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

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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