Christopher Paslay

is a Philadelphia schoolteacher

Public schools are not free-floating, self-contained cities cut off from human civilization. They are rooted in communities and neighborhoods. They are supported not only by teachers and principals, but also by parents, businesspeople, counselors and clergy.

No one understands this better than Geoffrey Canada. In 1991, he started the Harlem Children's Zone, a network of educational and social-service programs aimed at reducing poverty in Harlem. The program, which has been featured on

Oprah

and

60 Minutes

, is groundbreaking because it takes a holistic approach to education.

The objective of the Harlem Children's Zone, as the New York Times Magazine put it, "is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through."

The success of the program has prompted President Obama to consider expanding it to other cities. As a Philadelphia public schoolteacher, I believe now is the time for city and state officials to propose a plan to bring it to the city.

Philadelphia's public school system is long overdue for a community-based model of learning. Holistic approaches to education are taking place not only in Harlem but also right across the river, in New Jersey. Gov. Corzine recently announced a collaborative initiative to raise the state's graduation rate. It's being led by the state Attorney General's Office, and Verizon and Prudential are among the businesses providing funding.

Philadelphia public schools can no longer be expected to single-handedly solve all our children's problems. We need to connect our social-service agencies to our school system at a basic level, just as Geoffrey Canada is doing in Harlem.

We must provide parents with the information and resources necessary to make their children ready for school. Studies show that the achievement gap between the suburban middle class and the urban underprivileged starts even before kindergarten.

More important, research indicates that children's cognitive development is greatly influenced by the type of interaction they have with their parents. The amount and kind of language children hear in infancy are strongly correlated with their IQs later in life.

Discipline at home also has a major impact on a child's intelligence. Facing a lot of prohibition and discouragement has a negative effect on IQ, whereas affirmation and encouragement have a positive effect on learning.

Canada understood this reality years ago. That's why he started "Baby College," a nine-week parenting workshop for expectant parents in Harlem. In Baby College, mothers and fathers learn how to discipline their children without using corporal punishment. They also learn to read and sing to their children to stimulate brain development.

But Canada didn't stop there. He supplemented Baby College with a Saturday program that teaches parents how to build language skills, as well as an all-day preschool that gets kids ready to enter kindergarten.

The Harlem Children's Zone says the program has managed to make all the children involved school-ready for six years running.

Canada's goals for the program are long-term. He wants to see his students graduate from college.

The services in place to make this dream a reality are all-encompassing. They include the Harlem Peacemakers, a training program to help young people keep their neighborhoods safe; Truce Fitness and Nutrition Center, which teaches middle-schoolers about health and nutrition, and offers free classes in karate, fitness and dance; and a dozen other high school, college, and community skill-building programs.

America's urban school districts must embrace a more holistic model of education. And we can use Canada's Harlem Children's Zone as a guide. Our new president has already shown enthusiasm for the program, so now is the time for city and state officials to lobby his advisers for an expansion into Philadelphia.

Christopher Paslay's blog, "Chalk and Talk," is at chalkandtalk.wordpress.com