Changing the Odds Beyond the Border: Adapting the Harlem Children's Zone Model in Hungary, Day 1
Video Message from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State; Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children's Zone; Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State; Júlia Szalai, Professor, CEU and Project Lead, Rising Kids Zone, Hungary; Béla Szombati, Ambassador, Embassy of Hungary; Shana Brodnax, HCZ: Early Childhood Programs; Júlia Gádoros, Vadaskert Clinic, Budapest; Lívia Járóka, Member of the European Parliament (FIDESZ); Marilyn Joseph, HCZ: The Baby College; Ágnes Kende, Program Against Child Poverty, HAS, Budapest; Brian McClendon, Promise Academy Elementary After School Programs; Alice O'Connor, Department of History, UC Washington Center; Daryl Rock, HCZ Promise Academy Charter School; László Szabó, Children's Health Center, Miskolc; Léna Szilvási, Sure Start Program Center, Budapest; Eszter Varsa, Department of Gender Studies, CEU, Budapest; Rita Izsák, Designated Deputy State Secretary of Roma Affairs; Lívia Járóka , Member, European Parliament (FIDESZ); George Soros, Founder, Open Society Institute (OSI);Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies, Woodrow Wilson Center; Margaret B. Spencer, University of Chicago
On June 7-8 the United States Studies program hosted a conference to explore prospects for using the Harlem Children's Zone as a model for policy toward poor and minority children, particularly the Roma, in Hungary. HCZ is a unique program for fighting poverty among minority children in New York City. Although there are many differences between the poor in the two countries--in the US they are largely concentrated in cities, while in Hungary they are mainly in rural areas--conference participants entered the discussion with the assumption that minorities in both cultures face common struggles, and those seeking greater equality in both contexts could learn from one another's experience.
The success of the Harlem Children's Zone model deserves closer attention, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out in a recorded video message of introduction. The program, she said, "has strengthened families, empowered youth and fostered a spirit of achievement among thousands of children," and it has served to "overcome legacies of intolerance." The goal of the program, Geoffrey Canada pointed out, is to create a new generation of leaders in the community by making significant investments in children, starting at birth. Rita Izsák remarked that investing in Roma children would ultimately pay off by integrating them and making them more productive members of Hungarian society.
What makes the Harlem Children's Zone work, according to keynote speaker Margaret Spencer, is the project's comprehensive approach to helping poor children make it to college. Project staff members are expected to be completely dedicated to this goal, and to be creative about finding their way around challenges. Equally important is the realistic recognition of the historical causes of race-based poverty and identification of risk factors associated with patterns of oppression.
Place-based efforts to address poverty like HCZ have a long tradition in the United States, noted Alice O'Connor on the panel on the impact of class, race, and gender on welfare states, The lesson of earlier initiatives, she argued, is that success depends on broadening the efforts as much as possible. She also stressed that systematic public initiatives are more effective in fighting than the scattered efforts of private organizations.
Turning to Hungary, Julia Szalai described how social services there have systematically excluded the Roma and produced inequality between them and non-Roma populations. In the lunchtime lecture that followed, Eszter Varsa elaborated on Szalai's overview by describing the historical role of the Hungarian state in creating the wide gap that currently exists between Roma and non-Roma people throughout the 20th century, particularly during the Communist era.
The Harlem Children's Zone, Canada explained, is designed to combat the historical legacies of oppression among minorities in Harlem through a series of programs—a conveyor belt--that intervene on children's behalf from the prenatal stage through college. Subsequent panels on the first day of the conference highlighted each of these programs and considered their potential applicability to Hungary by pairing staff members of HCZ with Hungarian experts to discuss the issues confronting children at specific ages in the two settings.
On the early childhood panel, Marilyn Joseph demonstrated how the creative energy of the Harlem Children's Zone is manifest in "Baby College," the first point on the conveyor belt. This program, which targets poor pregnant women and their partners, relies on exhaustive recruitment and retention efforts, with much of its budget dedicated to keeping parents involved from the very beginning. There are no such services for Roma parents in Hungary, noted Léna Szilvá. The few programs that exist in their communities are crowded and low-quality, and this creates gaps for Roma children at the very outset. The greatest problem, she said, is isolation: "the face of poverty is very rural in Hungary." But efforts are being made to equalize services for Roma and non-Roma children, including the construction of special after-school programs and child care facilities for children in poorer communities, in partnership with parents.
For parents in the Harlem Children's Zone, the next stop on the conveyor belt is "Three-Year-Old Journey." This program, Shana Brodnax explained, is intended to prepare children for school and provide a bridge from Baby College to kindergarten. The program faces stark challenges, she said. "In communities where everything is failing, you have to replace all those institutions, all those structures, and all those relationships with ones that are working." The program's success, her colleague Daryl Rock stressed, depended on finding good teachers. "The difference between our schools and those that don't work is the adults who are in them. We focus on getting the right adults." But, he also noted, children were expected to match teachers' efforts by working hard.
In Hungary, by comparison, many poor Roma still face the reality of segregation in schools. Ágnes Kende reported on the effort to end this practice through a nationwide integration policy that was enacted in 2003. The policy was well-designed, she said, but there is still an achievement gap between Roma and non-Roma pupils. Beyond the classroom, Roma children are also more likely to suffer from psychological problems, as Julia Gádoros discussed. Roma children seeking psychological help are often "overmedicalized," she noted, while policy planners tend to overlook poverty and discrimination as potential causes of mental health problems.
