Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Investing in Schools and Communities

By Greg

Since Ariel brought up the topic of schools, I would like to expand on this discussion. There are few policy areas that influence each other as profoundly as education and community development. Yet, rarely do policy makers in these areas really sit down together to craft comprehensive solutions. Too often community development folks ignore schools as islands in our neighborhoods, and too often education folks only focus within the school walls.

A recent report by the Urban Institute looked promising in this regard. Its title is “Vibrant Neighborhoods, Successful Schools: What the Federal Government Can Do to Foster Both.” Unfortunately, the content of the paper hardly addresses the promise of the cover. The basis of the paper is the concept that “low-income children do better when they attend schools with middle- and upper-income children than when they attend schools where most of their classmates are poor.”

Thus the paper is predominantly dedicated to strategies for economic integration. Much of the paper discusses strategies for building affordable housing in wealthier areas, and for transporting poor children to better performing school districts. While improving the opportunities for some lucky students, neither of these approaches fixes the underlying problems of high-poverty neighborhoods with underperforming schools.

One short section deals with strategies for attracting families with means to impoverished areas with underperforming schools. This is the only piece of the paper that actually addresses strategies for re-investing in disadvantaged areas – thereby rebuilding neighborhood vitality. However, the paper never addresses the negative impacts of gentrification or other elements outside of housing, and after citing examples of this phenomenon by Georgia Tech, the University of Pennsylvania, Atlanta, and St. Louis, the paper concludes, “there is no single strategy for success.”

In all, the greatest failing of this paper is that it confuses vibrant neighborhoods with affluent neighborhoods. Additionally, it seems to imply that housing is the sole factor in determining neighborhood quality. There is no discussion of the many other factors that contribute to neighborhood vitality, like jobs and economic development, cleanliness and safety, recreation and open space, arts and culture, diversity and quality of retail, access to goods and services, the strength of local institutions, or transportation.

Needless to say, focusing only on building income diversity through housing policies is a short-sighted approach. Certainly, income diversity is important, but there are many other equally, if not more, critical neighborhood-based goals for impacting successful schools. Neighborhoods present the support structures that students experience daily. Tight-knit, livable and nurturing neighborhoods create an environment that is necessary for learning.

In some communities where I have worked, I have seen students go to school daily in neighborhoods littered with trash, with abandoned storefronts, and dilapidated homes. It is challenging to expect students to learn in a place where they see little hope in their own community for advancement and fulfillment. As such, many of the brightest students aspire to leave their old community behind – if they are lucky enough to be able to get out. The problem is, each child who makes it out of the community and never returns is one fewer parent of the future who could help transform the community into a vibrant and supportive environment for the next generation.

As the Urban Institute paper reminds us, “it is possible to provide quality education even when many students are poor and the surrounding neighborhood is distressed.” This has been one of the main arguments of the education policy folks, focusing on teacher performance, school administration, learning models, and merit pay. In many ways this argument is correct. However, with a strategy that uplifts communities while investing in schools, the struggle would be much easier, and the progress much accelerated.

The struggle to improve schools will be much aided by a focus on investing time and resources both inside and outside the school walls. However, communities will also be aided by investing in our schools. This issue is truly a two-way street. Just as vibrant communities are important for building strong schools, strong schools are also critical for creating vibrant communities. Neighborhoods serve as assets that attract homebuyers (as Ariel discussed in his last post, and as the Urban Institute article notes). However, more importantly, schools can provide the basis for building stronger communities.

Teachers are some of our most important community role models. School programs and after-school activities are critical community assets. School buildings can and should serve as physical centers for their surrounding neighborhoods. By reconnecting our school buildings and programs to communities we can provide greater opportunities for students, parents, and for neighborhood growth. Schools can become centers of community learning, not just student learning. At the same time, vibrant communities can offer the supportive environment, resources, contacts, life skills, internships and service opportunities that students will need.

We need a new paradigm where urban neighborhoods and schools are seen as a single unit – where they succeed or fail together. We need innovative federal, state, and local programs to invest in communities and schools at the same time – not just in terms of housing. This new paradigm should view the school not as an island, but as a critical part of the community life, with programs and opportunities flowing both ways between school and community. At its core, this is an issue of education folks and community development folks sitting down together and realizing that ultimately they need each other to succeed.


Dan Pohlig said...

All the effort needs to be focused on the next several groups of 0-3 year olds and the parenting ability of their parents. It may seem harsh but in a world of limited resources this may mean shifting funding away from programs for kids over 5, teens and young adults in order to make sure that today's newborn has what he or she needs by the time he or she reaches 5. If you haven't heard it, try to get episode 364 of This American Life and listen to the first segment about the Harlem Children's Zone. Not that I was unaware of the basic ideas there, but to hear about actions being taken based on the theory of how early childhood education and parental coaching was eyeopening.

Greg Heller said...

Dan, thanks for noting Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem. You may be interested in this site on Promise Neighborhoods, a federal attempt to create a model emulating the Harlem Children's Zone.