Canada suggests optimism and new ideas

Harlem Children’s Zone‘s Geoffrey Canada gave the closing keynote address at the Alliance for Children & Families‘ conference Friday morning at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, giving me my first taste of the Canada charisma in person.

The spry, youthful-looking Canada, who has been working nearly three decades running the HCZ’s charter schools and wraparound social programs, is a force on stage. He’s funny, he’s personable and he’s got a wealth of compelling and entertaining anecdotes. Thanks to Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” he’s a movie star. Thanks to Oprah, he’s a TV star, too.

He’s also a common sense guy. So, when he says the United States is on a path to destruction calling it the last superpower and one that provides Third World-grade opportunities for our kids, you listen.

Canada kept the full house rapt and drew frequent applause for his ideas and laughter for his stories.

But what America’s kids face is no joke, of course. Canada made that quite clear.

He noted that the factory jobs and trades that once held opportunities for Americans who didn’t go to college are gone and are not coming back. The world is changing, he said, and we’re not preparing children for the new reality. Schooling, he added, is the same now as when he attended elementary school half a century ago.

In the past, joining the military was an option, but Canada cited a report that noted that 75% of all young Americans are unfit for service, due to obesity, felony records, an inability to pass the entrance exam, disability and a lack of high school diploma.

Canada delve more deeply into schools until later in his roughly hour-long talk and even then he didn’t focus heavily on specific reform ideas.

As expected, he railed against bad teachers, about chancellors who move from one district to the next and about the fact that while some deride spending $5,000 to educate a child few seem unwilling to spend $37,000 to house a felon in prison for a year.

Low wages and a lot of time off for teachers are not a recipe for success for children, Canada said. We have to redesign our schools for success. Why, he asked, has failure become acceptable?

Hesaid  that HCZ provides parenting classes, dental and health care and other services to kids because he can’t see how the program can work without this comprehensive approach with wraparound services.

Those services, Canada said, allow HCZ to also help neighborhood kids that don’t go to the program’s charter schools.

Canada’s most compelling message to parents — and I guess non-parents, too — is that the government and our leaders have no plan to save our children.

“If we want to do it, we have to do it ourselves,” he said, echoing the sentiments for former Milwaukee education reporter Joe Williams’ 2005 book, “Cheating Our Kids.”

Before closing with a poem from his own pen, Canada challenged the representatives gathered from many of the nation’s non-profits to find creative solutions to the problems facing American kids and families and to give young people a sense of optimism.

Whether or not you are a fan of charter schools and regardless of whether or not you agree with every aspect of Canada’s work with Harlem Children’s Zone, new ideas and a new optimism certainly could go a long way in American cities, Milwaukee included.

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