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

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charter-2.jpgChildren play with puppets in a Drew Charter School classroom. (Sarah Garland)

There is still some debate about whether moving children into more economically integrated neighborhoods and schools actually has an impact on their academic achievement. Much of the skepticism is based on a project sponsored by HUDin the 1990s, known as Moving to Opportunity, in which hundreds of public housing tenants were given vouchers to move into wealthier neighborhoods. Compared to those who stayed behind in the projects, kids who moved scored just about the same on math and reading tests, suggesting that moving to a rich school zone didn't make a difference.

Except the school zones they moved to weren't rich. Researchers discovered later that the families who moved sent their children to schools where the poverty rate was only 13 percentage points less, on average, than the schools they had attended previously.

Other research points to a different conclusion. In 2010, Heather Schwartz, an education policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, published a study looking at a program in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. There, the housing authority was able to buy homes in quite affluent neighborhoods to use as public housing. Schwartz found that children who lived there performed far above their peers who lived in poorer neighborhoods.

"Educators have a mission to prove that schools serving poor students can be great. So it's hard for educators to say that the only way this school can be great is if it's economically integrated."

For advocates of mixed-income schooling, Schwartz's study is a corollary to research showing that the vast majority of poor schools face major and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to success. Douglas Harris, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found that only 10 percent of high-poverty, high-minority schools are high performing, compared with 57 percent of low-poverty, low-minority schools. And only 1 percent of low-income schools are able to maintain high reading and math scores over a two-year period.

Advocates of housing integration say it's effective for several reasons. One is that middle-class parents with more political and financial clout are better able to fight for and maintain improvements at a school. Research, including the Coleman Report, a famous study commissioned by the federal education department and published in 1967, found that low-income students in diverse settings do better academically, and also later in life, probably because they encounter children with middle-class experiences and aspirations, and join higher-achieving social networks. When they head to college, they are more prepared for the diversity they are likely to encounter there.

For the most part, however, advocates like Richard Kahlenberg, a researcher at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, have rarely incorporated housing into their strategies for increasing diversity in schools. Instead, they've called for magnet schools and other voluntary methods of drawing students out of segregated neighborhoods. "The political reality is that school integration is hard," Kahlenberg says. "And housing integration is even harder."

Part of education reformers' resistance to pushing for integration may be racial sensitivity. "Educators rightly have a mission to prove that schools serving primarily poor students can be great schools, no matter who the students are that are served," Schwartz said. "So it's hard for educators to develop as their plan that the only way this school can be great is if it's economically integrated."

But as middle-class residents return to more inner cities, Purpose Built Communities is finding more opportunities to spread its model. In particular, the massive destruction of housing that occurred when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 created ideal conditions for trying out the East Lake concept in a new place. Before Hurricane Katrina, the St. Bernard housing projects in northern New Orleans were as notorious as East Lake Meadows. Then the storm flooded the complex.

A development of pretty buildings with wraparound balconies and other New Orleans-style flourishes now stands in its place. A third of the units have been rented at market rate and the rest went to tenants receiving different levels of government subsidies. Still to come are a preschool and a high school. The development, called Columbia Parc, is also trying to attract one of the city's top-scoring charter schools, Akili Academy. The hope is that eventually the schools will look a lot like Charles Drew Charter School.

"If we can replicate that model, it has the ability to ripple out and change the cycle of poverty and change educational achievement," says Gerry Barousse, a New Orleans real estate developer and chairman of the Bayou District Foundation, which is behind the project.

However, just as in East Lake, the transformation has not been smooth. Some residents evacuated from St. Bernard were infuriated that they could not come back and set up a tent encampment. The development has yet to attract a grocery store or other amenities to the area, although Barousse said he is in talks with several companies. It's unclear that Akili will agree to relocate to the neighborhood or that the school -- which has high reading and math test scores, but not yet enough resources for music or art teachers -- would attract middle-income parents if it did.

