An Educational Superman
“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman does not exist.”
-Geoffrey Canada, opening lines in Waiting for Superman
A class of college freshman and I initially struggled to unpack the title of Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Throughout the film, B-roll of the 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman features George Reeves as the eponymous superhero performing various heroic acts: flying, fighting baddies and, most poignantly, saving a busload of children from almost certain doom because somebody “destroyed” their hapless driver’s “ability to think.”
“We get the kids,” said my students. “They’re school kids. And the driver, he’s all the bad teachers and union people who aren’t thinking about the kids. But who is Superman?”
So, as any good English teacher would have them do, we return to the text. And upon second viewing, it’s so obvious. The black and white footage of George Reeves is colored in by this.
Geoffrey Canada. CEO of Harlem Children Zone. “Educator” as indicated by the film, or more appropriately, administrator. Blue shirt, red tie. The colors of Superman. Our educational savior, our Superman.
A montage at the end of the film reinforces the association. Footage of Mr. Canada intersplices with the aforementioned bus episode of Adventures of Superman. “We know we have the tools to save those kids,” says Mr. Canada, over the black-and-white image of a school bus speeding down a hill. The shot then jumps to him speaking emphatically to the interviewer. “People are doing it every day right now.” And the scene cuts back to George Reeves, as Superman, stepping from behind a billboard.
“The status quo can be changed,” says Bill Gates, “but it takes a lot of outrage and a lot of good examples leading people to say, ‘yes, we can do this. We can show that this is different.’” And Superman grabs the back of the bus, bringing it to a halt.
“The question is,” says Michelle Rhee, “do we have the fortitude that it would take as a city and as a country to make the difficult decisions that would be necessary.”
Cut back to Canada because, presumably, he does have the fortitude, and did make the difficult and necessary decisions to “make kids believe in education again” in his Harlem Children’s Zone schools.
Saving Metropolis, 100 Blocks At a Time
Geoffrey Canada joined HCZ in Harlem in 1983, and became the CEO in 1990, and in 1997 he founded the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a charter school program targeting 100 blocks in Harlem. This area represented one of the poorest and lowest performing areas of New York City’s public school system. The Project established education programs ranging from pre-school through post-college. Its shining star is the Promise Academy Charter Schools, consistently ranked as one of the top-performing schools in New York City, and one of the top-performing charter schools in the nation.
Canada’s program challenges common practices of public education. The school day and year is extended, even as other schools in the city and nation trim both to account for shrinking budgets. The program insists on extensive and expansive community involvement. And the schools provide guidance and mentoring for students throughout college to ensure that students not only get in, but also graduate, something other charters prominently lauded in WFS fail to ensure.
Canada’s schools and programs are undeniably successful, boasting not just gaudy state testing numbers, but also personal testimonials about the ways in which HCZ has helped unify families, establish community pride and kept kids active and away from deleterious influences like drugs, alcohol and gangs.
Superman’s Utility Belt
As suggested in his poem “Don’t Blame Me", Mr. Canada does not believe in playing the “blame game” when it comes to education. He paints a picture in which parents, teachers and social institutions “passed the buck” when it comes to a child’s education. Presumably, suggest to Mr. Canada that the problems of poverty, racial discrimination and underfunding for schools and teachers generate intractable situations for many students in America, and he would respond, “No excuses, I took full responsibility./ No matter if they were black or white,/ Were cursed, ignored, were wrong or right,/ Were shunned, pre-judged, were short or tall,/ I did my best to save them all.” He is, after all, Superman.
But as with any direct analogy, Geoffrey-Canada-as-Superman breaks down after cursory research. While Mr. Canada might insist that a dearth of funding is no excuse for teachers or administrators, he must certainly accept that a wealth of funding definitely helps.
According to the Center for Educational Reform, an organization that advocates for “school choice, advancing the charter school movement, and challenging the education establishment,” New York charter schools received approximately 73% of the funding allocated for each child at a New York Public School as of 2009. (http://www.edreform.com/...) This works out to about $12,205 per student at a charter, compared to $16,800 for a public school student. While CER uses this discrepancy to point out how unfair it is for charters to exist in a public school option environment, and Mr. Canada might point to this number as proof that he’s doing more with less, this does not take into consideration Mr. Canada’s other coffers.
