A visit from Superman: Harlem’s Geoffrey Canada Preaches Change to Fix San Antonio Schools. Were We Listening?

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It's supposed to be about the students.

A student choir signs the National Anthem.

Waiting of Superman

Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children's Zone

There aren’t many leaders in American public education who enjoy rock star status, but Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the much-celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem,  is one of them. Canada was in San Antonio Tuesday to address an audience of 700 people attending a San Antonio Area Foundation luncheon and he did not disappoint.

Anyone who has watched the award-winning documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” knows why. Canada is tall, handsome, articulate, funny and passionate. He has a comic’s sense of delivery, which he used to great effect while recounting various appearances on “60 Minutes,” “Oprah,” and “The Colbert Report.” You could almost hear the buzz from The Twitter traffic at lunch as Canada spilled memorable soundbites from one end of the stage to the other.

More important than his mediagenic talents, Canada can claim what few others can: He’s built a program that has demonstrated students who live in poverty and are at risk of dropping out of school can be motivated to finish high school and go on to college IF they receive the right support and inspiration. Canada built a 100-block wide education enterprise zone in Harlem where thousands of at-risk, inner city students have chosen to stay in school.

What one New York Times reporter called the “most intensive youth program of our time”  has been praised by the Obama administration, and is set to be exported to other U.S. cities, including San Antonio’s Eastside.

Canada has benefitted enormously from philanthropic contributions that have funded his program and its ambitious expansion, but results are results. He preaches change or else, and if that means standardized testing, opening charter schools, firing underperforming teachers, and making kids exercise to combat obesity, he’s okay with that.

“Changing schools and getting results is a long-term experience, it’s not an overnight thing,” Canada told the audience, walking the stage with a hand-held microphone, delivering his message in a voice that often rose to near-evangelical fervor. “Good intentions are not enough. This is about thinking outside the box. This is about innovation. This isn’t about doing what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”

It's supposed to be about the students.

A student choir signs the National Anthem.

The applause and, later, the standing ovations were unequivocal. But the people who most needed to hear Canada’s message might not have been in the room.  Canada was introduced by District two Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, and District One Councilman Diego Bernal and District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña were there (Mayor Julián Castro had planned on attending, but was traveling). That’s an impressive show of commitment from inner city council members, but unless I am mistaken, I did not see any inner city school board presidents and only one superintendent, Harlandale’s Robert Jaklich. Two San Antonio district principals also attended. Canada did not prove to be a big draw for local school boards. All of the school districts were offered free tables by the SAAF, but only a few of them, the KIPP Academy, and Tom Torkelson of IDEA Schools from the Rio Grande Valley, who has purchased David Robinson’s Carver Academy, took tables.

 It’s been only a few weeks since embattled SAISD Superintendent Robert Durón lost his job. Read Rick Casey’s TexasWeek blog post on the subject. Suffice it to say the SAISD board under its new president, Ed Garza, enjoys little public trust after the Alamo Stadium debacle, followed by the decision to dump Durón as superintendent and place him in a lesser job at full pay. Thankfully, Durón found a new opportunity in Austin and cut his ties.

Read the Express-News’ Maria Luisa Cesar’s coverage of the SAISD board’s selection of Dr. Sylvester Perez as “interim superintendent”, and pay close attention to Garza’s words praising Perez, runner-up to Durón during the last superintendent search. I read the story and was left to believe the board will eventually drop “interim” from Perez’s title, even if that means leading the community through a phony search exercise.

Canada’s inspiring presentation urging change made me wonder: Would Garza and board consider hiring Canada as a consultant to guide them in a legitimate search for a qualified change agent as the new superintendent? I think the answer is no, but it’s worth asking.  Garza could cite the expense and easily dismiss my unsolicited advice.

What if Canada’s fee were underwritten by one of the luncheon’s main sponsors, which included Rackspace, The Brackenridge Foundation, and the Ewing-Halsell Foundation, and Dr. George Rapier III? The answer, I am guessing, would still be no.

Too bad. Canada — or his vision and spirit — is just what San Antonio needs right now as our inner city school districts reel from board politics and missteps and a disturbing lack of transparency, and dropout rates remain flat or grow worse. Add in the effects of the $5.4 billion in education funding cuts mandated by Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, and the picture is not good.

It isn’t easy to go out and find the next Superman, and people like  Canada don’t want the superintendent’s job. They didn’t get where they are today by reporting to meddling boards made nervous by big ideas. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Canada’s friend, failed in his efforts to get him to become Chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

I don’t know Dr. Perez, the Harlandale graduate and former Midland, Texas superintendent who is now “interim superintendent” in San Antonio. He said he doesn’t want the big job. Garza said he is only interim. I don’t believe either of them. And I can’t help but wonder: What would Canada do?

