Harlem Children's Zone students. Photo: Marty Lipp
Finding something all Americans can agree on feels like a heavy lift these days, but here’s one: helping children succeed will help all of us.
Like saying the American flag is red, white, and blue, it’s pretty non-controversial, right? But the debates begin when it’s time to decide the best way to make children — especially children who are statistically a whole lot less likely to excel — achieve their personal best.
Is it the Common Core curriculum in public schools? Charter schools all the way? Homeschooling? Early intervention? Where does technology fit in? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers.
But somewhere in Central Harlem — a 97-block chunk of it to be exact — a thriving community has tuned out the noise and is quietly breaking the unrelenting, soul-and-mind-destroying cycle of generational poverty that has blighted and shortened so many lives across the country.
The community has only one agenda: success. Perhaps because of that single-minded goal, it has been able to discount a lot of the partisan moralizing that dominates education theory, and has been able to extract answers to the complex quandary from both sides of the political divide.
THE HARLEM CHILDREN’S ZONE
The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) provides programs for children at every stage of life, starting in utero. Members of the 2,000-strong staff canvas the neighborhood and look for pregnant women and mothers with strollers, with the goal of enrolling them in The Baby College, which aims to provide expectant and new caregivers an understanding of child development, and the skills to raise happy and healthy babies. Once babies are in the Harlem Children’s Zone database, their parents are given opportunities to enroll their children in their pre-school programs for kids three years and up.
HCZ also provides after-school programs in seven area elementary schools, as well as for students who live in the Zone and attend public middle schools and high schools; it runs two charter schools (admission based on a lottery system with 2,000 enrolled children); arts and technology programs for high school students; and a college prep program. Once kids are in college, the HCZ provides support so students stay in school and then land a lucrative position upon graduation.
Harlem Children's Zone CEO Anne Williams-Isom with graduates. Photo: Marty Lipp
While intensely focused on education as the means by which students can break through the barriers between poverty and the middle class, the HCZ also focuses on the psycho-social causes of the achievement gap. The HCZ has opened community centers with athletic programs for kids and adults; it provides counseling to families in crisis; healthy meals and nutrition programs; even tax preparation.
All of its programs are free; roughly two-thirds of its $100+ million annual budget comes from private and corporate donations, while another third comes through the government. (For every student enrolled in one of their charter schools, New York State hands over a set dollar amount that would have been allocated to the child if they had been enrolled in a non-charter public school).
The Harlem Children’s Zone concept, was founded in the 1990s by Geoffrey Canada to vanquish the social, economic, emotional, and educational hurdles so many Americans, especially the ones living in inner cities, face. He still serves as President, but is no longer running the day-to-day show. In 2009, he brought on Anne Williams-Isom as COO with the plan to allow her time to absorb the labyrinthine workings of the enormous, interwoven tapestry of programs he created. In 2014, she officially took over as CEO.
“When Geoff invited me to join him at the Harlem Children’s Zone, my first reaction was shock,” Williams-Isom recalls. “But the more I thought about it, I realized it represented everything I wanted to do in life. Geoff essentially gave me a five-year apprenticeship in how HCZ runs. I joke that before he hired me, I was on a 13-year-long job interview.”
Williams-Isom met Canada when she worked for 13 years in leadership at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, leaving as Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Community and Government Affairs. At ACS, she got a crash-course in what can happen when kids and families in need don’t get the help they need, or worse, the wrong kind.
Harlem Children's Zone CEO Anne Williams-Isom with HCZ student. Photo: Marty Lipp
“Working at ACS was life-changing,” Williams-Isom explains. “I worked under incredible people, including Nicholas Scarpetta and Linda Gibbs, who set me on the trajectory I’m currently on. But too often, I was one of the few people of color making decisions. Meanwhile, a disproportionate number of black and brown kids are in foster care, enrolled in underperforming schools, living in the inner city. Geoff, in his capacity at HCZ, and I would collaborate on projects and would basically both be the voices for people of color.”
She says that they bonded over their shared desire to provide real “cradle-to-college” solutions that would sever the pattern of poverty, abuse, and incarceration haunting the people of Harlem.
