Rich Kid, Poor Kid: How Mixed Neighborhoods Could Save America's Schools

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In a former Atlanta slum, low- and middle-income families now live side by side -- and send their children to the same excellent school. Is this surprising model too good to be true?

charter-top.jpgChildren at Charles Drew, a charter school in a recently integrated Atlanta neighborhood (Sarah Garland)

During the half century that Theresa Cartwright has lived in the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta, she has twice seen the area's schools undergo a complete transformation. In the 1960s, black families like her own moved to the neighborhood's Craftsman bungalows and a new public housing project, driving out their white, middle-class neighbors. When she was in second grade, her elementary school was all black. By the time she was in sixth grade, the projects were so violent they had earned the name "Little Vietnam" and her mother refused to let her go to the failing local middle school.

Instead, she signed up to be bused to the white, upper-class neighborhood of Buckhead, in North Atlanta, where her mother knew the schools would be better.

Cartwright, now 51, went on to college, while many of her former classmates who remained in the struggling East Lake schools ended up on public assistance. She could have stayed away, but ultimately, her roots in the neighborhood drew her back. In the 1990s, Cartwright bought her own house in East Lake - a decision that, in retrospect, seems surprisingly prescient.

By 2006, when Cartwright was ready to enroll her own son, Collin Wilson, now 16, in middle school, the neighborhood had changed so dramatically that Cartwright pulled him out of a private school to attend Charles Drew, a public school down the street. Drew had become one of the highest performing schools in the city, and Cartwright knew it well because she worked as an operations manager there.

Instead of attacking poverty, urban blight, and failing schools in isolated efforts, activists took on all of these issues as one big problem.

Unlike most charters in urban areas, Drew Charter is not all black or Hispanic, nor is it all poor. It is, instead, a demonstration of a novel concept in the modern education reform movement: trying to close the achievement gap between the poor and affluent by bringing them together to share their neighborhoods and their classrooms.

Efforts to rejuvenate urban neighborhoods and fix public schools have historically followed separate paths. As buses began rolling across color lines in the 1970s to desegregate public schools, they crisscrossed acutely segregated public housing projects and suburbs.

In the 1990s, education reformers began trying to lift the performance of public schools with racially homogenous, high-poverty populations. Charter schools -- public schools run by private organizations -- became the hallmark of this new approach. But because many charters concentrate on educating the poorest of the poor, they tended to exacerbate racial and economic separation in the public schools.

"There's been little effort overall to link housing policy to education policy," says Jonathan Rothwell, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's a major missing component to any effort to solve this country's education problem."

Instead of attacking poverty, urban blight, and failing schools in isolated efforts, a group of community activists and philanthropists in Atlanta took on all of these issues as one big problem. "We know that concentrating poverty doesn't work. We know you get bad outcomes when you do that," says Carol Naughton, the former director of the East Lake Foundation, which orchestrated the area's revitalization beginning in 1995.

The Charles Drew Charter School has been combined with federally subsidized housing for impoverished tenants with market-rate apartments that attract university students -- some from nearby Georgia State in downtown Atlanta -- young professionals and, increasingly, middle-class families. A new grocery store, a YMCA, two preschool programs, a bank, a farmer's market, a community garden and two golf courses -- one public and one private -- serve the immediate neighborhood. Most of the services were brought in through intensive campaigning by the East Lake Foundation.

The transformation has been, for the most part, a great success. Crime rates, which were sky high during the 1990s, have plummeted. The average income of subsidized tenants is still well below the federal poverty line, but it rose from about $4,500 in the mid-nineties to nearly $16,000 a decade later. The racial composition of the surrounding area has changed, too. In one census tract encompassing East Lake, the percentage of whites rose from 14 percent to nearly a third between 2000 and 2010.

And, as measured by state test scores, Drew Charter School has jumped from the worst in the city to the fourth best. The school is 93 percent African-American. Next year, school officials predict that about a third of its students will be drawn from middle-class families, up from less than a quarter in the 2004-2005 school year. Back then, the school was 100 percent African-American.

Because of these outcomes, communities modeled after East Lake are already under construction in Indianapolis, Galveston, and New Orleans. Naughton now works for Purpose Built Communities -- an organization funded in part by Warren Buffett, the nation's second richest man -- whose sole philanthropic mission is to spread the concept of mixed-income housing.

The Obama administration has also noticed East Lake's success, and launched a federal grant program known as Choice Neighborhoods, which has given out $130 million since 2010 to city agencies that propose more holistic strategies for attacking poverty; it will send out an additional $120 million this year. Cities that win the federal Choice grants to redevelop a neighborhood must simultaneously plan to improve local schools, job prospects, and other pieces of the poverty puzzle.

