Can this American superhero save the day for kids in the UK?

26th November 2010 at 00:00
Profile - President Obama has backed his work and his ideas have grabbed Michael Gove's attention. Now there's a film about him. Richard Vaughan meets the man who believes education can transform the whole community

Geoffrey Canada cuts an unlikely figure for a superhero.

He is tall, slightly gangly and speaks with a broad South Bronx accent that betrays his bookish appearance. But despite his unassuming demeanour, Mr Canada is being heralded as education's Superman in the US.

The educationalist has become a national sensation across the Atlantic, with appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and regular column inches dedicated to him in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

A film, Waiting for Superman, released in the UK today, has also been made. It centres around the "failing" US education system and features Mr Canada as the central protaganist.

The movie focuses on Mr Canada as the founder and president of the Harlem Children's Zone, a community-based organisation providing everything from healthcare to education to more than 17,000 children in a 100-block zone of Harlem.

At the heart of the project is the Promise Academy, a charter school that has made tremendous gains in improving the lot of New York's most deprived young people.

In maths alone, the school has eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white pupils; a feat that has been acclaimed as the educational equivalent of "curing cancer".

Such is the success of his project that President Obama aims to replicate his work across the country by setting up Promise Neighbourhoods, which he hopes will mimic the success of the Harlem children's zone.

Waiting for Superman was directed by Davis Guggenheim, the man behind An Inconvenient Truth, the climate change blockbuster starring former vice-president Al Gore.

Mr Canada says the new documentary looks at two different approaches to overhauling the US schools system, both of which stem from work done in New York City.

"They talk about two different strategies in the movie; one is the school-based strategy done by KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Programme) Academies and ours, which is a much more comprehensive approach," the 58-year-old explains.

"It is doing good schools but doing all of the wraparound services that support the kids," he says. "We're not trying to save a school-full of children, we're trying to save a whole community's worth of children. And that means kids who aren't even in our school... we care about what's happening to them."

The noise being generated on the other side of the Atlantic has not gone unnoticed in the UK. Indeed, education secretary Michael Gove invited him to deliver a keynote address at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last month.

Mr Gove has drawn inspiration for his free-schools policy from the US charter school movement, and particularly from the work Mr Canada has been doing in Harlem.

But while Mr Canada talks of "saving" America's most helpless, as if he is plucking them from the twisted wreckage of the US education system, Mr Gove is often perceived as more of the Victorian benefactor; a Dickensian philanthropist hoping to "help" the country's poorest children during hard times.

A stark difference between the two men is their approach to tying eduation to wider services to the community. While Mr Gove seems to be moving away from the holistic approach of combining education and children's services, Mr Canada puts it at the heart of his agenda.

"It's not just schools," he says. "We believe in providing better health, and regular health, and working with kids who are overweight and obese, and teaching good nutrition. All of these things are part of our strategy for how you build community.

"The biggest challenge we have is people confuse our work with the charter schools and the (Promise) Academy with the whole comprehensive strategy."

Mr Canada adds: "While we do all of the same things that the other high-performing charter schools do, we also have this broader view of our mission, which is to save kids regardless of whether or not they are in our charter schools."

Where both Mr Canada and Mr Gove are in total agreement is in the need to reform the schools system, but he is clear that charter schools are not a magic bullet; the key to the reforms is that they allow schools to innovate.

"It's not as if you do a charter school and then kids suddenly start to learn," he says. "If you do a charter school, but you don't get the right people, you don't get the right leaders, you don't have the right structure - it's not gonna work.

"The reason I am a fan is that they allow innovation. They allow you to say: 'Well, for some kids, might a longer school day work?' The answer might be yes, it might be no, but you can try it."

Innovation can only work, Mr Canada said, with the right people in place, and central to this is the ability to weed out bad teachers, a power Mr Gove is eager to give to headteachers in England. Without the capacity to fire underperforming teachers, the worst schools become lumbered with the worst staff, Mr Canada says.

"It's bad because a bad teacher who teaches (for) 20 years destroys 20 years' worth of young people. It's not like it's just one year, it goes on and on.

"It's even more harmful in the States. Bad teachers can't be fired so they get bounced. They get bounced from good places to weak places. And where are the weak places? Where most of the poor kids, the kids of colour live," he says animatedly.

"So, suddenly you go from one bad teacher, to another bad teacher - because everybody is getting rid of their teachers - and they're sending them places where they think nobody cares. And that ends up saturating those communities with the weakest teachers where they need the strongest teachers."

It is a vicious cycle and one that is not peculiar to the US. Underperforming schools in poor areas often find it difficult to attract the brightest and best teachers, when it is these schools that need them most.

The headteacher is instrumental in the process, but Mr Canada believes strong heads must be given the opportunity to innovate if they see fit, if a school is to be turned around.

"Someone has to be responsible for building and managing a great school, and it's the school leader," he says. "If you get the wrong person in, in disadvantaged areas, then you're going to have real problems. In good areas, it's not going to be great, but you're going to be able to mask it over.

"In disadvantaged communities, you really need a strong leader because one of the things that happens is that people don't believe that these kids can learn. So if the leader is not leading the charge, saying 'In our school, our kids are going to learn this', then you are going to find folks drifting towards the old paradigm."

This strategy has certainly worked in Mr Canada's case, but whether it can be rolled out across the rest of the US with similar success only time will tell. But President Obama has staked an awful lot of the country's dollars on the hope that it will.

A crucial element to the Harlem children's zone and its Promise Academy, is the commitment that Mr Canada and his staff have made to the community. If his blueprint is going to work across the US, there must be similar dedication to children's wellbeing throughout their education. Every child that starts at Harlem Gems, the zone's pre-school, is supported throughout junior and high school until they finish college.

Right now, Mr Canada is looking into securing the next leadership team to take over from where he left off, so his project can continue to deliver on the promise that he made more than 10 years ago. And despite all of his superhuman feats, even he recognises the limitations of his own powers.

"We promised to kids at first that we would be there with them through college," he says. "So I have a bunch of kids who are one-year-old; someone has to be there for 21 more years. As much as I may think I'm superman, it's probably not going to be me.

"You have to have an organisation that's going to be there for those kids. In the end, we can't have told them something that's not true."

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