Roland Fryer, a professor from Harvard University, spoke in front of a packed auditorium yesterday about the success of a non-profit organization in Central Harlem that has made strides in closing the racial achievement gap in the area.
Fryer discussed a recent paper that he co-wrote with Will Dobbie, an economist at Harvard, that used an empirical test to analyze the impact of The Harlem Children’s Zone — a non-profit organization based in Harlem.
Fryer, who is CEO of the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard, found that the HCZ has seen remarkable success in its aim to shrink the racial achievement gap.
“There is something out there that’s actually working,” he said. “The question is, how can we boil it down to pill form so we can transfer it other places?”
The HCZ began in 1990 as a modest one-block pilot and has since expanded to an extensive 97-block area full of programs aimed at going beyond the classroom to help rebuild the entire community.
The organization is designed to follow children from an early age, assisting them all the way through high school. HCZ’s involvement begins with “Baby College” – a collection of workshops for parents of children from ages 0 to 3 years old.
The children have access to in-school, after-school, social service, health and community-building programs.
Fryer said the achievement gap in New York City starts to appear among kids at age 2, noting that a 17-year-old black adolescent often has the reading level of a 13-year-old white child.
Strategies normally employed to close this gap include early childhood programs and offering smaller schools and classes. These strategies individually, Fryer said, have been largely unsuccessful.
Fryer said the HCZ, which combines academic and community programs, is an ideal testing ground for determining whether or not community involvement is necessary in closing the gap.
In his experiments with the achievement data from the HCZ, Fryer said he used a carefully crafted algorithm to measure the impact of the charter schools in “the Zone” on test scores.
Fryer’s analysis showed that the HCZ schools are successful at boosting math and language arts achievement in elementary school children and math achievement in middle school students.
“I feel like we’ve found a cure for a disease that’s been plaguing us…There’s something special going on in the HCZ, but I don’t really know what,” Fryer said.
He said he couldn’t definitively say whether schools alone can bridge the achievement gap or if community involvement is necessary but only that community programs alone are ineffective. The “magic bullet,” Fryer said, would have to be a combination of factors and that it would not be easy to manufacture.
Geoffrey Canada, the president and chief executive officer for HCZ, combined many strategies to positively impact the children in “the Zone,” Fryer said. He added that the number of strategies make it difficult to pinpoint which ones are most effective.
Fryer said, to get closer to a real formula, he would like to ask Canada to suggest four or five of the HCZ initiatives that he thinks are especially important, apply them to a public school and observe the effects.
Fryer said the task ahead is going to be arduous, but he remains optimistic that there is something definitive that is responsible for the success of the HCZ.
“I think it’s too convenient to say this is some miracle,” he said.