Waiting of Superman
Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone

There aren’t many leaders in American public education who enjoy rock star status, but Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the much-celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem,  is one of them. Canada was in San Antonio Tuesday to address an audience of 700 people attending a San Antonio Area Foundation luncheon and he did not disappoint.

Anyone who has watched the award-winning documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” knows why. Canada is tall, handsome, articulate, funny and passionate. He has a comic’s sense of delivery, which he used to great effect while recounting various appearances on “60 Minutes,” “Oprah,” and “The Colbert Report.” You could almost hear the buzz from The Twitter traffic at lunch as Canada spilled memorable soundbites from one end of the stage to the other.

More important than his mediagenic talents, Canada can claim what few others can: He’s built a program that has demonstrated students who live in poverty and are at risk of dropping out of school can be motivated to finish high school and go on to college IF they receive the right support and inspiration. Canada built a 100-block wide education enterprise zone in Harlem where thousands of at-risk, inner city students have chosen to stay in school.

What one New York Times reporter called the “most intensive youth program of our time”  has been praised by the Obama administration, and is set to be exported to other U.S. cities, including San Antonio’s Eastside.

Canada has benefitted enormously from philanthropic contributions that have funded his program and its ambitious expansion, but results are results. He preaches change or else, and if that means standardized testing, opening charter schools, firing underperforming teachers, and making kids exercise to combat obesity, he’s okay with that.

“Changing schools and getting results is a long-term experience, it’s not an overnight thing,” Canada told the audience, walking the stage with a hand-held microphone, delivering his message in a voice that often rose to near-evangelical fervor. “Good intentions are not enough. This is about thinking outside the box. This is about innovation. This isn’t about doing what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”

It's supposed to be about the students.
A student choir signs the National Anthem.

The applause and, later, the standing ovations were unequivocal. But the people who most needed to hear Canada’s message might not have been in the room.  Canada was introduced by District two Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, and District One Councilman Diego Bernal and District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña were there (Mayor Julián Castro had planned on attending, but was traveling). That’s an impressive show of commitment from inner city council members, but unless I am mistaken, I did not see any inner city school board presidents and only one superintendent, Harlandale’s Robert Jaklich. Two San Antonio district principals also attended. Canada did not prove to be a big draw for local school boards. All of the school districts were offered free tables by the SAAF, but only a few of them, the KIPP Academy, and Tom Torkelson of IDEA Schools from the Rio Grande Valley, who has purchased David Robinson’s Carver Academy, took tables.

 It’s been only a few weeks since embattled SAISD Superintendent Robert Durón lost his job. Read Rick Casey’s TexasWeek blog post on the subject. Suffice it to say the SAISD board under its new president, Ed Garza, enjoys little public trust after the Alamo Stadium debacle, followed by the decision to dump Durón as superintendent and place him in a lesser job at full pay. Thankfully, Durón found a new opportunity in Austin and cut his ties.

Read the Express-News’ Maria Luisa Cesar’s coverage of the SAISD board’s selection of Dr. Sylvester Perez as “interim superintendent”, and pay close attention to Garza’s words praising Perez, runner-up to Durón during the last superintendent search. I read the story and was left to believe the board will eventually drop “interim” from Perez’s title, even if that means leading the community through a phony search exercise.

Canada’s inspiring presentation urging change made me wonder: Would Garza and board consider hiring Canada as a consultant to guide them in a legitimate search for a qualified change agent as the new superintendent? I think the answer is no, but it’s worth asking.  Garza could cite the expense and easily dismiss my unsolicited advice.

What if Canada’s fee were underwritten by one of the luncheon’s main sponsors, which included Rackspace, The Brackenridge Foundation, and the Ewing-Halsell Foundation, and Dr. George Rapier III? The answer, I am guessing, would still be no.

Too bad. Canada — or his vision and spirit — is just what San Antonio needs right now as our inner city school districts reel from board politics and missteps and a disturbing lack of transparency, and dropout rates remain flat or grow worse. Add in the effects of the $5.4 billion in education funding cuts mandated by Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, and the picture is not good.

It isn’t easy to go out and find the next Superman, and people like  Canada don’t want the superintendent’s job. They didn’t get where they are today by reporting to meddling boards made nervous by big ideas. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Canada’s friend, failed in his efforts to get him to become Chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

I don’t know Dr. Perez, the Harlandale graduate and former Midland, Texas superintendent who is now “interim superintendent” in San Antonio. He said he doesn’t want the big job. Garza said he is only interim. I don’t believe either of them. And I can’t help but wonder: What would Canada do?

Photos by Robert Rivard.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.