Schools and Neighborhoods: It’s Complicated

What’s the connection between schools and neighborhoods? If this seems like a straightforward question, try asking it to someone. Better yet, put it to a *stakeholder* in the heated debate over the future of public schools. For example, as neighborhood schools in urban areas are replaced by a portfolio of *choice options,* does that mean that the goal of education reform is to help students *overcome* their struggling neighborhoods? Can *choice options* fundamentally transform a *failing neighborhood*? What happens to a neighborhood when an institution as central and essential as the school is no longer part of it? And how do schools fit into the process of gentrification that’s reshaping so many cities?

Education policy wonk Seth Rau and I decided to pose the school/neighborhood question to a handful of people who we know, and whom we knew would have different opinions on what the connection between schools and neighborhoods should be and could be. Now we want to hear from you. Send your thoughts (under 500 words worth of thoughts please!) to Jennifer@haveyouheardblog.com and we’ll share in a future post.

—Jennifer Berkshire, editor, EduShyster and Seth Rau, Legislative Coordinator at the San Antonio Independent School District 

Out with the Old: Closing schools and imagining a new Baltimore

By Jessica Shiller
When you ask people what their school meant  to them, they often talk about the teachers they had, the classes and activities they were involved in, the friends they made, and even the role the school played in the community. Former Baltimore high school teacher Bill Bleisch remembers a special statue that stood in front of his school, Eastern High. A stone sculpture, by artist Grace Turnbull, it portrayed a shepherd tending a flock of sheep and was based on a 1909 poem called Tears by Lizette Woodworth Reese, a Baltimore Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.. When Eastern closed in the 1980’s, the statue was moved to make room for a Johns Hopkins University medical facility. *That is what happens when schools are closed,” says Bleisch. *Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade.*

Today 26 schools are being closed in Baltimore to *right size* the school district. The city’s population has been steadily declining for many years and the district, once home to over 100,000 students, is now at about 82,000. The school closing plan is not just about having the right number of schools for the population, but it is also part of a new story that Baltimore is trying to write for itself. After decades of disinvestment, and a recent series of protests, the city is trying to usher in a new phase that will address its seemingly impenetrable cycle of poverty. The city will renovate its remaining schools under something called the 21st century plan and launch an *innovation district* in the middle of the city. This new district is for new residents: tech entrepreneurs and members of the creative class.

The new plans for Baltimore don’t imagine schools as neighborhood resources, Rather, the remaining schools in the city will be renovated to serve a new kind of resident, who can bring more of their own resources to Baltimore, not residents who need resources.

Excluded from Baltimore’s new iteration will be many of the city’s current residents. These are folks, most of whom are low income, who send their children to schools like Westside Elementary, which will be closing in 2016 due to under-enrollment and poor performance. Although it is not a high performing school, Westside is a neighborhood anchor. It is home to an active community school program, which provides a food pantry, enrichment programs and medical services.

The new plans for Baltimore don’t imagine schools as neighborhood resources, Rather, the remaining schools in the city will be renovated to serve a new kind of resident, who can bring more of their own resources to Baltimore, not residents who need resources. While the city desperately needs an economic boost, its current residents are not seen as central to this new chapter in Baltimore’s history. Like the statue in front of Eastern High School, they will be moved and replaced by something more useful.

Scholar-activist Jessica Shiller is an assistant professor of education at Towson University in Maryland. She blogs about the intersections of schools and urban communities at Just-Cities.org.

There is no local solution to the problem of underfunded schools in poor communities

By Rebecca Sibilia and Zahava Stadler
Education policy developments over the years, from integration busing to charter schools to universal enrollment, may have altered the relationship between schools and their neighborhoods, but the vast majority of public schools in America still serve their local communities.  They accept neighborhood students, they attempt to involve local parents, they draw—or fail to draw—homebuyers to the area, and they rely, at least in substantial part, on the neighborhood’s financial resources.

This means that when we think about school funding, the amount distributed to a school is only half of the equation. Also important for students’ wellbeing is the way in which local education dollars are drawn from their communities.  If low-income neighborhoods need to beggar themselves in order to have successful schools, children still suffer; there is no local solution to the problem of underfunded schools in poor communities.  

