The recent news that Mayor Bloomberg offered Jeffrey Canada, the founder of the celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone, the top education gig before he settled on Cathie Black offers a glimpse into the Mayor’s mind and the current debate around education. It also is a reminder for those of us who consider ourselves members of the Central Brooklyn community that we must come to the rescue of our schools – not the chancellor, CEOs or lone principals.
Canada, a prominent figure in the documentary Waiting for Superman provides the quote that inspired the movie’s title: “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
This of course becomes the central operating metaphor for the movie which shows low-income families desperately pinning their hopes on charter schools to deliver a reprieve from the long death march that is this nation’s public school system.
Ironically, Mayor Bloomberg was looking for Canada, who the Mayor has said is the most important living person in New York City, to play Superman and save New York City Schools from the proverbial oncoming speeding locomotive, as students, parents and the future of our city lay helplessly across the tracks. As New Yorkers, arguing over who should be the next chancellor, we’re complicit in this fantasy. Even President Obama, desperate to find success stories and put a human face on charter-led, numbers driven school reform, has cast Canada as “the answer,” making the HCZ the model for his “Promised Neighborhoods” grant program.
The problem is that Canada, who I’ve met, worked with, and admired for almost twenty years, would probably be the first to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers. And over the last years a series of studies of the Harlem Children’s Zone have found that its charter schools struggle mightily with the same issues as other urban schools. The jury is still out on how successful HCZ really is, but it important to remember that the responsibility – and consequences – for that success belongs to the people of Harlem, not just one mere mortal.
Similarly, institutions like Boys and Girls High School, which is on the state failing schools list, requires us in Central Brooklyn to not stand on the sidelines, watching the blood sport that has become public education, but to get involved. Not because Boys and Girls is a historic institution, or because it is too big to fail, but because it is where the life choices for our children either take off or get slammed to the ground.
Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School gets this. When I met with him last week he expressed how unrealistic it is to expect that he can, on his own, turn around a high school of such size and complexity as Boys and Girls, where the students enter through a metal detector, and too often carry the baggage of a failed primary school education, or a gang land existence, or struggles at home, into the classroom.
Gassaway is a leery of being viewed as a “savior,” the way iconic figures Joe Clarke and Frank Mickens, Gassaway’s predecessor at Boys and Girls, have been depicted in the past. That’s why he has reached out to the clergy and elected officials, and has hired people like Stan Kinard to coordinate community engagement for school. That’s why Gassaway and Kinard are looking for people to serve as mentors to the hundreds of students who are struggling against ruthless odds to graduate and make a living.