HUDSON–Earlier this month local educators and social service leaders attended a conference in New York City entitled Changing the Odds: Learning from the Harlem Children’s Zone Model. The event was attended by 1,400 professionals from 100 communities across the country, and focused on an approach embraced nationally by the Obama administration–one that may already be having an impact here.
Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is an innovative program founded by Geoffrey Canada, a community activist who started the program in one city block in Harlem and has expanded it to 100 blocks. The program supports children in multiple ways so that they can succeed in school, attend college and break the poverty cycle.
Called “one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time,” by The New York Times, HCZ strives to provide the same kind of support that is taken for granted by middle class children, things like adequate, enlightened parenting, access to enrichment opportunities, a safe place to live and learn, a healthy diet, exercise and cultural opportunities.
It was championed by President Obama during his campaign, and now the president plans to enlist the help of the people at the conference, many of whom received scholarships to attend, in implementing the program nationwide.
Those attending from Columbia County included: county Commissioner of Social Services Paul Mossman; Hudson City Schools Superintendent John Howe and Assistant Superintendent Maria Suttmeier; Trudy Beicht, Hudson’s director of youth; city Commissioner of Youth Daryl Blanks; Tyrone Hedgepeth, who works at the Youth Center; city Treasurer Eileen Halloran; Kim Botto, Hudson WIC director; Alderman Wanda Pertilla, chairwoman of the Common Council’s Youth and Aging Committee; county Supervisor William Hughes Jr. (D-Hudson, 4th Ward).
During workshops and lectures at the Sheraton New York Hotel November 9 and 10, conference participants got the chance to network with those who have experienced the program first hand in Harlem, and those already engaged in implementing the program in their home communities. They learned how planning, strategy, research, data collection, frequent reassessment, communication, and bridge building across organizations helps insure success down the road.
“Geoffrey Canada, gives us confidence that we can bring these ideas back to our community. This makes me believe we can implement this program in Hudson,” said Superintendent Howe. “The workshops teach us strategies of working with schools and community-based organizations and strategies to begin developing programs that are collaborative.”
Mr. Mossman, in a recent phone conversation, said the experience left him hopeful. He said he was impressed by the comprehensive nature of HCZ’s programs, especially the parent education program called Baby College, which gives expectant parents and parents of toddlers the skills to raise confident, secure children who arrive at school ready to learn. Hudson’s parent support program only kicks in during times of crisis, he said.
“We need to assess our programs, evaluate our goals, and see what we can come up with for our community. Everyone is on the same page and agrees that there is a need and wants to apply for a grant,” said Mr. Mossman.
“With everything at a standstill at the state level, it seems like a good time for local organizations to start collaborating(an idea promoted at the conference). We’ll need to do that to fill in the gaps that will occur in the state budget,” he said.
The federal government has announced that it is offering up to $5 billion in grants to help support programs based on the HCZ model but tailored to the needs of individual communities.
The program is part of the Federal Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, which is designed to help children in communities where people have languished below the poverty level for decades. It is centered on education and schools. United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke at the final lunch of the conference, stressed that schools should be open six to seven days a week, 12 to 13 hours a day and should function as community centers.
“Great schools are the most powerful weapon for fighting poverty,” Mr. Duncan said. “We reject the idea that demography is destiny. You can’t separate children from where and how they live. Family, school, and shelter, not birth, determine a student’s ability to succeed. Every child can learn, but if we don’t dramatically improve our inner city schools we will never win the war on poverty. Success can be the rule rather than the exception in poor communities. Education is the only escape route out of poverty,” he said.
The Hudson team has already started to work on plans to implement a program locally. Ms. Beicht, the Hudson youth director said that her group met recently “to share ideas and figure out where we need to come up with, what our vision will be, and how we can work together to effect change. We offer a lot of great services here. Now we need to learn how to coordinate our efforts.”
At the conference she and a colleague discussed one problem facing the local programs: the Hudson after school program is full and has a waiting list. But with what she learned at the conference, she sees an opportunity. “Those kids can come over to the Youth Department” Ms. Beicht said. “I should communicate that to them.”