In his memoir, Fist, Knife, Stick, Gun, Geoffrey Canada describes growing up on Union Avenue in the Morrisania section of the Bronx as a harrowing experience — a place where bullies terrorized young people and where no institutions, certainly not the local public schools, offered refuge or protection.
It was only when Canada’s family moved to the suburbs that he was able to find a modicum of safety and was able to find a school which could inspire him and where his talents could develop. This Bronx experience, Canada claims, inspired his future work as an educator, including his pioneering efforts to develop a holistic model of child development through the Harlem Children’s Zone, which insulated young people from the violent world ready to claim them and gave them a mixture of education and social services which would enable them surmount numerous hurdles, academic and personal, and emerge college ready upon graduation from high school.
As a coach and community organizer as well as an historian, I find much to admire in Canada’s model. But unlike Canada, I am not as quick to write off our urban public school system as a failure, and the teachers in it as heartless, insensitive, and more concerned with protecting their jobs than helping the young people they work with.
And ironically, some of my reluctance to accept Canada’s analysis comes from having done extensive oral histories from people who grew up in the same neighborhood that Canada did, and sometimes on the same block.
To put the matter bluntly, I have interviewed at least 40 people who grew up within five blocks of where Canada did, who attended local public schools, and participated in after-school programs in local schools, churches, and community centers, who became successful professionals in a wide range of fields ranging from journalism and the arts to education and social work.
Among those I interviewed who fit that category are Amsterdam News sportswriter Howie Evans, musicians Valerie Capers and Jimmy Owens, film maker Brent Owens, community center director Frank Bolden, insurance executive Joseph Orange, talent agent Bess Pruitt, and current and former school principals Harriet McFeeters, Henry Pruitt, and Paul Cannon (current principal of PS 140).
All of these individuals, in their oral histories, describe encounters with very tough kids and neighborhood gangs, one of them, Evans, was actually in a gang; but each of them were able to find teachers in the local public schools who nurtured their talents and when necessary protected them from harm. Some were regular classroom teachers, others were coaches and music teachers, a few ran after-school programs in public schools or local parks.
One individual, Vincent Tibbs, the director of the night center at a local elementary school, PS 99, received mention in numerous oral histories for running a program that sponsored dances, talent shows, and sports leagues; Howie Evans actually credits Mr Tibbs with saving his life by refusing to let him leave the center to participate in a gang fight.
The positive experiences these individuals had in schools and community centers led a number of them to decide to become teachers, social workers, and school administrators when they grew up, many of them in neighborhoods similar to the ones they grew up in.
One of them, Paul Cannon, runs a remarkable public school about six blocks from where Canada grew up which is open seven days a week, has Sunday basketball for neighborhood parents, and where the entire school culture, including an innovative “Old School Museum,” is organized to honor community history.
In short, not everyone who grew up in Morrisania felt so abandoned by the local public school system that they had to circumvent it entirely in order to nurture, inspire, and protect young people living in low-income communities.
The Canada model is an intriguing one, but it is not the only vehicle we have to educate children in poor and working class families. Some public schools were effective when Canada was growing up and some are as effective, or more effective, right now than Canada’s Promise Academy, even without the extra funding.
With A Brooklyn Accent
Posted: Thursday, 26 July 2012