Is the Harlem children’s zone accomplishing its goal? Should HUD’s promise zone initiative be the future of American public education?


Schools in poor and low-income neighborhoods have often lack access to adequate educational resources and social services and may be ill equipped to provide interventions to the trauma associated with poverty. Under the Obama administration, The Department of Housing and Urban Development passed the “promise zone” initiative to improve educational outcomes for students in distressed urban and rural neighborhoods by connecting schools with local businesses and community organizers. The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), part of the impetus for the project, is a privately funded non-profit organization for poverty-stricken children and families living in Harlem, New York. It is a community-based project that provides free support to those in need with the goal of ending generational poverty. The zone, which includes parental workshops, a preschool program, charter schools, and child-oriented health programs for thousands of children and families, has stood out as the success story of effective social capital and communal cohesion. The model of HCZ poses the question of whether neighborhood zones represent a paradigm shift in modern American education and if HUD’s promise zone initiative is a sound solution to end intergenerational poverty.

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is a non-profit organization for families in poverty living in Harlem, New York that provides free social, educational, and healthcare support. The HCZ is “aimed at doing nothing less than breaking the cycle of generational poverty for the thousands of children and families it serves.”[1] The organization began as the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families as New York City’s first truancy prevention program in 1970. By 1994, Rheedlen opened a Beacon center – Countee Cullen Community Center – at Public School (P.S.) 194 – for after school, weekend, and summer programming. In 2000, HCZ started “The Baby College,” a series of parenting workshops. In 2001, it introduced the “Harlem Gems” pre-school program and by 2004, it opened Promise Academy, the zone’s first charter school. Now, the project has expanded to about 100 blocks of Central Harlem and includes 3 extended-day charter schools, all-day pre-kindergarten, health clinics and community centers for adults and children, youth violence prevention programs, foster care social services, and college admissions and retention support.[2] Living up to its moniker of “cradle-to-college,” HCZ reported 96% college acceptance rate in 2016. Spurred by the success of the zone, Former President Obama launched the promise zone initiative in 2013.

In contrast the privately funded non-profit HCZ, promise zones are high poverty urban, rural and tribal communities designated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D) to connect and partner with local leaders and receive federal funding aimed at “improving educational opportunities, leveraging private investment, increasing economic activity, reducing violent crimes, enhancing public health and addressing other communal priorities.”[3] Promise zone designees receive a federal liaison to help navigate federal programs, preferences for certain competitive federal grant programs and technical assistance to manage and facilitate initiatives. The federal model attempts to replicate HCZ by encouraging community based public and partnerships between schools and educators and local businesses and corporations. For example, designees also receive tax incentives, and an opportunity to engage five AmeriCorps VISTA members. On January 9th, 2014 Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Antonio were announced as the first round promise zone designees. On April 28th, 2015, Camden; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; North Hartford; Sacramento; and St. Louis were announced as the second round designees. Finally, on June 6th, 2016, Atlanta; Nashville; Evansville; South Los Angeles; San Diego; Spokane Tribe of Indians, Washington; Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Rolette County; and Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico were announced as the third and final round of designations bringing the total to 22 Promise Zones across the country.

Question – Is the Harlem children’s zone accomplishing its goal? Should HUD’s promise zone initiative be the future of American public education?

In recent years, there has been much controversy surrounding the Harlem Children’s Zone as a model for the future of education. The 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman” praised the model and promoted HCZ as a model of education of which to aspire.[4] The documentary criticizes the American public education system most specifically teacher tenure, teaching standards and teacher unions and makes statistical comparisons between state, private, and charter schools. The film also stars Geoffrey Canada, who is the founder and CEO of the HCZ. A year later, the Grassroots Education Movement released the film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman accusing the former of exaggerating the success of the HCZ and bringing into light the high private revenues of the zone of which public schools cannot compete.[5] To date, HCZ has an endowment of $175 million and revenue of $75 million. Stanley Druckemiller, a former hedge fund manager and college friend of Canada, who has given over $100 million since 2006, donate most of the funds.[6] In comparison, each federally designated promise zone receives about a quarter, if that, of HCZ’s endowment over multiple years.

Comparing financial support, HCZ falls into the 10% of New York school districts. The zone spends about $16,000 per student per year at the Promise Academies and an average of $5,000 per child for the many other programs the HCZ provides outside the charter schools.[7] Slightly lower, New York City spends $14,452 per student per year. (IBID) However, HCZ does not have the highest spending per capita among school districts. The richest 10 percent of New York school districts spend $28,754 per student, much higher than the cost of educating students in the Harlem Children’s Zone and three times the national average.[8] While HCZ comes with a steep price tag, the data on district spending begs the question of what price is equitable to close the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest?

