Four colleagues and I recently visited the famed Harlem Children's Zone in New York. Our intent was to advocate for a "charter school" for aboriginal and other racially marginalized children in Winnipeg's inner-city and North End.
The Harlem Zone was started in the 1970s by African-American activists in response to the public school system's failure to help kids break out of the cycle of generational poverty.
Its initial budget of $1.5 million in 1979 had grown to $95 million (70 per cent private, 30 per cent public) by 2012. The zone covers 97 city blocks in central Harlem, reaches about 11,400 children and 10,900 adults, employs 2,500 full- and part-time staff and spends 92 per cent of its funds on programming and eight per cent on administration.
It administers two K-12 charter schools called the Promise Academy, which offer high-quality, year-round, extended-day education to 1,500 elementary, middle and high school students living in underperforming school districts. The children in these schools, and their families, have access to a host of social and community-based support services offered by HCZ Inc. The HCZ also offers programming to encourage families to participate in the academy's enrolment lottery.
Children selected in the lottery are enrolled in the academy, and their academic careers and social development is followed and assisted from kindergarten to enrolment into college.
In 2012, 97 per cent of high school seniors from the academy (333 of 344) were accepted into college. The annual per-child cost of the program average $5,000, one-tenth the cost of incarcerating an inmate, the HCZ claims.
The key to HCZ success is its cradle-to-college approach, which places special focus on parenting and early childhood education. Through a program called "baby-college" parents are given the tools and home-based support to overcome challenges of child rearing, so the children enter the school happy, healthy and ready to learn.
What's so impressive about this is that 90 per cent of families entering the program do it voluntarily. The program does not focus on child apprehension -- social workers are involved as a last resort, and administrators are upfront with parents about the reasons if it is necessary to involve the authorities.
President Barack Obama described the program as "an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children."
Could HCZ programming be adapted to serve the needs of racially marginalized children in Winnipeg? The answer is not simple.
For a start, a series of systemic barriers in our system would need to be addressed. The first is the school division. A regimented bureaucracy perpetuated by a politically charged leadership and backed by an inflexible teachers union would be resistant to change in its accreditation regime to accommodate charter schools.
Remember, a charter school is not another private school. It's a publicly funded school that is freed from some of the rigidities of public school management. It operates in a holistic way to create a critical mass "of adults well versed in the techniques of effective parenting, engaged in local educational, social, and [other] activities with their children," according to HCZ.
The main idea is that the earlier children are exposed to proper health care, social stimulation and consistent guidance from loving, attentive adults, the more likely they are to become successful academically and socially. In order to initiate and ensure the success of a charter school in the economically and socially stressed parts of Winnipeg, strategies must be tabled, discussed and empowered through legislation that would affect the current system of accreditation.
The charter schools operate on a performance-testing model that meets regional standards. For example, the HCZ Promise Academy's 2012 Grades 3-12 results in math and English language arts ranged between 28 per cent to 82 per cent at or above grade-level compared to the 39 per cent to 60 per cent state test results.
Standardized assessments of students' aptitude in key subjects like reading and writing, mathematics, natural sciences and humanities do not exist in Manitoba. Children's formative years are left up to an underfunded and substandard education system.
Charter schools also set performance standards for the teachers, who are regularly evaluated and are expected to perform to measurable standards set by the school. This ensures that the teachers have a vested interest in teaching as a vocation, not just as employment.
The charter school would be not impeded by collective bargaining seniority rules or the minimalistic divisional recruitment criteria. It would be able to recruit and retain teachers who are not only capable educators, but also reflect the demographic realities of the community.
That brings us to another barrier in inner-city education. A colleague who has spent a lifetime developing community-oriented education once told me that the state of the inner-city schools is in the hands of those who mostly don't live in the area and do not reflect its realities.
A charter school would be able to recruit qualified teachers and administrators who reflect the socio-economic and cultural composition of student populations. The current public school regiment views each student and his or her family as belonging to a homogeneous collective, and would apply textbook solutions to remedy all cases.
This approach is the product of a desensitized and industrial-management style of education that sees all students and their needs as similar. In this system, the teachers offer standardized instructional material, a few teacher's assistants try to work with as many students as possible, and the principals maximize their allotted dollars by focusing on instructional time at the expense of creative support. So when a problem arises, the teachers and school administrators react to it by getting the police and the social services involved. This type of reaction result in increased dropout rates.
A charter school would first and foremost take into account the local socio-economic composition, the fast-changing demographic trends due to migration and immigration, along with the deep and ongoing impact of colonization and systemic racism.
The success of the HCZ model over the past 40 years has been due to its ability to meet the greater needs of the populations it serves. Public schools are not mandated or capable of delivering such a comprehensive approach to education, hence the high rate of dropouts in inner-city and North End Winnipeg compared to the rest of the city.
A charter school would operate on the principles of risk management, dignity, empowerment, corporate partnership, and holistic community engagement. It would look into and deliver direct or indirect support services in parenting, recreation, nutrition, weight loss, employment and college exposure and preparation. What a charter school could offer to our children and youth from marginalized backgrounds would be more than a commitment to an even playing field. It would offer tangible results.
Such a vision requires drastic changes in the approach to community development in Winnipeg, starting with education.
Allan Wise is a social and political commentator living in Winnipeg.