meet the new boss

After 23 years, Canada stepping down as Harlem Children's Zone CEO

After 23 years at the helm, Geoffrey Canada is stepping down as CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, he announced Monday.

Anne Williams-Isom, the organization’s chief operating officer, will replace Canada on July 1, though Canada will remain president.

Over his tenure, the charismatic Canada has become synonymous with Harlem Children’s Zone, earning praise — and donations — from a broad spectrum of politicians and celebrities. The Harlem Children’s Zone, which offers comprehensive social services to families in a 97-block area and operates two charter schools, grew dramatically under Canada’s leadership and the charter school-friendly Bloomberg administration.

In front of hundreds of assembled staff members and students on Monday, Canada described his journey from experiencing Harlem as a young boy heading to church, when it appeared to be a neighborhood falling apart and where adults seemed to have “thrown in the towel,” to a recent Saturday afternoon sitting in the school’s newly-constructed gym watching students play basketball.

“This has been a love affair for me, Harlem Children’s Zone. And it’s a deeper love affair than most folks would know,” Canada said.

Williams-Isom, a lawyer, came to Harlem Children’s Zone in December 2009 from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, where she worked for 13 years. Her challenge now will be to continue the organization’s trajectory, though Canada said today he will continue to be a visible presence and was not taking on another job.

“Anne knows what I do. Every day, there’s not one but two or three major crises that involve life or death of our children and families. Sometimes five. The calls come constantly. And the buck stops here, as it always has, and should always,” he said.

“That’s just going to be the way you live. And boy, have I been pleased,” Canada said of Williams-Isom’s commitment.

Williams-Isom will also be tasked with forging a new relationship with the city.

In addition to providing a comprehensive network of social services in central Harlem, Harlem Children’s Zone includes three charter schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of well-financed charter school operators and school co-locations, but has pledged to expand the community-school model. Long before opening its own schools, the organization also prioritized early childhood education and after-school programs.

Canada’s choice of venue for the announcement illustrated one of those tensions.

He made the “state of the agency” address in the organization’s newest school building, located inside the St. Nicholas Houses and constructed with financial support from the city’s facilities matching grant program. The city’s latest capital plan indicated that de Blasio will shift the funding for that program to create additional pre-kindergarten seats.

But Williams-Isom played down any concerns about working with the city, and after the speeches introduced Jennifer Jones Austin, a co-chair of de Blasio’s transition team, as her best friend.

“For us, it’s never been about charter or non-charter—it’s about what works,” she said, and promised more collaboration with other public schools in the area.

After his speech, Canada said he and de Blasio see eye to eye on equity issues facing children. But he offered a measured critique of de Blasio’s positions on charter schools.

“I think to some degree this rhetoric has to calm down a little bit,” Canada said. “When you’re not mayor, I think it’s easy to pick and choose among kids. Once you’re mayor and they’re all your kids, I don’t know how you do anything other than say, I embrace this system. That’s what I’m counting on him to do.”

And though Canada has recently spent time warning college students across the country about the problems with the country’s entitlement spending policies, he has no ambitions to attempt to extend his fight against poverty on the state or national stage, he said.

“I think it’s a national problem, but it has to be solved locally,” he said. “I’m not sure how you get that national focus to make real impact at a local level.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of charter schools that Harlem Children’s Zone operates. It is two schools across three sites. 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede