Chalk and awe

Paul Tough profiles a Harlem schools initiative.

SYSTEM'S UPGRADE tough spent four years studying a complex education program.

SYSTEM'S UPGRADE tough spent four years studying a complex education program. Photograph: Mary Lee MCIlvane

When Paul Tough attended the lottery selection for Harlem’s Promise Academy in 2004, he thought he’d be witnessing a happy scene. After all, 200 children would be admitted to the first class of the new charter school created by Geoffrey Canada, founder of the antipoverty program the Harlem Children’s Zone, and several high-profile business executives.

The evening certainly began well. Canada spoke to the excited parents, pledging that every Promise Academy graduate would make it to college. As names were called and winners announced, cheers echoed through the room. But gradually, the tone shifted. “As the night wore on, the happy people left. And we were left with the disappointed, angry people,” says Tough, 40, who was then covering the event for The New York Times Magazine, where he is an editor.

Canada was devastated. After all, turning poor children away went completely against his antipoverty philosophy. The son of a poor single mother from the South Bronx, he no longer believed the old adage that even if you help just one child, an effort was worthwhile. No—you had to raise the lives of all poor kids. Normally, Canada approached this bighearted goal with the focus and precision of a scientist—he believes in tests, statistics, Wall Street. Now that cool exterior was crumbling. “He was very emotional. Most of the time, he’s very rational and businesslike, so it was one of the first times I saw how deeply he felt about this issue,” says Tough.

It was also the moment when Tough realized that the Harlem Children’s Zone deserved more attention than a magazine feature could deliver. “That was the last scene in the article, but it felt like the beginning of something, rather than the end,” says Tough, who spent the next four years working on his new book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

The Harlem Children’s Zone is the 97-block stretch of central Harlem where Canada runs a variety of social programs for poor children and their families, including Promise Academy’s elementary and middle schools, a prekindergarten program called the Harlem Gems, and classes for new and expecting parents called Baby College. Its central mission is to provide the neighborhood’s children with a pipeline of educational programs that will give them the same skills and opportunities as their peers below 110th Street.

This ambitious goal requires what Canada calls a “conveyor belt” of early and continuous intervention—the old model of a parenting class here or a prekindergarten there simply won’t do. For Tough, the plan’s unique scope makes it not simply a worthy subject for a book, but also a means to explore the complexities of urban poverty, one that goes beyond the usual touch-one-child sentimentality. “In a lot of books about social programs, there is a tight focus on one great teacher, one great classroom, and then they all go on to a chess championship. But you don’t see how that fits into a bigger picture,” says Tough, who says he was inspired by Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, books in which reporters spent a year or more following people who were trying to solve a complicated problem, while also providing a larger context for the issue itself. “I wanted to write a book that would follow a real narrative—with characters and ups and downs—but that would also answer some of these big questions about poverty.”

To do this, Tough tracks the progress of Promise Academy’s rocky first years, as well as other previously established programs like Baby College and the Harlem Gems. He also explores the decades-long debate about how—and even if—poor children should be helped.

Tough mostly refrains from editorializing. Instead, he details the Harlem Children’s Zone’s various victories, setbacks and internal disputes from several perspectives. The middle school, in particular, is under enormous pressure to raise test scores several grade levels in a single year. When the initial results are disappointing, heartbreaking choices are made.

Since the book’s completion, Tough notes that the test scores at the middle school are up considerably. “One problem with writing a book is that the research is out of date as soon as it comes out,” he says. Similarly, time is not on the side of large-scale education initiatives. Weaving together isolated pre-K and after-school programs requires investing tens of millions of dollars—and then waiting at least three years before seeing any positive results. “You need patience and money, and those things don’t show up quite as often as we’d like,” he says.

But overall, Tough says that reporting the book has made him optimistic about the educational futures of poor children, especially now that Barack Obama has pledged to replicate the enterprise in 20 cities nationwide, if elected. “There seems to be this exciting altruistic movement going on, one that’s grounded in actual science,” says Tough. “That makes me more hopeful.”

Whatever It Takes (Houghton Mifflin, $26) is out now. Tough and Canada will appear at Barnes & Noble Union Square on Oct 6.

Buy Whatever It Takes now on