Sarah's Reviews > Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America

Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough
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May 16, 12

it was amazing
Read in May, 2012

In Paul Tough’s book, Whatever It Takes, he takes the reader on a journey through Harlem, New York’s fractured public education system, and introduces a remarkable person with a solution to fix it. Geoffrey Canada, having grown up in an urban school system himself, had a vision for the city of Harlem and the children that resided there. For years Canada attempted to work with public schools in Harlem, attempting to provide the children with the education suburban kids are given on a daily basis. However, he ran into multiple roadblocks in the public system. Even after providing in-school services such as after school programs and tutors, scores were on the decline. It was then that Canada began developing Harlem Children’s Zone.
Canada knew the public school system could not work in urban areas the same way it did in suburban neighborhoods. The children in urban places face too many challenges at home to be taught with the same methods. Although Americans now preach equality for all races, statistics show a very different reality. For example, the average white family living in Manhattan has an annual income of $248,000 while the average black family living in the same city makes a mere $31,000 each year. After viewing many statistics such as this one, Canada made up his mind that the two groups of children had very different lifestyles, and therefore required very different teaching methods as well.
He began with a project he called “Baby College”. Baby College was a free specialty program for expecting parents living in the city of Harlem. Held weekly on Saturdays, attendees of Baby College received free breakfast and lunch, as well as prizes such as gift cards, after attending a seminar on parenting skills. Many of the seminars revolved around vital parenting techniques, such as the difference between discipline and punishment and to use as much vocabulary as possible around their children. Here parents reformed and refined their skills and techniques for parenting. This was an important part of Canada’s overall plan, for he holds a strong belief in the fact that a child’s education begins in the home.
Many parents that attend Baby College later enroll their toddler in Harlem Gems, a pre-kindergarten program run by Harlem Children’s Zone. From the pre-k class, children transition in Harlem Children’s Zone, a kindergarten through twelfth grade charter school sitting in the center of the city of Harlem. However, although this is a smooth transition process now, this was not always the case.
When Canada first opened the school, he began with only sixth grade and kindergarten classes. Each year, a new lottery would be held for each of the two grades, until the school was full. The kindergarten class was progressing quickly and swiftly; the sixth grade class’ scores were decreasing. Canada soon found himself wondering if he could fulfill the promise he had made: success. He began wondering if sixth grade was simply too late of a start for many of the students. To his dismay, he made the decision to not open the Harlem Children’s Zone high school when it came time for the sixth grade class to enter. Instead, they were kicked out to several other local schools. To this day, that choice remains one of Geoffrey Canada’s toughest and saddest decisions, although he stands by the choice he made. He knows how horrible the statement sounds, but was thinking about the future of the school in lieu of the future of that specific group of students. In other words, students in the elementary school were flourishing, and he was scared he would lose funding for the school because of the middle school students. They were casualties
As discussed in class, America has not made very large strides in racial employment and salary equality.


In 1965 the national employment rate for black men in their early twenties was 82 percent, slightly higher than the corresponding figure for young white men, at 80 percent. Nineteen years later, in 1984, the employment rate for young white men had dipped just slightly, to 78 percent- while the number for young black men had fallen off a cliff, to 58 percent. (31).


For the years following 1984, this racial inequality in employment rates has remained an issue. In class, a TIME magazine article that asked white and black Americans about their views on racial equality was discussed. A staggering amount of white people claimed the U.S. now held racial equality, while an extremely low percentage of black Americans stated racial equality in employment had still not been reached.
Another topic covered in both class as well as Whatever It Takes is the controversial charter school trend. Charter schools are not only controversial, but also under immense pressure to perform well academically. When testing time came around, Canada was faced with a difficult choice. Should he give extra help to the lower-scoring students or try to improve the best students? In New York City, scores are scored in four categories: 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s. But the 1s and 2s are reported together as a group, making the public see only three categories. Due to this, Canada decided to ignore the 1s, claiming “I think we may have thrown in the towel on the kids at the bottom… we want to give the extra time to the students who are doing the best” (144). In class, when charter schools were discussed, the topic of academic success was mentioned, as well as the fact that many times these schools only care about scores. This quote personifies that conversation.
Another topic covered in class was poverty. In this book, Paul Tough discusses poverty on numerous occasions. Harlem Children’s Zone was developed to combat poverty. As mentioned previously, the average white family living in Manhattan has an annual income of $248,000 while the average black family living in the same city makes a mere $31,000 each year. Canada’s response to this statistic was simple. He stated, “There’s just no way in conscience we can allow poverty to remain the dividing line between success and failure in this country, where if you’re born poor in a community like this one, you stay poor… we have to give these kids a chance” (18). In class, New Jersey’s poverty rate was discussed along with the extraordinarily large amount of children born into poverty. This book addresses that horror as well.
Whatever It Takes was written with very little bias. Geoffrey Canada is a black man, while the author, Paul Tough, is a white man. Charter schools are discussed, a very conservative idea, but a love for Barack Obama, who was the democratic candidate for president at the time, is also expressed. However, a tiny bit of class and racial bias can be detected in the writing.
Canada grew up in poverty and was able to escape the vicious cycle. However, he is only person spoken of in the book who has done so. The book provided no examples of people who fell into poverty, only people who were born into it. For example, Tough writes in depth about a woman who “grew up in Harlem in the 1980’s… her mother became addicted to drugs and lost control of her life… she bounced around between upstate and the city, in and out of foster homes” (63). Many stories such as this woman’s are shared about birth into poverty, yet none about falling into poverty are expressed. In other words, only one view of people in poverty was shown.
There is also a slight racial bias in the book. Canada attended Bowdoin College, where students were very enthusiastic about integration of different races. However, Canada established an Afro-American Center at the college. Many “criticized the Afro-American Center as too radical” and even bias against white Americans (121). This is important to note because many excerpts in the book are written with a slight radicalism in favor of Black America. Although no one can deny the oppression the community has faced, it is possible that Canada’s membership to a “radical” group has clouded his opinion and views on White America.
Some people have also criticized Canada for only being concerned about poverty in Black America and ignoring white American families plagued by poverty as well. This bias can perhaps be viewed on the very first page of the book when Tough writes of Canada, “the parents in the auditorium were the ones he had hoped to attract… mostly African American, some Hispanic” (1). This sentence can perhaps demonstrate more racial bias in the story.
Whatever It Takes is a compelling story that makes the reader feel hopeful about urban education. Well-written and powerful, this story on Canada’s accomplishments inspires readers to combat poverty and racial inequality themselves. It also challenges previous opinions on charter schools and the public education system. But most of all, Whatever It Takes is a call for change.
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Sarah Review of Dana:
I enjoyed Dana's review on the novel Animal Farm. She opened with her summary, and then went into detail about the meaning behind the plot. Her review is extremely detailed and the quotes are embedded nicely and naturally, as though they are directly part of her writing. Her connections to class discussions are near remarkable as well. She demonstrated a large amount of knowledge of foreign relations as well as political relations and current world events. Although she cites that the book was originally written for cold war communism purposes, she is able to relate the story to modern day issues with communism as well. I found this to be quite impressive. Also, knowing Dana as I read her review gave me a very interesting perspective. I am proud of her ability to make the distinction between what she personally believes and the message of the novel in general. I am well aware of the fact that Dana considers herself to be a communist, and it was impressive that she was willing to separate her own opinion of the system and write about the faults of communism that shine through in the story. Dana's review highlights communism in an interesting sense for she writes about how Orwell initially portrays it in a positive light before turning the table. Well written and especially informative, Dana's review was truly a pleasure to read.


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