The second day of the conference opened with an acknowledgement of the high cost of failure to address urban poverty. In a recorded video message, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) presented the stark choice between "building schools or prisons." Debbie Gonzalez echoed this concern by noting that incarceration is far more expensive than early education intervention along the HCZ model. But HCZ is about more than just education, argued Tarsha Black. She highlighted the project's Beacon Program, which provide wraparound services for students to address problems that may get in the way of academic success, including an anti-obesity program, summer youth employment, and arts and cultural programs.
In Hungary, one of the greatest challenges that Roma children face is the simple recognition of the legitimacy of their own culture. Erika Csovcsics described the approach her majority-Roma high school in Pécs took to strengthen pupils' self-confidence and correct the underrepresentation of Roma students in Hungarian universities. Roma parents do not support higher education for their children because it is expensive and also because they are skeptical that it will improve their children's chances in a discriminatory job market. Furthermore, as Emoke Bányai explained, Romas' inadequate housing means that their children have little privacy or space to do homework. It also causes frequent illnesses, including asthma, which led to high levels of absenteeism. Many Roma children end up in foster care, a problem that, as Gonzalez noted, was also common in Harlem. HCZ's multiple-services approach, however, allows the staff to try to prevent foster care placements whenever possible.
The next panel, on conflicts and cohesion in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, showed that homes and families are not the only site of obstacles to poor children's educational success; high rates of crime and violence in a child's community can affect school performance. HCZ, according to Jasmine Lewis, meets this challenge through an array of programs designed to enhance a sense of community among children while continuing to encourage academic achievement and prepare them for admission to the best middle schools in the city. For many poor urban children, noted her colleague Latasha Morgan, their early experience is one of living in a "bubble," so HCZ makes special efforts to expose children to life outside and enable them to see the wide range of opportunities that await them.
The problems in Roma neighborhoods are somewhat different. András K. Kádár described how the practice of "policing ethnicity"—a propensity to associate crime with specific groups—leads to disproportionate rates of arrest and imprisonment for Roma, especially among the young. To combat this, the Open Society Institute initiated a campaign to suppress the use of ID cards, but continuing police reliance on visual identification means that Roma are three times as likely to be stopped. Angéla Kóczé described another initiative, the Roma Community Program, which aims to improve life for young adults. One strategy is to keep children in school, a goal that is particularly important for Roma girls, who see motherhood as their sole path to adulthood and often drop out early because of pregnancy. The program has sought to shift this perception by recruiting women as both volunteers and employees.
Katherine Newman picked up on the theme of motivation in her lunchtime lecture, "Recession Blues: Changing the Odds in Hard Times," She conceded that African Americans and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Latinos, are currently suffering higher rates of unemployment than whites and tend to be concentrated in low-skilled, non-ladder jobs. Nevertheless, in her view, getting and keeping any sort of job is essential for young people to stave off "blank spots" in their resumés. While middle- and upper-income youth can ride out the economic downturn by attending college or earning higher degrees, this is seldom an option for the poor. For this reason, Newman called for robust programs of public employment but also noted that private employers help raise youths' ambitions by offering them jobs.
HCZ officials believe that low-skilled jobs will not suffice if the ultimate goal is ending poverty. In the next panel, "Making a Living in a High-Poverty Urban Neighborhood," James Horton explained how the project orients students toward higher education. "We start early on the college conversation," he said, beginning with freshmen and sophomores in high school. Replicating the kinds of support that middle-class children take for granted, HCZ offers seminars dealing with college applications, financial aid, and test preparation, as well as tutoring when necessary. At the same time, extra-curricular and after-school programs in theatre, digital media, and cooking provide cultural enrichment and foster creativity while also training students for public speaking and drawing attention to body language and good nutrition. The students pick up other skills, Mizetta Johnson noted, in summer and after-school jobs organized through the "Learn to Earn" program, which is sponsored by the New York City Department of Education.
Roma youth, Anna Csongor noted, have encountered similar challenges on the job market since the transition from communism. Previously, low-educated young people, women as well as men, were readily absorbed by industry, but this is no longer the case. With only one third of Roma adults holding skilled or white-collar jobs, the majority face a lifetime of unstable employment. Meanwhile, Romas' housing conditions have also worsened since the transition. As a result, Roma families lack a sense of ownership in their homes. Physical refurbishment is necessary but not sufficient to eradicate poverty, said Nóra Teller. "We have to make people believe that they can change the future."
"It is rare to see U.S. social policy being exported," noted Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), introducing the final panel, which addressed the steps that would be involved the process of setting up a project like HCZ. These include creating a board and recruiting a strong management team, as well as articulating a powerful concept and clear vision. Mindy Miller said it was essential to have dedicated fundraisers who know how to identify the appropriate individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies. Most important, the target constituency must be involved. "You need community buy-in," Geoffrey Canada reminded the assembled. Raymond Shonholtz stipulated that service providers must come from inside and be attuned to local cultures. "Otherwise," he cautioned, "you end up with a lotus plant. It looks good on the surface but has no roots." Angela Kocze agreed, noting that Roma people should be involved throughout the organization— not just through local groups but within management
Ultimately, according to Canada, the community will begin to take over leadership roles. But in order to create a new generation of leaders, a project must provide children with "all the benefits their parents lacked." Although the focus must remain on children, the project should seek to bring the entire community along. Using the motto "learn with us," projects like HCZ can help create community pride.
The conference ended with general consensus that an HCZ-type project could prove very effective in Hungary. Participants also noted however that HCZ was not built overnight but evolved over the course of four decades, and that replicating such policies in Hungary would entail inspired leadership and both local and international support. The spirited exchanges that occurred during the conference presaged ongoing cooperation between HCZ, international organizations, and advocates for children in Hungary.