Financial differences aside, longitudinal statistic research uses HCZ as a basis to question whether neighborhood based approaches to educational achievement of low-income students work any better than conventional methods. In a study of the HCZ, Brookings posed two related but strikingly different questions about the efficacy of the zone: first, do students “who receive the full panoply of HCZ services have superior achievement to similar students who don’t receive those services” and second, did “students who received the schools-only component of the HCZ” perform as well as “students who received the full treatment?”[9] The research presumes that if HCZ works, then it must prove that students who receive all of the services and neighborhood interventions have higher achievement than similar students, even those partially involved in the zone and especially those not involved in the zone at all. The report references an experiment conducted by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer published in 2009 that compared the educational achievement of students that attended the HCZ’s oldest charter, Promise Academy, with the students who did not. Dobbie and Fryer, concluded that “the effects in middle school are enough to reverse the black-white achievement gap in mathematics” however “students outside the Zone garner the same benefit from the HCZ charter schools as the students outside the Zone.”[10] In summary, proximity didn’t show a statistically significant difference such that high-quality schools and high-quality schools coupled with community investments generate the same achievement gains.

Now, the Brookings report was limited in scope by relying on a group of students selected to participate in a lottery to attend an HCZ charter school, leaving numerous unanswered variables. When slots exceed supply, NYC charters are required to take students by lottery. Dobbie and Fryer theorized that by studying these “lottery winners” and “lottery losers” they could essentially create the conditions for a randomized experiment; however, the outcomes of these students cannot be solely held to the respective schools for a conclusive answer to the question. First, there is no assessment of various demographics – the educational background, socioeconomic status, race, disabilities, etc. – of these students prior to lottery assignments. Second, this study doesn’t measure how the zone impacts and reweaves the social fabric of Harlem, a community that has been degenerated by poverty for over a century. To reiterate, the purpose of the zone is to end intergenerational poverty and is thus aimed at various social enterprises, not just education. The results of the charter schools are merely one aspect of the Harlem community and do not present a robust analysis of the whole community impact.

Standardized test scores reveal that HCZ does not stand out among some of New York City’s charter schools. The HCZ Promise Academy I is the longest established HCZ public charter and serves elementary through high school. Comparing results from Promise Academy to the average test scores of all charters in Manhattan and the Bronx, Brookings found that “half or more of the public charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx produce test scores on state assessments that are superior to those produced by the HCZ Promise Academy,” which is true both for actual scores and scores adjusted for student demographics (percent free lunch, percent reduced lunch, percent limited English proficient, percent African American, and percent Hispanic).[11] Although HCZ appeared to perform slightly stronger in the mathematics exam, in conclusion, HCZ Promise Academy “is a middling New York City charter school.”

However to date, HCZ schools have impacted students of the Harlem community. By 2013, although no class had yet graduated from the complete cradle to college pipeline (Baby College through Promise Academy), over 900 students had been enrolled in HCZ’s College Success Office.[12] In addition, the majority of these students were in their first to third years of post-secondary schooling and 36 had graduated from two-year and four-year degree programs. Less than 10% of HCZ students had dropped out of school, which is significantly lower the national average of 43.6%. The state of New York requires high schoolers to earn a 65 on the standardized Regents exam to earn a diploma. In 2010, and 2012, Promise Academy I scored comparatively with the most competitive of NYC charter schools. “Promise Academy I’s entire 2012 graduating class scored 65 or higher (with almost half scored 85 or higher) on the English exam; 90 percent scored 65 or higher on the Geometry exam; and 96 percent scored 65 or higher on the Algebra 2 and Trigonometry exam. In 2010, 92 percent scored a 65 or higher on the Integrated Algebra exam.”[13] Finally, in the New York City Progress Report for 2011–2012, Promise Academy I placed in the 99th percentile of city high schools with the sixth-highest score in the city, boasting a 96 percent pass rate in English and 98 percent pass rate in Integrated Algebra in the New York Regents examination.

Moreover, Dobbie and Fryer do note that HCZ does make a difference. “They concluded that the Promise Academy and additional support services had effectively reversed ‘the black–white achievement gap in mathematics (HCZ students outperform the typical white student in New York City and the difference is statistically significant) and reduced it in ELA [English Language Arts].”[14] Especially at the younger levels, the researchers found statistically significant differences for Harlem students who attended and didn’t attend Promise Academy. “The effect of being enrolled at the elementary charter school on third-grade test scores—the first year that children in New York take standardized exams—is large and precisely estimated, with point estimates ranging from 1.906 to 2.039 standard deviations in math and 1.693 to 1.863 in ELA. This suggests that the HCZ elementary school impacts both math and ELA scores significantly, eliminating the race gap in both subjects.”[15] Of course, the same limitations apply for the positive and negative results of the Dobbie and Fryer study. It was based on the lottery of a single of class students in a single year, which may not reflect the performance of HCZ relative to other schools in previous school years.