"It's a real shift ... not just approaching it as a housing issue," says Luke Tate, previously an urban policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and now at the White House Domestic Policy Council. "It's not right for low-income students when they're segregated in failing schools, and it's not good for our economy when millions of students aren't acquiring the skills they need to compete in the 21st century."

But despite its list of accomplishments, the model has been highly controversial. Building new mixed-income housing developments often entails razing old housing projects and displacing hundreds of poor residents. Many of the people who don't come back are those who are harder to help, including the long-term unemployed or the formerly incarcerated.

Much like charter schools, the new mixed-income housing developments -- and the accompanying schools -- have been criticized for serving only a certain set of poor people: those most likely to succeed.

And yet, a growing research base is suggesting that integrating schools by income might be one of the most effective ways to close the achievement gap.

***

In the beginning, East Lake Meadows, the Atlanta housing projects constructed in the late 1960s, just after Theresa Cartwright moved to the neighborhood, weren't so different from the development that replaced them less than half a century later. Built on the undulating land of a former plantation, the apartments were in low-rise buildings with young families and green lawns. The historic East Lake Golf Club still attracted Atlanta's wealthy residents, and the tree-lined streets held a variety of housing styles, including small, cookie-cutter ranches and century-old mansions.

But the green lawns turned brown fast, Theresa Cartwright recalls. When she was a teenager, she had a paper route in the neighborhood. She made her rounds through East Lake Meadows quickly, and always in the light of day.

"I was petrified," Cartwright says. By then, some of the buildings had been abandoned and boarded up. Old furniture sat moldering in the yards. She never ventured into the projects at night, when drug dealers took over the streets. The windowless design at Charles Drew Elementary School, located in the projects, seemed in hindsight like a good choice, given the frequent gunshots. Even the storied golf course had fallen into disrepair, and was about as dangerous as the projects themselves.

When the city -- using federal money and donations from local philanthropist and golf aficionado Tom Cousins -- announced in 1995 it would redevelop the area, residents did not embrace the proposal. Projects tenants, worried they would be displaced, filed a lawsuit. In the end, they lost. Of the 400 families relocated from the projects before the demolition of East Lake Meadows, only 100 returned when the apartments opened in 1998.

"It may have been a loss," says Cartwright, who lives in a house a couple miles from where she grew up. But she also thinks sacrifices made the later success possible: "You want a better community."

Those who came back had to abide by new rules, set by a 1998 federal housing reform law and the Atlanta Housing Authority: They must be employed, in school, or looking for work, and they must not have criminal records. Other rules, like a ban on loud noise and music after 10 p.m., were handed down by the new private managers.

It was the school that proved the biggest challenge. Officials at the East Lake Foundation were convinced that the neighborhood needed a good school as an anchor to keep the neighborhood stable and end the cycle of poverty. In 2000, Drew Charter School -- Atlanta's first charter -- replaced the school with no windows. The new structure had soaring ceilings, landscaped yards and walls of blue glass, but in the first year, the charter's performance was pathetic. Fewer than a third of students met reading and math standards on state tests, and the school was ranked last in the city.

In subsequent years, however, student achievement rose after the school partnered with a private school for the deaf that had experience helping young children with language problems. At the same time, middle-class families were beginning to trickle into the neighborhood, and some were starting to send their kids to the school.

Drew is not one of the "no-excuses" charter schools where young children march in formation through the hallways and teachers give out demerits when students don't maintain eye contact. At Drew, children wiggle and dance through the halls, hugging teachers as they pass and laughing with their friends. Standardized testing is a focus, but not the only focus. It's the sort of school that might attract suburban middle-class parents.

"We're trying to instill a sense that you're taking responsibility for your educational experience," says Don Doran, the principal at Drew. "It's hard to do that if you come out with a whole lot of rigidity."

In one classroom last spring, first graders were taking turns showing off homemade instruments. The activity was part of a program run by Georgia State to infuse music into academics at the school. One girl had turned a jar full of shells from the beach into a maraca. Another had pasted colored Popsicle sticks and jingle bells on a shoebox lid, with a few unglued jingle bells left to roll free. Reading from a page held two inches from her face, she told the class that the instrument had a "lower pitch" when she removed some of the loose jingle bells from the box. She had named it a "Bellaphone."

The classroom erupted in boisterous applause after her presentation.

Administrators at Drew and officials at the East Lake Foundation are proud of the school's diversity, and say it's a part of its success.

"We have some very high-powered parents," Doran said. "It adds to the overall culture of a school, that people who have choices chose this school. I think mixed income really makes a community healthier."

But administrators are also quick to point out that Drew's academic performance began improving before it became more integrated. In 2005, a majority of students was already passing state reading and math tests. Officials at the foundation's national offshoot, Purpose Built Communities, say that while mixing students of different backgrounds is important to their success, integration alone isn't enough to close the achievement gap.

Next page: Why this program is controversial

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Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation.

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