If low-income neighborhoods need to beggar themselves in order to have successful schools, children still suffer; there is no local solution to the problem of underfunded schools in poor communities.

This is part of the great tragedy playing out in Detroit, whose schools are literally falling apart. As property values have fallen, the city residents, already suffering from crisis levels of poverty and unemployment, have begun to tax themselves at a whopping 8.7% to pay for the city’s education system. detroit_school_conditions1_640-900x480.jpg (900×480)Meanwhile, neighboring Grosse Point, which has a median household income more than three times as high as Detroit’s, is able to maintain its schools beautifully with a tax rate of 6%.

This kind of inequity shows why it is vital for states to craft progressive education funding policies that decouple school budgets from local wealth, whether through aggressive compensation for disparities in community resources, regionalization of tax bases, or entirely state-funded systems.

We want an education system that prepares students to be citizens of the wider world, not to have a future that looks like their parents’ pasts.  We can do this without separating school and community—but not without breaking the link between school budgets and community wealth.  When it comes to education funding, all children are our neighbors.

Rebeccal Sibilia is the founder and CEO of EdBuild. Zahava Stadler is the organization’s senior policy analyst.

Neighborhoods are more than an obstacle for students to overcome

By Joseph Boselovic
Educational policymaking and practice in recent years has tended to stubbornly ignore what happens beyond school walls – to the detriment of students, schools, and the neighborhoods and communities of which they are a part. But rather than trying to neatly separate what students learn in the classroom from what they experience outside of it, we need to look comprehensively at the complexity of students’ lives. If we start with the understanding that students come to school with perspectives of the world that are fundamentally shaped by where they live, we realize that a more just and equitable vision of schooling is only possible when we situate learning in the lived experiences of students and allow the members of a community the power to be involved in and shape the education of their children.

The idea of taking students out of the home and away from their neighborhoods, often for long school days where a strict disciplinary regime is enforced and little to no parent and community involvement is encouraged reflects the belief that neighborhoods are something for students to overcome.

The idea of taking students out of the home and away from their neighborhoods, often for long school days where a strict disciplinary regime is enforced and little to no parent and community involvement is encouraged reflects the belief that neighborhoods are something for students to overcome. This view feeds into narratives we like to believe about individuals overcoming obstacles through hard work, rather than questioning why there are obstacles and inequalities in the first place and acknowledging that no student learns or grows alone.

john_mcdonogh_senior_high_schoool.jpg.CROP.rtstory-large.jpg (670×377)Confining our understanding of education to what happens within the walls of the school also limits the aims of education. Although academic achievement should be central to improving educational opportunity, schools have an essential role to play in fostering things like social-emotional development, creativity, and civic values – all part of the larger definition of who students who are.

Significantly, this narrowed approach to the school-neighborhood dynamic has developed at a time when decisions over education – particularly in school districts with high levels of poverty and students of color – are increasingly being made, not through public deliberation and democratic policymaking, but by private entities such as non-profit and philanthropic organizations. In New Orleans, for example, the lack of community say into shaping the vision for the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina remains a source of bitter contention that even the staunchest advocates of market-based reform acknowledge.

But rather than simply arguing for an idealized or nostalgic vision of neighborhood schools, we need to develop educational institutions that find creative ways to build off and support the broader community. Community schools – institutions that focus on educational, health, and social services –  around the country stand as one example of what schooling that values student learning and lived experience as intimately connected looks like. Schools that are also increasingly seeing not only the value but the necessity of parent and family engagement are also realizing the benefits of developing a more comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck approach to supporting students. In a time of historic inequality, where educational opportunity is increasingly understood as a competitive commodity, developing schools as neighborhood institutions is necessary for revitalizing both public schools and the communities that they serve.

Joseph L. Boselovic is a researcher at Loyola University New Orleans and the co-editor of Only in New Orleans: School Choice & Equity Post-Hurricane Katrina (2015). His research focuses on school choice, educational policymaking, and social stratification.

