Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What we can learn from the Harlem Children's Zone

I spent Nov. 8 through 10 in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City, learning about a program that is showing a lot of promise in changing the lives of impoverished children. The Harlem Children’s Zone is an innovative program that serves children from the womb (prenatal care) to college, and it’s something we’d like to replicate here in Kansas City.

I went with Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Kansas City School District Superintendent John Covington. We attended a conference that spelled out how the Harlem Children’s Zone works and what its results have been. This Washington Post article does a great job of explaining some of that. Representatives of cities from all over the country attended the conference, each vying to be one of 20 selected to receive federal funding to start similar programs of their own, as mentioned in the Post article.

As far as I know, I was the only police chief there. But to me, it makes perfect sense to have law enforcement as part of this initiative. Since I became Chief of Police, I have advocated a holistic, five-prong partnership approach to reducing crime and improving quality of life in this community. Education is one of those five prongs, and a very important one. (The others are partnerships with businesses, faith-based organizations, nonprofit groups and neighborhoods.) I think early childhood education, in particular, could make a world of difference in the poverty-stricken and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Kansas City.

Children’s education and public safety have for too long been in their own separate silos. They are, in fact, extremely interrelated. If we can spend our resources on educating kids, we don’t have to go arresting and locking up kids. I have felt this way for a long time, which is why I have served on the board of directors of a local charter school and currently sit on the Mid-America Regional Council’s Early Childhood Development Board and on the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America’s Heart of America Council.

I am confident that a program like the Harlem Children’s Zone will work in Kansas City. We have many of the pieces in place already; we just need to get them connected and working together.

If selected for the federal funding to start such a program, our “Harlem” would be the 64127 ZIP code. The plan is now being referred to as “Zone 2-7: Anchor of Hope.” You can read more about it here. 64127 is one of the poorest parts of the city, with an average household income of $21,868, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is about $35,000 below the national average. It’s bounded by 9th Street on the north, Topping Avenue on the east, 27th Street on the south and Woodland on the west.

High-quality education is our best hope of breaking the cycle of generational poverty and violence that haunt the 64127 area and others like it. While we’d love to get a grant to replicate Harlem’s program here, we must be committed to working together – police, schools, politicians, parents, churches, social services and businesses – to provide as much opportunity for Kansas City children as possible, no matter what. They will either be our future leaders or our future criminals. I’m sure hoping for the former.

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