is doing damage control amid the pandemic. “We’re trying to mitigate against the harm,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

As president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit organization that supports low-income families in New York City, Canada serves 22,500 children and adults a year. Participants of HCZ’s programs have a 97% college acceptance rate. Educating at-risk youth is Canada’s specialty.

Despite the challenges of remote learning, Canada, who also oversees the Promise Academy charter school, has insisted that teachers keep eye contact with students, even if it’s through a screen.

“We need to have that contact. We have to be able to look those children in the eyes. We’ve got to make sure that they turned on that computer and they’re paying attention. And that calls for extraordinary effort,” said Canada.

In order to maintain eye contact, Canada has made sure that the Promise Academy school day which ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. prior to the pandemic, kept those same hours. “Our children are in a Zoom with a live teacher. [For] those who aren’t in school, there’s actually a live teacher teaching them for the entire day,” he said. “So that our young people can make sure there is a live human being talking to them on the other end of that screen, who’s actually paying attention to their needs.”

Students also have school on Saturdays and had class over the holidays. “And we’re preparing to run school in the summertime to make sure our children who are falling behind – that we get a chance to catch those children up,” said Canada.

Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, takes part in the 25th Annual Children's March for Peace on August 7, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, takes part in the 25th Annual Children's March for Peace on August 7, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Although the Harlem Children’s Zone has about 2,200 kids in its Promise Academy charter school, the majority of the students the organization supports are in traditional public schools.

Canada’s mission, since he founded the educational center in the 1990s, has been to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. “What we do with our charter school is try to push the envelope,” he said. “If you want to eliminate the achievement gap between Black and brown and white children, this is what we think it takes. We think it takes an extended day. We think it takes working 11 months out of the year.”

The answers to closing the achievement gap do not lie within the traditional public school system, says Canada. “We need to rethink how education happens if we’re going to take advantage of...research organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone.”

Leaving it up to teachers to shoulder all of the inequities in the lives of low-income children and their families is “not scalable,” says Canada.

Improving the nation’s public school system will require a “much more comprehensive view [of] how we think about education, how we support poor families, and how we rebuild neighborhoods,” said Canada. Even assessments of how kids spend their time out of school needs to be done in a much more scientific way, he added.

Helping low-income students thrive has also meant supporting their families amid the pandemic. The Harlem Children’s Zone has distributed over 2,000 thermometers, 45,000 masks, roughly 2,000 learning devices, non-perishable goods, fresh produce, and over $2 million in emergency financial support to more than 3,000 families.

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