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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.

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