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Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America

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New York Times bestselling author Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes is "one of the best books ever written about how poverty influences learning, and vice versa" (The Washington Post).

What would it take?

That was the question that Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children — not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children’s Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. His conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives — their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents.

Whatever It Takes is a tour de force of reporting, an inspired portrait not only of Geoffrey Canada but also of the parents and children in Harlem who are struggling to better their lives, often against great odds. Carefully researched and deeply affecting, this is a dispatch from inside the most daring and potentially transformative social experiment of our time.

ISBN-13: 9780547247960

Media Type: Paperback(First Edition)

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 09-10-2009

Pages: 336

Product Dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

PAUL TOUGH is the author of Helping Children Succeed and How Children Succeed, which spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and was translated into twenty-eight languages. He is also the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life. You can learn more about his work at and follow him on Twitter: @paultough.

Read an Excerpt

By the time Geoffrey Canada arrived at the Promise Academy lottery, the auditorium was almost full. He had expected a modest turnout — he figured the rain would keep a lot of parents away — but by 6:00 p.m. more than two hundred people had crowded into the back of the hall, and there were dozens more still streaming in the front door. Here and there, members of Canada’s staff were consulting clipboards and calming anxious parents. His director of education hurried past him, shouting into her cell phone. It was April 14, 2004, a cool, wet night in Harlem. The hand-lettered sign out front of PS 242, streaked with raindrops, said "Welcome to the Promise Academy Charter School Lottery," and inside, past the sign-in table set up in the school’s front hallway, a tall, bull-chested young man named Jeff was handing a rose to each woman as she walked in. "These are for the moms," he said with a smile. "Welcome to the ceremony."

Canada, a tall, thin black man in a dark blue suit, surveyed the crowd. From what he could see, the parents taking their seats in the auditorium were the ones he had hoped to attract: typical Harlem residents, mostly African American, some Hispanic, almost all poor or working class, all struggling to one degree or another with the challenges of raising and educating children in one of New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods. In many ways, their sons and daughters were growing up the way Canada had, four decades before, just a few miles away in the South Bronx: cut off from the American mainstream, their futures constrained by substandard schools, unstable families, and a segregated city.

Five years earlier, frustrated by Harlem’s seemingly intractable problems, Canada had embarked on an outsized and audacious new endeavor, a poverty-fighting project that was different from anything that had come before it. Since 1990, he had been the president of a well-respected local non profit organization called the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, which operated a handful of programs in upper Manhattan targeted at young people: afterschool drop-in centers, truancy prevention, antiviolence training for teenagers. They were decent programs, and they all did some good for the kids who were enrolled in them. But after Canada had been running them for a few years, day in and day out, his ideas about poverty started to change.

The catalyst was surprisingly simple: a waiting list. One Rheedlen afterschool program had more children who wanted to enroll than it was able to admit. So Canada chose the obvious remedy: he drew up a waiting list, and it quickly filled with the names of children who needed his help and couldn’t get it. That bothered him, and it kept bothering him, and before long it had him thinking differently about his entire organization. Sure, the five hundred children who were lucky enough to be participating in one of his programs were getting help, but why those five hundred and not the five hundred on the waiting list? Or why not another five hundred altogether? For that matter, why five hundred and not five thousand? If all he was doing was picking some kids to save and letting the rest fail, what was the point?

Canada became less and less sure of what his programs really added up to. Each one was supported by a separate short-term grant, often on a contract from one city agency or another, and in order to keep the money fl owing, Canada was required to demonstrate to the foundations and agencies that paid for the programs that a certain number of children had par tic i pated. But no one seemed to care whether the programs were ac tually working. In fact, no one seemed to have given a whole lot of thought to what, in this context, "working" might really mean.

Canada began to wonder what would happen if he reversed the equation. Instead of coming up with a menu of well-meaning programs and then trying to figure out what they accomplished and how they fit together, what if he started with the out comes he wanted to achieve and then worked backward from there, changing and tweaking and overhauling programs until they actually produced the right results? When he followed this train of thought a little further, he realized that it wasn’t the out comes of individual programs that he really cared about: what mattered was the overall impact he was able to have on the children he was trying to serve. He was all too familiar with the "fade-out" phenomenon, where a group of needy kids are helped along by one program or another, only to return to the disappointing mean soon after the program ends. Head Start, the government-funded prekindergarten program for poor children, was the classic example. Plenty of studies had determined conclusively that graduates of Head Start entered kindergarten ahead of their inner-city peers. And plenty of studies had shown that a few years later, those same graduates had slipped back to the anemic achievement level of neighborhood kids who hadn’t attended Head Start. A few years of bad schooling and bad surroundings were powerful enough to wipe out all of the program’s gains.