Through charitable donations, both small and large, the HCZ has amassed a $145 million endowment as of 2008. HCZ’s website acknowledges that its annual operating budget for 2010 is over $75 million, which includes both its child and adult programs. And elsewhere on the site, it indicates that its annual budget for the HCZ Project (its charter school programs) is roughly $48 million, or “an average of $5,000 per child.”
But, why would HCZ Project’s operating budget be only $5,000 per child, when it is allocated over $12,000 by the state of New York? Where does the $5,000 come from, and where does it go?
Return to a subtle, but key distinction: Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. versus Harlem Children’s Zone Project. The former is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization founded in 1970 as Rheedlen of which Geoffrey Canada is the CEO, the latter is the 501(c)(3) charter school founded in 1997. The former subsists primarily on charitable donations, receiving about $8 million in state funding, while the latter relies both on charitable donations and approximately $97 million in reallocated public school funds (8,000 students x $12,500/student).
In actuality, each student in an HCZ Project school appears to receive roughly $17,205, or 102% of the total monies allocated to public school children throughout the state of New York: that is, each student gets $12,500 from New York and $5,000 from HCZ. And this does not take into account the additional $2,800 that is used for child and adult educational programs and initiatives throughout the area in which HCZ Project students live. Though no stats linking the participants of these programs to the students in the schools seem to exist, it is fair to assume that many of the 9,400 children and adults served by HCZ programs also have children that attend HCZ Project schools.
Waiting for Batman: Coda
The purpose of this diary is not to pillory Geoffrey Canada or the HCZ or even the charter school movement. I do not seek to question the school’s funding, or even Geoffrey Canada’s $300K+ salary; I tend to think both teachers and administrators are grossly underpaid nationwide. My primary purpose is to explode the myth of Superman as a figure for addressing the problems in modern-day education.
Contrary to what might be implied by Guggenheim’s film, Mr. Canada is not Superman. His school relies as much on its endowment and funding, as it does on the superhuman powers of its teachers and administrators. More accurately: Geoffrey Canada is Batman. A powerful presence, certainly effective, perhaps a bit narcissistic in focus, but also, and perhaps most importantly, superbly funded by an alter-ego. While Batman relied upon the inherited wealth of his father, Mr. Canada and the HCZ Project rely upon the gifted wealth of its alter-ego, the Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc.
Further, while Superman serves and protects the skies of an entire city (and sometimes even an entire world), the HCZ Project serves and protects only 8,000 students in a city with over one million in its public schools.
While Superman was a beacon of hope and a bastion of stability for Metropolis, he was also a crutch. When confronted with the evil of Lex Luthor or Doomsday, citizens of Metropolis looked to Superman, rather than attempting to confront these villains on their own. They came to expect Superman’s strength and insight. Slowly, they lost their ability to tend to their own safety and protection. “We’ve got Superman,” they seem to say, “why do we need anything else?”
But waiting for Superman is like waiting for Godot. To look to Mr. Canada as Superman, as the one figure that can save our educational system from its imminent demise, is to look to a figure that doesn’t exist and isn’t coming. No beacons or bastions, no swooping and alien-born strength and insight. No speeding faster than silver bullets, and no leaping buildings in single bounds. Just hard work, long, difficult conversations and slow systematic reform.
We can and should look to Mr. Canada and the HCZ Project as inspirational examples of successful educational programs. We need better-paid teachers, more state-of-the-art facilities, and far more expansive community-immersion and parent-and-family involvement programs. But in looking to him, we must see the things that allow him to do what he’s doing, how he’s Batman, not Superman, and how his utility belt is something to which the majority of public and charter schools don’t have access. In short, we must understand the HCZ Project is not an example of a school succeeding where others like it have failed, it is an example of a school succeeding with support that most others don’t have, but should have.
And from this last point, we can see that the HCZ Project schools prove an immutable truth about education in our country: while compassionate and competent educators certainly matter, we are powerless without community and family interaction, local and national support, and comprehensive, continuous and uncompromised funding.
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