“I saw firsthand as a child, and learned second-hand from my mother, what kind of an impact outsiders, strangers who care, can have on one life, and the lives that follow,” Williams-Isom says. Her mother Edna Williams, now 87, grew up in Trinidad, she explains. The youngest of 14 children, her father died when she was a baby. She was sent to live with nuns, whom she credits with not only raising her with love, empathy, and kindness…but a drive to thrive and achieve.
“She came to the U.S. as a nurse when she was 23,” Williams-Isom reports proudly. “She was the first African-American head nurse at the Long Island Jewish Hospital.”
Her husband, Williams-Isom’s father, followed. Unfortunately, their marriage was not happy. She and her three older brothers were witnesses to their friction, which, too often, involved violence. Her mother left when she was six.
“I directly attribute my success to my mother,” Williams-Isom says. “Despite the trauma my brothers and I had living in a family with domestic violence, the fact that she was strong enough to leave, provide us with a fantastic education, pay all of the bills for our home in Queens, and give us all the moral framework that she did translated into four adults with successful lives and careers.”
Williams-Isom graduated from Fordham University, then after a stint working in social services with the police force, Columbia Law School, where she met and fell in love with her husband, Phillip Isom IV, who grew up in the Clinton Houses in Harlem and pushed her to buy a brownstone on Strivers Row 26 years ago.
“It seems strange now, but I fought him on that,” Williams-Isom recalls. “When my three children were just thoughts in my head I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot. But if we have a boy and I see him getting roped into the street, we are out.’ I didn’t get it. Now, of course I’m so grateful that I followed his lead and moved. Because Harlem, to me, is more than just the place I live. It’s become my heart.”
Photo: Marty Lipp
Not only does Williams-Isom work and live in Harlem, but she patrons and supports local businesses. Some of her favorite places for leisure and learning are The Red Rooster for food, El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for culture, the Apollo and Minton’s for music, and The Edge for cocktails.
Ballet Folklorio Mexicano de Nueva York at El Museo del Barrio. Photo: El Museo del Barrio
But for Williams-Isom, there’s nothing quite like Sunday morning in Harlem.
“My husband is a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which has such historical resonance for the people of Harlem,” Williams-Isom says. “Founded in 1808, the richness of the past and the hope of the future resides in those walls. After listening to the Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts’ sermon, we like to go the French-African Ponty Bistro for brunch. Then, we’ll wander home, and I’ll work in our backyard. Along the way, we always run into people from the neighborhood — all the kids recognize me. It’s ‘Miss Anne’ this and ‘Miss Anne,’ that,” she says, audibly choking up. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just can’t believe how blessed we are.”
In addition to her husband and three children (Aiyanna, 25, Phillip V, 22, and Ande 16), she has 26,000 other Harlemites pulling on her heartstrings.
“The heart is a muscle,” Williams-Isom says. “It can grow bigger, and get stronger, as long as you use it. Geoff told me early on that one of the reasons he wanted me to run the Harlem Children’s Zone is that he saw that I could put the kids — all the kids — first and get my heart broken in the process. It’s true. And I have room in my heart for all of these kids. I want them all to have the opportunity to be safe and secure and have everything they need to fulfill their dreams.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment, but it’s more than that. The numbers speak for themselves.
HARLEM CHILDREN’S ZONE RESULTS
97% of HCZ high school seniors are accepted into college
98% of HCZ students in Pre-K programs tested “kindergarten ready” in 2018
There have been 6,388 graduates from HCZ’s “Baby College” program since 2000
There are 861 HCZ students currently in college
9,000 students are participating in the Healthy Harlem fitness and nutrition program
1,204 families have stayed stable and avoided foster care since 2010
1,200,000 from scratch, healthy meals were provided to students by HCZ in 2017
88% of funding goes directly to programming
Since 2005, the Harlem Children’s Zone has hosted workshops in 502 U.S. communities, from Baltimore to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. (They run workshops under an education-for-educators unit under the HCZ umbrella, the Practitioners Institute). 183 international delegations, from Indonesia to Romania, have also taken workshops.
President Barack Obama sought to replicate HCZ’s model nationwide via the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative and also echoes it in his work with My Brother’s Keeper, where Williams-Isom serves on the Advisory Council.