NEW YORK - It's 7:30 a.m., and Altheo Serrao's family has just arrived in Harlem from Staten Island, a two-hour journey by bus, ferry and subway. They do this every school day to be part of a program that isn't available anywhere else in New York City - or, for that matter, anywhere else in the country.
Ezekiel, 8; Isaiah, 6; and Sarah, 5, are enrolled in the Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious project that has staked out 97 blocks of Central Harlem and seeks to draft every single family into its tight network of health, parenting and educational services that extend from infancy to college.
The Serrao siblings' backpacks bounce as they race each other into the school, where they spend 10 hours a day all year. In Staten Island, they'd be in a troubled public school where, their mother says, "they'd be expected to fail rather than succeed."
Central Harlem remains one of the toughest, poorest parts of New York City, with more than one-third of its residents living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. The zone takes on the same kinds of seemingly impossible urban problems that Baltimore and so many other cities face: poverty, crime, troubled schools, overwhelmed parents.
What makes it stand apart from other efforts to help at-risk children, say youth advocates who have studied it, is its network of comprehensive classes and programs, and a business strategy similar to that of a Fortune 500 company. Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman has called it the most promising social program for children anywhere in the country.
"Our mission is to transform an entire community by providing everything children need to succeed," says Zone founder and president Geoffrey Canada. "To tackle only one issue while everything else in a child's universe is crumbling is a failed strategy."
The project has received the admiration of presidential candidates and the attention of English royalty. Other cities, including Baltimore, are studying the Zone, with some trying to launch their own version.
"There are huge lessons there that we are looking at as we develop an initiative for East Baltimore," said Robert Blum, director of Johns Hopkins University's Urban Health Institute. Blum and other local community leaders toured Harlem in spring 2007.
Like the children it serves, the Harlem project is growing up. A decade after it began as a one-block pilot program, 7,400 children - about 75 percent of those who live in the Zone - are receiving its services.
An additional 3,200, like the Serrao children who left Harlem three years ago, come from all across New York City to attend its well-regarded charter schools or popular after-school programs.
One by one, the Zone has tried to remove the hurdles facing children born in Harlem.
Because surveys show that more than 30 percent of kids in the area have asthma, the Zone launched an asthma initiative, which it says has cut the number of emergency room visits in half and reduced their number of missed school days by almost 20 percent.
To address the poor diets common in lower-income neighborhoods, there is a monthly farmer's market, where a family can buy 25 pounds of produce for $5.
Conceived by Canada, 56, a children's advocate who grew up surrounded by poverty and violence in the South Bronx, the Harlem Children's Zone was born out of his frustration with well-meaning nonprofits that were too narrow in their focus.
In 1983, he joined the Rheedlen Centers, a nonprofit in Harlem. Over the years, he says, he began to find flaws with traditional programs that singled out specific problems, such as illiteracy or teen pregnancy.
"For every one problem a child had, there were 10 more problems," he says. "For every one child a program helped, there were 10 times the number that weren't being helped."
By 1998, he was president of Rheedlen. He pitched the idea - blanket a swath of Harlem with all manner of children's services - to Rheedlen board member Stanley Druckenmiller, a friend from Bowdoin College and billionaire hedge-fund manager. Together, the two dismissed Rheedlen's board and began fundraising for what they called the Harlem Children's Zone.
"We wanted to do it right, and we wanted to think of everything," Canada says.
The next year, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation gave Canada $250,000 and the services of a consulting agency to develop a business plan. Canada says that's a critical step that other nonprofits tend to overlook.
The Clark Foundation became so committed to Canada's vision that it had pledged $5.7 million by 2002.
Foundation president Nancy Roob says it was the breadth of the program that sold her on the Zone - that it reached out to families even before children are born, provided a continuum of services through childhood, and grew out of a neighborhood-based strategy.
"Lots of organizations do one of those things, or parts of two or three," Roob says. "But to do all of those things in one place through one organization is what makes it so successful."
One of the first programs, a cornerstone of the Harlem Children's Zone, is called "Baby College." Marilyn Joseph, a longtime community activist, runs it from a storefront office on a sleepy block with more former than current businesses. Inside, the walls are painted pink and covered with baby photos. She pointed out a smiling baby Joseph, named, she says, after her.
