Seven-year-old Shawnda and her twin sister Shawanda don’t remember the trees, or the old benches. They don’t remember the two community gardens or the playground that used to occupy 1.7 acres in middle of Saint Nicholas Houses — the New York City Housing Authority complex in Harlem that they call home.
For as long as they can recall, that space was a construction site that blossomed into a sleek, five-story charter school adorned with red and green-trimmed windows in 2013.
Last fall, the sisters began first grade at Promise Academy I. They are two of 1125 students who attend kindergarten through 12th grade in the $100 million building run by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the brainchild of social activist Geoffrey Canada. The zone, which extends across 97 blocks in Central Harlem, includes one other “no excuses” charter school as well as a cradle-to-college support system that’s designed to help inner-city kids complete with their middle class peers.
The Harlem Children’s Zone is known for raising millions from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Google and pumping money into wraparound services like parenting classes, free vaccinations and tax prep for families living in the neighborhood. All of these interventions are meant to change the trajectory of young lives. Central to the mission is the charter school. The main measure of its success, in Canada’s view, is higher test scores.
At Promise Academy I, the days are long and rigorous. The twins wake up at 7 a.m. every morning, get dressed and cross the street to school where they receive a free breakfast prepared by chefs on-site. All students at Promise Academy get a free breakfast and lunch each day.
The girls learn in small classrooms with at least two teachers. Their day often lasts until 7:00 p.m. at night as they stay at school for homework help and after school activities. Many high schoolers at Promise Academy devote their after-school hours to college-prep.
“They don’t really know what summer is because they go to the school till July,” said their mother, Sylvia Daniel.
Despite the long hours and high expectations, Promise Academy I has struggled to deliver stellar standardized test results since opening its doors at St. Nicholas Houses. In 2013 and 2014, students scored slightly below the citywide charter school average in math and English language arts on the New York State test. In 2015, Promise Academy I students’ math scores caught up to the charter school average while their English language arts scores remained below average.
Promise Academy came under national scrutiny in 2010 when a Brookings Institution study found that the school’s test scores failed to live up to lofty expectations. Through analyzing New York state tests from 2007 to 2009, researchers found that more than half of charter school students in Manhattan and the Bronx perform better than students at Promise Academy. The performance gap between Promise Academy and top-performing charter schools like KIPP remained stark even when researchers adjusted for students’ income-levels and race.
Russ Whitehurst, a Brookings senior fellow who authored the report, says the study suggests that the Harlem Children’s Zone’s investments in wraparound services do not immediately translate into increased academic achievement. Although he acknowledged that those social services may improve neighborhoods and communities in ways that can’t be measured by tests.
Whitehurst belongs to a camp of educators and policymakers who believe that the school should be the primary venue to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds improve academically. However, proponents of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education believe that a rigorous education must be paired with out-of-school interventions like early childhood education, nutrition and summer enrichment that support students’ mental and emotional health.
Many of the Broader, Bolder ideas are inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone. Although Canada set out to raise test scores, the legacy of his programs may lie in the myriad of community services offered in previously violent, low-income neighborhoods in Harlem.
Since the mid-1990s, thousands of low-income students have come through the Harlem Children’s Zone’s schools and community programs. Canada began putting his educational philosophy to the test by working with children from one block on West 119th Street. By 2013, the zone had expanded to 97 blocks to serve more than 10,000 children enrolled in its schools and after school programs. Children who live in the zone — regardless of whether they attend Promise Academy — have access to pre-kindergarten programs, after school activities and college preparation.
Yet the outcomes for children growing up at Saint Nicholas Houses in 2012 were worse than the outcomes of children living in other parts of the Harlem Children’s Zone, according to an interview with Canada.
Researchers at New York University have shown that children who live in the city’s public housing tend to do worse in school than students who live in other types of housing. The difference persisted even when researchers controlled for factors like race and gender. The 2008 report published by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy said the “acute concentration of poverty” in public housing developments may leave children without adequate support or role models.
Promise Academy’s strategic location, wedged between 13 brick towers that make up St. Nicholas Houses, was designed to reach vulnerable children living in the New York City Housing Authority development. Although the school is required to admit students through a lottery, students like Shawnda and Shawanda who live in St. Nicholas Houses get first priority if they apply when they are three years old. The remaining spots are given to low-income children in Harlem’s community school district and others around Manhattan and the Bronx.
