How Harlem Children’s Zone built trust in a community before it built a school.

Geoffrey Canada is one of the most highly acclaimed nonprofit leaders in the nation. Fortune Magazine once ranked him 12th among the world’s fifty greatest leaders of any kind. Harlem Children’s Zone, the organization he co-founded and led for 24 years, has been hailed in the Harvard Policy Review as “arguably the most important social policy experiment in America.”

The cradlethrough-college programs it provides 25,000 youth and adults in 97 blocks of central Harlem have inspired federal legislation and $350 million in appropriations to create “Promise Neighborhoods” throughout the country.

St. Nicholas Houses is one of the larger and more troubled public housing projects in New York City. In half of the nearly 1,500 families who live there, no family member holds a job. Most of the children attend public schools where statewide testing found that only 21.5 percent of students were at or above grade level in English language arts and only 16.6 at or above grade level in math. Meanwhile, 39 percent of third through eighth graders at Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy charter school scored at or above grade level in ELA, and 55.7 percent at or above grade level in math during the same period of time. So when Geoffrey Canada offered to build a new charter school building in St. Nicholas Houses, you’d think that residents would have welcomed him with open arms.

Guess again! At the first tenant association meeting to discuss the proposal in early 2010, Canada ran into a wall of opposition. And among the more vocal opponents was a former member of an HCZ Community Advisory Board. “We fought hard against it being built,” says Leona Draper, a two-time St. Nick’s tenant association president.

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