As the School Goes, So Does the Neighborhood

By Anashay Wright
Schools and neighborhoods are overlapping spheres of influence, so the relationships vary from community to community—or hood to hood. In wealthier communities, the school to neighborhood influence tends to be complementary. The neighborhood is often the driving force in local school decisions, school dollars, directly AND indirectly influencing academic achievement through education of parents, family practices, lifestyle and financial influence.

Low-performing schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods are often impacted by negative factors, external of the neighborhood. This matters because it can stall or limit the efforts of parents parents to improve schools in their neighborhoods.

When parents in a city or community have lots of choices about schools, improving the low-performing school down the street may seem less urgent. But I’d argue that parents and local families have even more reason to place pressure on the school. Given the direct impact that schools have on property values, as the school goes, so, eventually, does the neighborhood.

Low-performing schools that are located in or around more affluent neighborhoods face a different set of issues. When parents in a city or community have lots of choices about schools, improving the low-performing school down the street may seem less urgent. But I’d argue that parents and local families have even more reason to place pressure on the school. Given the direct impact that schools have on property values, as the school goes, so, eventually, does the neighborhood.

In all of these situations, neighborhoods and schools require relationships that are built upon a shared vision for investing in the children who live there—not just houses. Both parties should have high expectations and share accountability for their respective roles in ensuring the vitality of the local community and the education of its students. The relationship should create a sense of urgency for developing and maintaining a partnership that increases the life outcomes of students and thriving communities.

Anashay Wright is a director of the Community Engagement Project at The New Teacher Project. She lives in San Antonio, TX.

Have thoughts on what the relationship between schools and neighborhoods could be or should be? Send your thoughts to Jennifer@haveyouheardblog.com.

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Print this pageEmail this to someone

6 Comments

  1. Tying school admissions to residential addresses serves to reinforce the SES segregation that characterizes much of the country.

    In Brooklyn, PS 8 students attend a school that is 60% white with 15% of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunch while students in PS 307 ( only seven tenths of a mile away) is 7% white with 85% of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The boundary lines between the two schools has been changed, over the protest of parents in both schools (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/01/dumbo-schools-rezoned-over-parent-protests.html), breaking up the neighborhood cohesion of both areas but reducing the segregation in one of the most segregated public school districts in the country.

    In Missouri, when the students of the Normandy School District were given the opportunity to attend a school district 26 miles away, one out of every four students in the Normandy School District hopped on the bus to go to Francis Howell (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with). The state of Missouri tried to herd these students back into the Normandy School District, but a judge recognized the rights of the students and allowed them to continue riding the bus for that very long trip every day.

    Justice requires that state governments lean against the racial prejudices of the citizens, not reinforcing them in the name of neighborhood cohesion.

  2. Jennifer,

    Any thoughts about doing a post on what happened in the Normandy school district? It seems to me that advocates of traditional public schools need to take on this well researched and publicized example of what happens if you let students leave under performing school districts. Here is a link to the Pro Publica article mentioned in the podcast linked to above: https://www.propublica.org/article/ferguson-school-segregation

    I have been surprised by how studiously the events in the school district have been ignored by blogs like this.

    1. I’d love to do something about Normandy. I’m from the heartland and have followed the story closely. But I don’t think you can possibly do justice to a complicated situation like the one that continues to unfold there without going there, spending some time and talking to people. And that’s where my business model, or rather, the lack of one, begins to break down. Unless I can figure out some way to get paid to take on a big project like that, I can’t take it on. If I could figure out a way to do nothing but travel around and talk to people about what’s happening in their schools, their districts and their cities, that’s what I would do. If you have suggestions, I’m all ears!

    2. Jennifer,

      I was not thinking about additional reporting. I think the reporters at This American Life, Pro Publica, and the New York Times have done a sufficient job of reporting the facts from the Normandy School District.

      What I had in mind was taking and arguing for a public policy position: should the students who live in the Normandy School District be allowed to attend schools outside the Normandy School District at public expense? If so, which schools should they be allowed to attend at public expense? Having a concrete case serving as the centerpiece of the discussion would make for a very fruitful discussion.

Comments are closed.