Keynote Speaker Geoffrey Canada Talks Education

During a USF conference, the Harlem Children’s Zone director spoke of his deep concern for the future of children.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Mar. 22, 2011) – A standing ovation confirmed USF President Judy Genshaft’s prediction that the audience at the 24th Annual Children’s Mental Health Research & Policy Conference would be inspired by the man she was introducing, celebrated educator Geoffrey Canada, director of the Harlem Children’s Zone.


In a presentation met in turns by knowing nods of understanding, smiles, laughter and surprise, Canada shared his experience as a risk-taking pioneer, delivering sobering statistics, amusing anecdotes and a message of deep concern for children and his successes. 


The conference, held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Tampa, began Sunday and continues through Wednesday.  It has attracted hundreds of people from around the country and the world who work with children and set policy for their health, education and welfare.  It is a production of the University of South Florida’s Department of Child and Family Studies in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.  


Canada acknowledged all of the media attention his work has attracted, from The Colbert Report to 60 Minutes – first with the late Ed Bradley and later Anderson Cooper – as well as the Oprah Winfrey Show.  In the last case, he talked about the uproar in his family caused by being invited to appear on the Oprah show – to which his children responded, “You?!” and then receiving seven tickets from the producers.


“Everyone in the family thinks they’re in the top seven,” Canada joked.


But he was completely serious about the state of education in the United States.  He has noted certain patterns that add up to a national crisis in his estimation.


“The standard is that children fail. That’s the norm,” he said. “People experience this as a local problem. I don’t believe the people in this country are aware of how damaging this is to the country.”


There are the reports from “those name brand places,” he said, such as Detroit and South Central, L.A., “but there are a thousand other places where it’s just as bad. We have this sort of schizophrenic view of ourselves where we see some kids as our kids and some other kids as ‘their’ kids, as if they’re not all our kids.  We talk about our children in segments like it’s okay.” 


And he went on to explain why it’s not okay.


“Whatever happens to our most disadvantaged tends to happen to everybody else in the country and we’ve ignored that for years.”


He linked this idea to the “cradle to prison pipeline,” a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund.  “In our nation, we incarcerate more people than any other place on the face of the earth,” he said.  “When you think of the most repressive, most backward places, like North Korea – not even close.  We have a situation where we’re not offering our children education but will certainly offer them a jail cell.”


He contrasted the $5,000 his Harlem Children Zone spends per child with the $37,000 spent to keep a person in jail each year in New York City and decried the practice of claiming there’s no money for education while willingly spending any amount of money to keep people imprisoned.


Calling himself a data person, Canada shocked some in the audience with the statistic that 75 per cent of young people are unable to serve in the military, a figure he didn’t believe himself until his staff found the supporting evidence.  He was most alarmed by the contribution of childhood obesity to this problem, saying that to give a child a 40-ounce soda at the movies “should be considered child abuse.”


Canada used to suspect a conspiracy behind all the problems in education, but he remarked that from talking with the nation’s leaders he has come to a different conclusion.   


“There is no plan. They ask me, ‘What do you think we need to do?’” He went on to say, “No one’s coming to save your kids. We at the Harlem Children’s Zone decided we’re going to save our own kids.”


Crediting his work with Bruce Baker, a professor he studied with at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Canada came to recognize that all children can learn regardless of disability.   


“If a kid wasn’t learning, it was us, not them,” he said. “It was because we didn’t know enough.”


He uses what he learned at the Harlem Children’s Zone where the operating principle is, “whatever it takes” and so the program follows children from birth through college offering a variety of supports for the children and their families. Canada encounters people who constantly try to get him to put limits on his program, to focus on specific parts of children’s education.  He counters by asking what part of their own children’s education would they choose to focus on and invariably they choose all of it. 


“People keep trying to figure out how little we can invest in kids and then stop,” Canada says, “Let’s make sure we stay with kids until the job is done. The most important part of a child’s life is right now.” 


As his talk drew to a close he spoke of critics who bemoan the notion of getting “special education” children into college – implying some level of unfairness.


“I say, yeah, they’re going to end up as adults with college degrees and with mental health issues – like the rest of us.  What’s the big deal?”


After lobbying on Capitol Hill recently against cuts to education, Canada said, “I’d love to tell you I straightened this all out, but we are all going to have to fight.  We’re all going to have to take a stand.”


And with that he closed his presentation with his poem, “Take a Stand” and received an enthusiastic standing ovation.


Two USF Latino Scholarship award recipients had the honor of making the day’s introductions. Kristen Robinson introduced President Genshaft, who spoke of what she had in common with the audience – her own background in psychology and working with children. Carolissa Salcedo introduced the panel that followed Canada’s presentation. 


The panel brought together Sandra Spencer, executive director of the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Mary Ellen Elia, superintendent of the Hillsborough County Public Schools and Luanne J. Panacek, CEO of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County for their respective responses to Canada’s remarks.  Each was familiar with his work from previous encounters and spoke of being inspired yet again by what he had to say. 


Spencer spoke movingly of the hope Canada inspired in her life when her son was declared unteachable.  Hearing him speak a decade ago gave her the courage to decide to prove the experts wrong and she succeeded in helping her son graduate from high school.  But in line with the conference’s focus on transition, she talked about the necessity to continue helping children with emotional problems reach young adulthood.


Elia, referencing Canada’s appearance in the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” said, “We’re not waiting for superman.  They’ve already cut superman’s budget.”  She said that school systems have to take responsibility for children’s success and not only depend on charter schools to solve all the problems.


Focusing on Canada’s encouragement to embrace innovation, Panacek emphasized the importance of focusing “on the ground level, that’s where the child is.  …There isn’t a single way.  There isn’t a magic bullet.”  She encouraged her colleagues to use data to build on systems that work and to build partnerships where everyone works for the children.  “The focus should always be the child.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.