The new Promise Academy I building emerged out of an unprecedented public-private partnership between the Department of Education and the New York City Housing Authority. The project was funded with $60 million from a Department of Education program that helps to find matching grants for charter school facilities. The Harlem Children’s Zone raised $20 million from Goldman Sachs as well as $6 million from Google Inc to complete the construction. The city hoped that the Harlem Children’s Zone could revitalize a crime-ridden and poverty stricken housing development.
For Canada, the academy’s location inside the housing project was key. Through the charter school, after school programs for neighborhood youth, free vaccinations and college-prep classes, Canada hoped to pour resources into the St. Nicholas community. In a promotional video sponsored by Google, Canada said: “I want kids to grow up thinking, we had the good stuff at St. Nicholas. And totally flip the script of what it means to grow up in that neighborhood.”
Now, in the evenings, Promise Academy doubles as a community space for residents to host meetings, play bingo and practice yoga. Children play in the three playgrounds that the Harlem Children’s Zone built near the school with the community’s input. The Zone also distributes seasonal fruits and vegetables to residents through a free farmer’s market each month. A team of community organizers go door to door two or three times a week to check in on residents and keep them informed of ongoing activities.
“What we’ve seen to be most effective is the face-to-face contact and the respect that’s built out of that,” said Marilyn Joseph, a Harlem-native who manages the Zone’s parent and community engagement team.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony in June 2013, Canada hunched over the lectern as guests like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the President of Goldman Sachs watched him recount the genesis of the project: “We had this crazy idea that we could build an institution inside of a housing project that would not just save the children but that would transform the entire community.”
What Canada left out was that not all of the residents at St. Nicholas Houses were happy with the zone’s encroachment. In summer 2011, more than 100 residents filed a class action lawsuit to stop the Harlem Children’s Zone from constructing within the public housing complex. The suit was spearheaded by two non-profits, the Urban Justice Center and the New York Environmental Law and Justice project against the zone, NYCHA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The lawsuit argued that the school would destroy a beloved park and walking path while inviting hundreds of cars to drive through the complex each day.
The lawsuit also alleged that Canada had backtracked on his original promise to allow all children who live at St. Nicholas Houses to gain first access to the spots at Promise Academy.
The lawsuit was dismissed and construction continued.
However, tenants applied for permission from the State to receive first preference in the school’s lottery and were given the green light. Children from the neighborhood must apply to the lottery at age 3, two years prior to kindergarten.
As the finishing touches of the school were under way in early 2013, Sylvia and Shaun Daniel received a knock on their door at St. Nicholas Houses. Sylvia had grown up in the South Bronx. She had attended a struggling public school before transferring to a parochial school. She had a son in elementary school and two toddlers who were identical twins.
It was the outreach team from the Harlem Children’s Zone who explained that they were in the middle of transforming a courtyard at St. Nicholas Houses into a new charter school. Enrollment priority would be offered to residents in the neighborhood.
Sylvia promptly signed up. She and her partner enrolled in parenting classes through the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College. They enrolled their daughters — Shawanda and Shawnda — in the Promise Academy I lottery and they earned places at the Zone’s pre-kindergarten program and elementary school.
This year, Shawanda and Shawnda turned 7 years old and entered first grade at Promise Academy. Their educational experiences at Promise Academy have been profoundly different from that of their mother and older brother in traditional public schools in New York City.
The twins are part of the first class of St. Nicholas residents to receive priority at the charter school. Thirty out of the 100 students in their grade are neighbors from St. Nicholas Houses.
Although all 100 spots at Promise Academy may technically be filled by St. Nicholas residents, the charter school has received and admitted around 30 applications each year since it started giving residents priority in 2013.
Like some residents at St. Nicholas Houses, Sylvia was initially upset at the plans to build a school within the housing projects. Many residents felt as though they were not consulted about the process. The school took over a courtyard where residents used to mingle and gather.
“At first I was upset,” she said. “But my whole thing was that they got rid of that courtyard where people used to sit, fight and the cops coming over here. So in a way it is good.”
Anne Williams-Isom, the Chief Executive Officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone also recognized that a few residents were skeptical and concerned about the drastic change to their neighborhood. However, many of them have come around.
“Many residents have told us that the building has already made the neighborhood safer and given them access to resources that were never there before,” she said. “We saw the construction of a school and community center as an opportunity to help families who are among our most challenged.”