The parenting classes are held at public schools across Harlem on Saturdays. They are free and include lessons on nutrition, discipline, literacy and health. Mothers and fathers with children 3 or younger can enroll.
To lure parents, workers arrange transportation, provide baby-sitting, serve meals and have weekly raffles for baby products and gift certificates.
About 90 percent of parents who begin the classes graduate, according to the program's records. Nearly all of the 1,000 or so graduates leave with health insurance and up-to-date immunizations for their children.
But Baby College plays an even more critical role in the program's overall success: It serves as the street-level recruiting arm for the Zone. About a dozen outreach workers spend their days knocking on doors at its two large public housing projects and many low-income swaths of houses, check-cashing businesses and laundromats.
The pitch: Wouldn't you want to be the best parent to your child?
"It's almost like a campaign," Joseph says. "We go door to door promoting ourselves."
The key to getting parents to listen to the pitch about the Zone - and then to commit to it - is respect, Joseph says. "We don't go in there with a condemning tone."
The living statistics of the Harlem Children's Zone are in Ezekiel Serrao's third-grade class at Promise Academy, one of its charter schools. Some of his classmates, fellow 8-year-olds, have been in one Zone program after another since they were infants.
Housed inside an old public school, the windowless building is nothing special. But the hallways are brimming with brightly colored art projects and the voices of children. Each classroom is named after a college - a subtle way to get these kids thinking about their futures.
The birth in 2002 of Ezekiel's younger brother, Isaiah - "the problem child," his mother calls him lovingly - was what interested Altheo Serrao in the Harlem Children's Zone. She enrolled in Baby College while he was an infant. At the time, her family was living in a domestic violence shelter in Harlem - a place that the Zone's outreach workers visit frequently.
By the time she graduated nine weeks later, she says she knew she wanted her boys to stick with the Zone, drawn in by the sense of community. She enrolled Isaiah, Ezekiel and later Sarah, in the "Harlem Gems" preschool program. Next came the Promise Academy. About that time, however, New York public housing moved her family to a high-rise project in Staten Island.
But she says of the Zone: "This is not something I'm willing to give up."
She says the four-hour round-trip commute is well worth it. Ezekiel, a quiet child who devours books during the bus, ferry and subway rides to and from school, got perfect scores on his state tests this spring, his mother says.
Isaiah, an extroverted, smiley kid who charms other commuters with his short, neat dreadlocks and eyeglasses chain and sweater vest, hasn't done as well academically. However, the charter school acts as a second parent, she says, reinforcing her own values about reading and studying and being polite.
The Zone's programs are expensive; last fiscal year's budget was $50 million and this year's is $58 million.
To keep the coffers filled, Canada and his board members court millionaire donors, New York's hedge-fund managers, bankers and investors. The donor list from the past two years includes 153 private citizens, corporations and government sources.
With the money flowing, Canada has assembled an army of 1,300 part- and full-time employees. More than 100 "PeaceMakers," given small stipends by AmeriCorps and by the Zone, are deployed at Harlem's charter and public schools. And dozens of grateful parents, like Altheo Serrao, volunteer at the charter schools, setting up chairs or helping teachers keep their rooms tidy.
Canada has created a disciplined environment; he says he fires about a dozen employees a year who do not meet his standards. A four-person evaluation department tracks and measures each program, and Canada shares that information with his donors and would-be donors.
Program results from last year show that mothers who take the Baby College parent education classes made their homes safer and physically disciplined their children less. Almost half of toddlers enrolled in the Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten classes tested as "advanced" or "very advanced" in school readiness. Those tots are learning three languages: English, Spanish and French.
Students at the Zone's two charter schools routinely perform better than their counterparts at public schools. The middle school received an "A" on its report card this year from the New York City Department of Education - something awarded to only 25 percent of the city's middle schools.
Laura Vural, who runs the Zone's audio-visual arts program for high-schoolers, called TRUCE, says all 33 of her seniors this year graduated on time and have been accepted to college, including Syracuse University, Sarah Lawrence and the University of Pennsylvania. Next year, about 400 former Zone participants will be in college, she says. That's especially noteworthy, she says, because only about 30 percent of Central Harlem teenagers passed their high school exit exams last year.