Canada wanted to find a way off the treadmill. So he asked himself a series of questions, and gradually his thinking took shape.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"When it comes to an introduction about poverty and parenting in urban America, you could hardly do better than [WHATEVER IT TAKES] ."—-New York Times Book Review

"This is a serious book about a pressing issue, but Tough manages to make it an easy read with a cast of sympathetic characters ... We don't know how this story will end. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the Harlem Children's Zone——-about the power of an idea, the role culture plays in student achievement, accountability, the indomitable human spirit. This book should be on every policymaker's reading list."—-Washington Post Book World "A remarkable book ... a story more gripping and inspiring than you'd imagine social policy could possibly be."—-GQ magazine

"This unflinching book will motivate us all to take action and make our schools places of possibility and hope"—-Essence magazine

"This is an engrossing look at a visionary man and a bold experiment that has caught the eye of a wide range of politicians, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has promised to replicate the program throughout the U.S. if elected."—- Booklist "Smoothly narrated, affecting and heartening, this book gives readers a solid look at the problems facing poor communities and their reformers, as well as good cause to be optimistic about the future."—Publishers Weekly

"Outstanding literary nonfiction, distinguished by in-depth reporting, compelling writing and deep thinking."—Kirkus Reviews "I wish every city had a Geoffrey Canada. As Paul Tough shows so vividly in Whatever It Takes, Canada is a man of integrity and heart who knows what it takes to ensure that every child has a fair shot in life. His vision of a renewed Harlem community, and his accomplishments toward achieving it, attest to the power we all have to overcome poverty and hopelessness in America."—President Bill Clinton "At once a warm and immaculately reported piece of journalism and a nearly complete overview of the contemporary educational debate. A massive accomplishment, and pretty much mandatory reading for anyone working in urban education — or anyone interested in the future of our democracy." – Dave Eggers, co-founder of 826 National and author of Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers "Paul Tough shows, from the inside, how the nation's most important work gets done." – Adrian Nicole Leblanc, author of Random Family "Paul Tough’s clear-eyed portrait of Geoffrey Canada offers the most cogent, provocative and original thinking on urban poverty to come along in many, many years. Whatever It Takes pushed me to question what I thought I knew. Powerful and hopeful, disturbing and daring, it’s one important book. Essential even."—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here "This is not just a gripping story of one man’s heroic attempt to pull an entire neighborhood’s worth of children up by their bootstraps. It’s also a wise and expansive chronicle of a living, breathing science experiment. In Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough takes on one of the biggest questions going: how do you teach people to be successful?"—Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics "Geoffrey Canada’s work is a model for the nation. Whatever It Takes is a moving account of his commitment to giving Harlem’s children access to the same dreams as children in New York’s most privileged neighborhoods."—Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund "Whatever It Takes" is easily the most compelling and potentially the most important book on the problem of poverty in urban America in years. Paul Tough has a sharp eye for the telling detail, a sure grasp of the literature, and a gift for storytelling that together make for a bracing narrative, hard-edged in its realism but also brimming with hope and possibility. Not to be missed."—Michael Pollan "Whatever It Takes is a must-read for any American committed to solving our nation's greatest social injustice—the fact that in a country that aspires so admirably to be a land of equal opportunity, the socioeconomic circumstances into which you are born still determine your opportunity in life. In describing the groundbreaking efforts of Geoff Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, Paul Tough deepens our understanding of the problem and of the only viable path for solving it."—Wendy Kopp , CEO and Founder, Teach for America "This is a fascinating book. The question of whether these terribly disadvantaged kids will fail or succeed takes on all the nail-biting urgency of any high-stakes, novelistic thriller. But the dangers here are all too real, the risks are cruel, and the victories feel as unlikely as they are magnificent." —Elizabeth Gilbe "Paul Tough is a lucid, engaging storyteller, and his account of this visionary man in Harlem changed my understanding of poverty in America in the most surprising way: it made me feel hopeful."—Ira Glass