Continuing, equating academic achievement with standardized test scores may only answer one piece of the puzzle. Canada responded to the formerly mentioned Brookings study and criticized its “wrong-headed take” on the Zone.[16] Mainly, he implied the failures of the study stem from its narrow analysis, which is of only one of the three charters and the lack of a longitudinal track of student growth over time. Citing the Dobbie and Fryer analysis and the Whitehurst and Croft analysis, Canada claims the latter ignores the charter schools that are outperforming Bronx and Manhattan schools and fails to include student growth at HCZ which also outperforms the boroughs.

Is it fact that HCZ Promise Academies perform on par with the upper echelon of New York City charters an indictment of its efficacy? Secondly, if yes, is that an indictment of the model as a whole? First, the Brookings report doesn’t compare HCZ charter to charters nationally or in other urban areas. It is important to consider to whom is the Zone being weighed. Second, there is inconclusive and controversial data on the ability of charters to promote educational achievement at the fundamental level due to selection and attribution biases.[17] Finally, what does ending intergenerational poverty mean and is it statistically reasonable to measure a charter that serves students in poverty to ones that may not. HCZ has a high price tag but so do some of the highest performing school districts and so, should they be targeted as well?

HCZ Promise Academy students do perform better than students of their backgrounds attending a New York City public school but the charter school at the top of the list is a KIPP school[18] which calls into comparison two different models of education and their abilities to create achievement for historically marginalized groups. Additionally, KIPP schools tend to more closely align their spending per-student to that of the surrounding district. On the other hand, the KIPP model has been around much longer and it can be argued that it may take time for HCZ to demonstrate the same level of achievement as much more established schools. But the question of how much time is enough time is a difficult one to answer.

Reforming neighborhoods and making schools the center of social service networks is certainly innovative but the data seems to be inconclusive on whether it will always work. While HCZ benefits from over $100 million in philanthropy to support its holistic approach and has seen wonderful successes, how replicable of a model is it? Can the HCZ model work in any neighborhood and its associated social services? What kinds of ingredients are required for the successful implementation of a school centered neighborhood zone? In conclusion, there doesn’t seem to be enough data to conclusively argue whether the HCZ neighborhood package “works.” Although there are noteworthy successes, it is difficult to unequivocally associate these results to HCZ exclusively.

There is quantitative data that is convenient for measuring the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone but the data is mixed and leaves many questions unanswered often telling oppositional narratives. We have only a limited basis for evaluating the Zone’s full impact. To reiterate, the Zone “works to reweave the social fabric of Harlem” and so to evaluate the Zone fully, the cumulative social impact of the organization on the entire Harlem community, not just specific results of the Zone schools ought to be measured. While academic success is an important factor in rebuilding a community, it is just one piece in the overall puzzle, not the puzzle itself. It is likely fair to say that HUD’s promise zone initiative will not be able to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone and too soon to predict whether promise zones as opposed to schools-only approaches are better.

[1] “About HCZ – Helping Kids Succeed.” Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

[2] Ibid…

[3] “Promise Zones.” HUD. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

[4] Heilemann Published Sep 6, 2010, John. “Schools: The Disaster Movie.” New York Magazine, 6 Sept. 2010. Web. 03 May 2017.

[5] Szhamilton. “Waiting for Batman: Following the Money at the Harlem Children’s Zone.” Daily Kos. Daily Kos, 13 July 2011. Web. 03 May 2017.

[6] Callahan, David. “Who’s the Harlem Children’s Zone $100 Million Donor?” Inside Philanthropy. Inside Philanthropy, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

[7] Otterman, Sharon. “Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 03 May 2017.

[8] Kellermann, Carol. “No More Aid for the Affluent.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Mar. 2010. Web. 03 May 2017.

[9] Whitehurst, Grover, and Michelle Croft. “The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education | Brookings Institution.”Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[10] Ibid…

[11] Whitehurst, Grover, and Michelle Croft. “The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education | Brookings Institution.”Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[12] Hanson, Danielle. “Assessing the Harlem Children’s Zone.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.

[13] Ibid..

[14] Hanson, Danielle. “Assessing the Harlem Children’s Zone.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.

[15] Ibid..

[16] Swaminathan, Nikhil. “Geoffrey Canada Responds to Brookings Study on Harlem Children’s Zone.” GOOD Magazine. GOOD, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 04 May 2017.

[17] Welner, Kevin G. “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment.”National Education Policy Center. N.p., 10 May 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.

[18] “CHARTER SCHOOL PERFORMANCE IN NEW YORK CITY.” (n.d.): n. pag. Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. Stanford University, Jan. 2010. Web. 4 May 2017.