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In America’s 50 largest cities, the high school graduation rate is 53%. Nearly ½ of students do not earn a diploma within four years of starting the 9th grade. Not finishing high school adversely affects a person’s life in numerous ways. For example, dropouts are far more likely to be unemployed or imprisoned compared to their peers.

Based on national statistics, one would expect kids growing up in Harlem to struggle in school due to a variety of social factors. However, Geoffrey Canada’s innovative approach to education has reversed the fortunes of thousands of children in the community. Through his pioneering nonprofit organization, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), Canada has empowered students to excel academically.

Empowering Students
1) Empowerment is about the big picture.

At Harlem Children’s Zone the big picture, or ultimate goal, is to educate students effectively. If HCZ only focused on what happens at school, then the organization would fail miserably in its mission. Even when given access to brilliant teachers and innovative curricula, children have trouble learning if they’re underfed, living in unsanitary conditions, or neglected at home by their parent(s) or guardian(s).

To accomplish its mission, Harlem’s Children Zone engages with students before they even enter school, and the organization’s influence extends far beyond the classroom. HCZ trains parents, hosts after-school activities, provides health care, inspects the physical condition of housing, and promotes physical fitness and nutritious diets. Given its big picture goal, HCZ has recognized the need for a holistic strategy committed to rebuilding the infrastructure of an entire community.

2) Empowerment is about trust.
Sadly, society expects many children in America to fail. Many children are branded as victims of their environment before they even take a single test. Harlem Children’s Zone certainly does not discount the negative influence of dysfunctional surroundings. However, HCZ trusts that students have amazing potential to excel in spite of difficult circumstances. They expend energy and resources to give opportunities to children that others might label as “lost causes.” The results speak for themselves. On standardized tests, students in the HCZ system routinely outperform their peers from more affluent neighborhoods of their district, city, and state.

3) Empowerment is about accountability.
HCZ encourages teachers to experiment in the classroom, and it celebrates the initiative to try new methods—even when they fail. However, HCZ has no tolerance for long-term underperformance. Students are tested regularly to track their development, and teachers are held accountable for helping their students to make progress. Leaders at HCZ are unafraid to fire teachers who prove unable to meet performance standards.

Questions for Application
In a single sentence, describe the big picture goals of your organization.
How do leaders in your organization express their trust in those they supervise?
What data do you collect in order to measure performance? How are people held accountable for a track record of underperformance?

This article is used by permission from Leadership Wired, Dr. John C. Maxwell's premiere leadership newsletter, available for free subscriptin at

Author Biography

John C. Maxwell
Web site: Injoy Group
John Maxwell grew up in the 1950s in the small Midwestern city of Circleville, Ohio. John's earliest childhood memory is of knowing that he would someday be a pastor. He professed faith in Christ at the age of three, and reaffirmed that commitment when he was 13. At age 17, John began preparing for the ministry. He attended Circleville Bible College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. In June of that same year, he married his sweetheart, Margaret, and moved to tiny Hillham, Indiana, where he began his first pastorate.

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