Photos by Robert Rivard.



13 thoughts on “A visit from Superman: Harlem’s Geoffrey Canada Preaches Change to Fix San Antonio Schools. Were We Listening?

  1. Parents, teachers, and especially citizens need to get more involved in the school system. We can stop the corrupt people who wrote these outrageous contracts and vote out the politicians that allow and empower this kind of thing. The school system needs change. We can start by getting rid of all of the people on the board because they all went along with this outrageously non-transparent contract.

  2. The Harlem Children’s Zone and associated programs are based on the fundamental concept that quality education includes social, emotional, and physical well-being beyond the classroom. The HCZ program exemplifies what it means to have a “whole-child” approach to learning, and the targeted business strategies used to assess the programs help to keep it viable. The public school systems in many states could benefit from this approach. Sadly, I feel we have come to a point where bureaucracy and politics have taken precidence over student success, and a “whole-child” approach is red-taped to death.
    We need a makeover of the entire system, but it’s going to take more than one Superman to make it happen. I’m very sad to have missed Mr. Canada’s visit – a leader and educational visionary!

    • Melinda, Thanks for writing. You do not identity yourself in the posting as a public school teacher, but The Rivard Report knows you are a good one and we would like to invite you to write a full posting for us on the reality of being inside the classroom these last few years as budgets have been slashed, polarized debate about education reform has dominated the public conversation, and school districts are struggling to make ends meet. Seems to us that teachers are caught in the middle and the average taxppayer does not know how outside events are affecting life inside the classroom. Interested?

      • Robert, it would be my pleasure to write more in-depth about public education. I will, however, need to speak with you more about the details. Give me a call, and I can meet with you.

    • Actually, these programs cost substantial amounts of additional money and it is clear that the citizens of Texas as exemplified by the current legislature are unwilling to make the financial commitment to fund such endeavors.

  3. Bob – I worry when people use fictional characters like Superman to look towards for answers. There is no such thing as Superman. There are only ordinary people doing some extraordinary things and we need to recognize that and not wait for the next superman, because he or she is not coming.

    As for Geoffrey Canada, he’s very polished and slick. He also doesn’t tell you how much he spends per pupil at this school, which significantly more than what public schools spend her pupil. And while he has done some excellent work in Harlem with the Promise Academy given the challenges, you need to dig deeper to know that he actually dumped a significant amount of kids in the early years of the Academy because they were not performing academically. Also, his Academy is not a public school. It has selective criteria. Similar to other Charter Schools like IDEA, they select their kids and they do not take all comers like public schools have to. While he has some great ideas, he’s not as shining a star as the media and philanthropic organizations make him out to be. Also, one of the reasons, he would never take a public school superintendency, in addition to the politics, is that they could never pay the salary that he receives currently, or to earn all the extra income from speaking engagements like he did in San Antonio. I bet someone paid him at least $20K for a nice talk that was entertaining and had a populous message. What I’ve found is people like him who charge bundles for speaking engagements rarely have a long-term impact. It may excite those who attended, but in the end, what is going to change as a result of this talk today, tomorrow, or next year? Probably not much. Like you noted and I agree, it takes committed individuals on the ground to make change happen.

  4. I am an inner-city public school administrator and currently authoring a book on the subject (Inner-City Public Schools STILL Work) and I totally concur with Dr. Soho’s words. Canada and others have sold the media and others that what they are doing is so groundbreaking, and those of us working in public schools are clueless as to what needs to be done. I can tell you from experience that what we are doing everyday in our inner-city public schools are working and like any corporation, we have our challenges, but do our very best to reach each and every student who enters our doors!! Thanks Dr. Shoho….

  5. We appreciate the discourse about student success and schools. As a San Antonio inner-city high school that is an emerging example of out-of-the-box thinking in education, Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School for Art + Design hopes that it will receive an invitation to such events in the future.

    Our school is different from most college preparatory high schools. As a Henry Ford Academy, we intentionally focus on developing creativity, critical thinking and problem solving by integrating Design Thinking throughout our rigorous core curriculum and project-based learning. We’ll soon graduate our first class of seniors, and because of their experience and hard work at our school, they will leave us with processes, mindsets and dispositions that will enable them to develop solutions to challenges they encounter in college, careers and their communities, as well as the agency to see that they can change the world. In addition to all having been accepted to the college and university of their choice.

    Mr. Canada is right. It’s not an overnight thing. Only when we start sharing ideas and practices across systems can we bring about permanent and widespread change for our children and our communities — and Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School for Art + Design looks forward to being a part of that conversation.