Alyson Martin, 50, grew up in the St. Bernard projects and moved into a Columbia Parc apartment not long after the development was completed. She loves her new home but the feel of the place is very different, she says. Before, when the neighborhood was all black and all poor, everybody knew everybody else. Crime was a problem but neighbors watched each other's children and disciplined them as necessary. Now "it's hard to get to know your neighbors," says Martin, who works as a security guard. "People are either at work or at school."

The project's developers hope that the arrival of the school will bring people together. "The idea is that it should be a community school," Barousse says.

Making that happen could be difficult, though, because New Orleans -- which has embraced school choice and next year will have a public school system comprised almost entirely of charter schools -- allows children to attend schools anywhere in the city. The Bayou District Foundation is still trying to work out whether the school will be able to give a preference to the kids living there.

The successful expansion of the school choice movement complicates the potential of the East Lake model to ripple out to other places. More middle-class parents may be moving to East Lake, but they have not yet embraced other local schools. They don't have to. Indeed, one of the reasons Richard Kahlenberg is skeptical of housing as a route to improve school diversity is that "there's not a guarantee that housing integration will result in school integration." For the East Lake success to spread, it will have to overcome this inherent tension between choice and integration.

***

At a crossroads of two busy streets near the Villages at East Lake, Tom Cousins, the philanthropist who underwrote the project, has bought up each of the four corner lots. A couple of boarded-up buildings stand behind chain-link fences. The block was a bad one, foundation representatives say, with drugs and other problems, and the purchase was meant to be preventative: a liquor store or a check cashing joint would set the neighborhood back, one official suggested.

Now, the corners are waiting for better times, when they might be sold to desirable businesses. Meanwhile, a vacant lot has been given over to a farmer's market, which comes alive in the summer. Down the block, the East Lake Foundation turned additional vacant land into a community garden last year with the help of two hungry sheep and some goats. The goats and sheep -- a ewe and a ram -- were brought in from a farm to help tear down and consume the kudzu.

This spring, to everyone's surprise, the ewe produced a lamb. Tiny and awkward, with floppy ears, it became something of a mascot for the garden and the community. A week after the lamb was born, several East Lake residents stood toe-deep in the mulch, lounging in the shade and discussing what had brought them there.

Uwezo Akili Flewellen, an unemployed property manager who is the sheep's primary caregiver, was impressed with the deportment and intelligence of a relative's daughter who attended Drew. He moved into the Villages at East Lake two years ago so he could enroll his then one-year-old daughter, Nyla, in the on-site daycare, hoping she would turn out just as well. (Unemployed residents are allowed to stay in their apartments for a while as long as they are actively looking for work.) "There's a sense of safety," he said of his new neighborhood. "And more of a sense of community."

After years of involvement in various projects involving farming and the environment, Khari Diop, a community educator for the Southeastern Horticultural Society, took a job running the garden. He pulled his two kids, 8 and 10, out of Black Star, an all-black private school, and enrolled them in Drew. "It's almost like they're in private school now," he said.

Tamara Mosley, who works in human resources, was unimpressed with the suburban school district where she was living. She heard about Drew from family and friends, and moved to the development shortly after. Her third-grade son and fifth-grade daughter are now enrolled. She signed them up for other East Lake-sponsored activities, too, like the youth golf team, and has become active in the community garden, where Diop helped her set up her own plot.

Diop said he sees the school -- and its diversity -- as part of the bigger plan for uplifting the neighborhood and its people. "They're all pieces of the same puzzle, as opposed to before, when things were a little more disjointed," he said.

Flewellen and Mosley agreed. "We're working on a purpose. One vision," Mosley said. "Everyone in the community is funneling their energy in one direction: sustainable communities."

The lamb only lived a few weeks before meeting a violent end -- Diop thinks a dog crawled under the fence one night and attacked it -- and people stopped coming to the garden as often afterwards. "It was kind of discouraging at first," said Diop. "But I think people are feeling better now. We're hoping the ewe might get pregnant again. There's still some hope."

Carol Naughton acknowledges that East Lake is not a grand solution to the country's education problems. "We can't knock down all the housing in the United States," she says. "But in places where we can start from scratch, we should think about what we want to build -- and how that can affect education."

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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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