Monday, October 6, 2008

Baby College


Nearly a decade ago, I lost my middle-class innocence after my husband and I decided to send our daughter to one of Oakland’s struggling, Title I, public middle schools. Several months into the first school year, I ran into a former elementary school parent acquaintance, a pediatric psychotherapist who had sent his daughter to a private middle school for girls.

We chatted about our daughters for a while and then I ended up revealing to him how disturbed I was by the things I was witnessing at my daughter’s school. He suggested a book for me to read, “Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America” by Geoffrey Canada. The title refers to the evolution of the preferred type of weapon used by city kids for resolving disputes.

Reading the book didn't relieve my emerging agony about the circumstances in Oakland’s disadvantaged schools, an agony which persists today, but it was such an extraordinarily sensitive account of childhood and Geoffrey Canada immediately became one of my heroes.

With Canada situated on my radar, I was delighted when I heard him speak a few months later as a guest on a local NYC public radio show while I was visiting my mother in New Jersey. Then a few months after, I saw him interviewed on PBS's “Charlie Rose.” He spent the time talking about a new program he had been developing called the Harlem Children’s Zone. He was so passionate and correct with his thinking that my admiration for him grew and I've been keeping track of his program ever since.

The HCZ is brilliant idea. It is a serious, long term, non-denominational, comprehensive attempt to help disadvantaged, urban families. Within a geographically defined area in Harlem, a network of programs has been installed to help children within that community. It is extremely well-funded by many private donors, and I recall Mr. Canada saying that one of the hopeful outcomes of the program will be a determination of what it will actually take to make a sufficient, beneficial impact on children in poor communities. This is no piecemeal project.

From the HCZ website: “Called "one of the most ambitious social-service experiments of our time," by The New York Times, the Harlem Children's Zone Project is a unique, holistic approach to rebuilding a community so that its children can stay on track through college and go on to the job market.

The goal is to create a "tipping point" in the neighborhood so that children are surrounded by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to "the street" and a toxic popular culture that glorifies misogyny and anti-social behavior.

The project has grown over time. It initially began as a one-block pilot and has now expanded to serve nearly 100 blocks of Central Harlem. It is being observed and carefully studied.

I was disappointed the last time I saw Geoffrey Canada interviewed on television (I can’t remember which show, possibly "60 Minutes"). He spent most of the time talking about how terrible the public schools and its unions are. It was sad to hear him using the rhetoric of those aligned with the Education Equality Project, rather than expressing an alignment with the Bolder Broader Approach. As the director of a program that is trying to tackle poverty – by using a broad range of well-funded programs that target the development of both parents and children – he certainly realizes that the kids’ problems can’t be fixed by the insufficiently funded and stressed out K-12 schools alone. (It makes me wonder why he was so enthusiastic about trashing public schools and unions that day.)

It turns out that Obama knows about the HCZ and would like to see it replicated in other U.S. cities. Incidentally, he is in substantial agreement with the Bolder Broader Approach. A few years ago when when Ron Dellums was running for the office of Oakland's Mayor, I had the occasion to ask him if he knew about Geoffrey Canada and the HCZ. He had not, but I hope he has learned about it by now. All leaders in cities with a sizable population living in poverty should know about this program and the school district leaders should know about it, too. The HCZ may well become the model for a strategy that will eventually bring wellness to these long-suffering communities.

Of all the programs that the Harlem Children’s Zone provides, my personal favorite has always been a training program for new parents called Baby College, designed by the wonderful Dr. T. Barry Brazelton. He is a fairy godfather for infants, a guru for new parents, and a brilliant and sensitive pediatrician and Clinical Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Harvard Medical School. My husband and I were fortunate to hear him lecture in San Francisco years ago. Here is the essence of the Baby College program as described in a 2002 HCZ newsletter:
Richaud Manigauld, one month old, is sleeping peacefully in his crib. His mother, Angel, age 17, is in the kitchen, preparing dinner for herself and her mother. Then the doorbell rings, and the startling sound wakes Richaud, who begins to wail. The sudden confusion might momentarily disconcert even the most experienced parent, but Angel knows exactly what to do. She moves confidently to the crib, takes the baby in her arms and holds him tight, speaking to him softly and gently as she walks to the living room to answer the bell. By the time Angel opens the door, Richaud is still and quiet, his eyes closing, heavy with sleep.

“When a baby knows the mother is nearby, that baby will never really be afraid,” says Manigauld. “Mother is familiar and comforting to a baby, especially very young babies. They recognize the mother’s smell, the sound of her voice, her touch. From the time of conception through birth, the mother has been the child’s whole world; she has protected and nourished the baby with her own body. So of course newborns feel completely safe when they are in their mothers’ arms. I know it’s important to give my child a strong sense of security from the very beginning of his life, so I stay close to him and comfort him right away whenever he seems distressed.”

Despite her young age and the fact that Richaud is her first child, Angel Manigauld knows a great deal about child rearing and child development. “I learned from the best,” says Manigauld. “At home, I have my mother, with all her experience, to rely on when I need her. And at The Baby College, I’ve got experts in many different fields—health, brain development, discipline.

“Do you know who taught me about how and why mothers make their babies feel safe? Dr. Berry Brazelton, one of the most famous child-development experts in the world. He came and spent all morning with my class and talked with us and answered questions we asked him. He said that we could get a lot of information in our classes, but that we were the real experts when it came to our own children. I don’t know if I would have agreed with him before, but after going to Baby College, I really do feel like I not only know what is best for my baby, I know how to do what’s best for him.”

I hope you take some time to listen to this radio segment about Baby College. It was broadcast on public radio’s “This American Life” on September 26, 2008 as Act One (“Harlem Renaissance”) of an episode called “Going Big.” It features interviews of Canada and was produced by Paul Tough, a New York Times reporter who has been following Canada and his program, and who has just released a new book, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America,” a look at the first three years of the Promise Academy charter schools started by the HCZ.

Steady, dependable baby steps will improve the situation over time, and Baby College is Step One. Sorry folks, but no matter how much you break the public schools apart and fantasize about school districts fully staffed with perfect teaching practitioners who are also martyr-like,* schools in any form – especially when they are only supported by the limited resources that citizens of this country are currently willing to provide to them – will never be able to correct our nation's social ills on their own.

PS: I just noticed that Brazelton has signed with the Bolder Broader Approach and I am not at all surprised. This is a man who knows what kids need to thrive.

* With the once-lousy-but-now-much-much-lousier teaching environment that the "educational reform" movement has created (think NCLB-induced chaos and the chaos caused by state and clueless businessmen/"philanthropist" takeovers, etc.), please look into the future and tell me exactly from where school districts are going to obtain enough decent, smart, caring people who would be willing to do this emotionally draining and challenging job for more than just a year or two for a pittance, and who would forgo employment rights and decent benefits, too.