Still, Canada says the real gauge of the Zone's success is years away. "It's something we have to measure across time - decades. We're only beginning to see results."
For Altheo Serrao's family, school days begin at 5 a.m.
One Wednesday this spring, Serrao stood in her tiny kitchen before sunrise, buttering wheat bread for cheese sandwiches that will be breakfast once they arrive at school. The kids, their hair covered in wraps, were asleep on mattresses in the living room, where the only air conditioner keeps Isaiah's asthma at bay.
"Say good morning," she instructed her boys at 5:08 a.m. Ezekiel pulled on socks and pants laid out near his bed, the routine an instinct by now. Serrao helped Isaiah into his clothes. She brushed their teeth and hair and slathered their faces in Eucerin lotion and their lips in Carmex. Sarah woke up last, and sleepily slipped on her clothing.
Forty-two minutes later, they were out the door in the cold. They took the elevator eight floors down, and headed into the still-dark and chilly morning to catch the bus. It pulled up seven minutes later. They were heading to Harlem.
At times, it seems as if the world is watching Canada's project.
In January of last year, Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall visited a Zone after-school program for middle-schoolers that focuses on personal finance. In a campaign speech last year, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said he wants to launch 20 others programs like the Zone across the country.
So many cities want to emulate Canada's project that he recently created a "Practitioner's Institute" to coordinate all of the information requests. About 70 groups across the country and delegations from 24 foreign countries have visited.
In Baltimore, East Baltimore Development Inc., has formed a partnership that it says is similar to the children's Zone.
"They've thought of everything," says Blum, of Johns Hopkins. "The amount of planning, the leadership of Geoff Canada, those are difficult, if not impossible, things to replicate. It will take many years of planning."
But Blum and EBDI President Jack Shannon, who also toured Harlem, say the Harlem Children's Zone is not without faults. Shannon says the Zone's intense focus on children can overlook problems that their parents face, such as unemployment and housing. Blum says the Zone might also be overly reliant on its leader - something that makes the Zone difficult to replicate and at risk of collapsing without him.
"Geoff is such a fabulous human being and a larger-than-life dynamo," Blum says. Referring to the East Baltimore program he and Shannon are helping to build, "We think it's important to stay away from having a single individual carrying everything."
Canada says it is no accident that he has homed in on children's services. In fact, when he converted Rheedlen to the Harlem Children's Zone, he cast off several adult programs so he could focus on nearly all aspects of a child's life in Harlem.
A partnership with the Children's Health Fund gives free medical and dental care to Promise Academy students. There's an after-school program to address childhood obesity. Kids in "TRUCE Fitness" are required to work out at least two hours a week. Some of the kids in this program, on the fourth floor of an old church, have become involved in karate. Joseph Lopez, 13, unabashedly shares that he lost 20 pounds last year.
Participants in karate and other TRUCE fitness activities collected 145 trophies last year, according to the program's records. One floor down, at the TRUCE program for high-schoolers, teens tape an episode of an award-winning cable show called The Real Deal.
In the show's computer lab one afternoon, Forrest Booker, 16, and his friends edited the sequence of images they had recorded days earlier, trying to finish their segment on unity.
"I work with whatever is given to me," he says of his TRUCE projects, his eyes fixed on the screen. "Usually it comes out beautiful."
Zone employees say they know how important it is to keep kids busy and off the streets. Many of the programs stretch from early-morning hours until well into the evening, as late as 8 or 9 p.m., and run through the summer. The charter schools also have an open-door policy, serving as safe places for kids any time a staff member is present.
The Serrao family always arrives at the Promise Academy an hour before classes begin. Serrao, a petite woman capable of lugging four-book-filled backpacks at once (she is a nursing student at a Harlem community college), volunteers in the mornings, helping teachers prepare for the day.
She says she battles exhaustion, but "these are my kids. It's worth it to give them the best."
See videos about the Harlem Children's Zone programs at baltimoresun.com/harlem