Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fixing Communities and Schools Together
(or Busing Is So 1980s)

By Greg

An article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine by Adam Davidson describes how low-income families rent apartments in Greenwich so that their kids can attend the town’s excellent public schools—spending their days cavorting with children of the rich and well-educated. The article cites “new research” that “suggests economic integration may be the answer” to improving the academic achievement of poor students.

While other factors are equally if not more important (such as teacher quality), there is plenty of research to back up this assertion that economic integration in schools really matters. For example, a July 2009 report from the Urban Institute lists as one of its four key principals: “Low-income children benefit from the resources and learning environment available at schools that also serve middle- and higher-income families.”

The question, though, is how best to develop economically integrated schools. Davidson’s solution is to transport kids out of poor schools into wealthier districts. The article explains, “poor kids at wealthier schools could do better; low-income schools could focus on fewer students; wealthier schools could receive subsidies and benefit from diversity.”

But this solution is not new and it’s not innovative. For at least four decades, districts have been “busing” students as a way of diversifying schools and providing enhanced choice.

Davidson’s article does not delve into the real issue, which is that community schools represent the economics of their neighborhoods. We have schools where over 70% of students are receiving free-and-reduced lunch because the majority of households in that school’s community are very poor. We can airdrop poor kids from one community to another, but instead shouldn't the real response be to improve the economic diversity of poor neighborhoods?

If we accept that economic integration is key to improving school performance, then we need to stop looking at these issues in silos. We need to refocus the dialogue on how to improve communities and schools together. We want schools that are integrated because their neighborhoods are integrated—not because we bused a bunch of students from the Bronx.

The Urban Institute report briefly addresses this point, stating, “it is possible to create effective, mixed-income schools in previously poor neighborhoods, attract nonpoor families, and improve school quality for the neediest children.” There are certainly examples of organizations focusing on investment in schools and communities together (Harlem Children’s Zone, University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia Initiative, East Baltimore redevelopment). Often these approaches are controversial, rife with debates about privatizing public education or powerful institutions becoming agents of gentrification.

But the fact that there are so few significant examples of major community-school reinvestment approaches, and that they are so controversial tells me that we have not yet gotten it right. We need more focus on these types of approaches, not less. It is unconscionable that we have high-poverty communities, and it is even worse that we have failing schools perpetuated by their place-based socio-economic segregation. These problems are attached at the hip—so let’s look at them together.

We can send a handful of kids from the Bronx to New Rochelle, but let’s be smarter than to think this approach a long-term strategy for success.

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