  6. Robert,

    I too was at the Geoffrey Canada luncheon and was inspired by his emphasis on innovation as a way forward for a system that clearly isn’t working for many of our students. With regard to SAISD however, my outrage with the bond election predates the present “Alamo Heights Stadium debacle.” As a resident of SAISD, and a big proponent of education, I was actually enthused about the SAISD bond issue until I began receiving their associated marketing pieces. Other than a description of some planned upgrades to security technology (entirely justifiable), the entire thrust of the argument centered around how OUR football stadium doesn’t compare with the football stadiums built by those rich Northsiders. I was completely outraged. Everyone knows Texans can be football-mad, but when you have the horrendous drop-out rates and poor test scores we’ve come to associate with SAISD, I as a taxpayer want to hear about how you are going to improve the academics in your district. This has been weighing on me for a long time, Robert so thank you for providing a forum for this sort of discussion. Frankly, I wish more of this was happening within SAISD.

  7. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments of all those who preceded me, and to Bob Rivard for providing the springboard for the discussion, and for continuing the spotlight on education in San Antonio. In response to some of the comments: I attended the lunch and I believe Mr. Canada did say the cost per student is $5,000/year. That includes medical and dental costs and the support goes pre-K through post college, if I understood it all correctly. He justified that amount by comparing it to the cost of keeping someone encarcerated for a year ($40,000–a cost similar to that of Texas, I believe), and the continuing cost of running and/or building more and more jails and prisons. Many of you may know that the “whole child” is addressed by a program we already have in San Antonio–Communities In Schools. In the interest of full disclosure, I am on that board and have been since 2000. The cost per child is around $900. Our results are commendable–last year of the children we supported with direct services from a degreed case manager on the school campus(~7500 in all of the major school districts in San Antonio and other districts near to San Antonio), 99% stayed in school. There are other ways to do what Mr. Canada does. It’s here and it’s working. Dr. Folks, superintendent of Northside, will tell you and says so often publically, that he would like to have Communities In Schools in all of his schools. Why doesn’t he? Cost–even at that comparatively modest sum (compared to HCZ). The District is supporting part of that cost/pupil, the rest being supplied by Communities in Schools, raised through business funding, grants, a small amount of City support, and also State money. Cost effective and program effective with data and studies to prove it. Communities In Schools of San Antonio partners with City Year, Family Service Association, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and many other effective agencies in San Antonio to serve the whole child. Nobody in San Antonio is waiting for Superman! Check us out!

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  9. As a teacher I feel really conflicted about figures like Geoffrey Canada. I know the majority of teachers are working hard, without a lot of support for what they’re doing. I think that teaching unions support students and teachers, and that charter schools can undermine that. I think that the vocal opponents of school unions tend to talk about lazy teachers who don’t care about their students, and have a lot of vacation time, and aren’t that committed, etc. When teachers know that those breaks are unpaid, and often spent working, planning, attending educational workshops and conferences. However, I also agree that unions can be bloated and not allow for innovation and improvement. It’s a tough subject. Charter schools can be phenomenal, and something needs to be done to help ALL kids succeed and have a place in our society. Achievement and opportunity should not be based on property values, socioeconomic brackets, and zip codes. That’s criminal, but it’s too often the way the system shakes out. Charter schools have done a great job of bridging those gaps for inner city children, often through holistic, whole-child programs. But not all charter schools are that good, and a lot get a pass for being basically the same standardized test focused, non-innovative programs as regular public schools simply because they call themselves charter schools. The whole point is to be able to experiment and then take best practices away, which doesn’t happen most times. The charter schools that are excelling are inspirational, but it’s sad that all our kids don’t have the same chances to have supportive environments to thrive and succeed. I get really uncomfortable when I see the blame being thrown on teachers for things we can only minimally control, especially when every teacher I know is really dedicated to what they do. No one gets into teaching for the money. They do it because of a calling to help. That doesn’t mean they’re all great, but the public impression that most of them are lazy and uncaring and there’s just a few trying to change things is patently false.

    It’s tough on schools with billions of dollars in budget cuts. There’s lot of teachers who are moved to get in and change things, but San Antonio school districts aren’t hiring, and in fact most are laying off positions. It’s awfully hard to be Superman and teach to small groups and differentiate instruction when you’re trying to teach to a group of sometimes 45 already-behind high schoolers without much support. But thousands of teachers in San Antonio get up every day and do just that, and have a real passion and drive that prevents them from even considering doing anything else. San Antonio needs a major turnaround, and it’s not an overnight process. We really have two cities when it comes to education here – the haves and the have-nots, and if you try to say that teachers should be able to overcome that without any additional support or resources, and not take into account that there is a lot going on with our cities and families that happens outside of the classroom, it’s going to be impossible to deal with the problem realistically. Community programs are going to be key in addressing kids’ issues, and partnering with these organizations to give kids, teachers, families, and communities multiple means of support is the only way it’s ever going to happen.

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