Saturday, August 9, 2014

Zip Codes and Schools

In the Washington Post, Neerav Kingsland writes about The Cost of Neighborhood Schools. Kingsland is specifically addressing the pushback on a DC plan to move away from the neighborhood school model toward something more New Orleans-y (Kingsland is the former chief executive for the New Schools in New Orleans).

Advocates, therefore, worry that communities would be weakened if students from across the city enrolled in neighborhood schools. They worry about long early-morning commutes. And they worry about predictability: In severing the connection between property and school enrollment, buying a house would no longer guarantee access to a nearby school. 

As one parent said recently in The Post, “Predictability is much greater than choice in terms of importance. That way you can plan.” 

Kingsland acknowledges all of these as legitimate concerns. But Kingsland wonders is these are worth leaving children in poor neighborhoods trapped in poor neighborhood schools.

That is also a legitimate concern. But I'm immediately reminded of the John Hopkins study that tracked children over 25 years. The findings of that study were that family and money are a strong factor in determining the future success of students. What's more valuable to note is the mechanism through which those factors exerted influence-- community cohesion.

Students from a poor background lacked a network of support, a community of connections that could help rescue them from missteps and poor choices. One data point-- rich white men and poor African American men used drugs at similar rates and were arrested for it at similar rates, but the well-to-do whites still found good work because they had connections.

Community cohesion creates a safety net for people (the same kind of safety net that many folks would rather not see the government responsible for). That seems to me to have large implications for New Orleans style reforms intent on dispersing students across a wide network of choice schools.

We've tried many solutions to the problems of schools that are underfunded and lack resources. We move the students around. We close the schools and re-open different ones (often outside that same neighborhood). Does it not make sense to move resources? We keep trying to fix things so that the poor students aren't all in the poor schools-- would it not more completely solve the problem to commit to insuring that there are no poor schools?

Doesn't that make sense? If the neighborhood school is not poor-- if it has a well-maintained physical plant, great resources, a full range of programs, and well-trained teachers (not some faux teachers who spent five weeks at summer camp)-- does that not solve the problem while allowing the students to enjoy the benefits of a more cohesive community?

Community and neighborhood schools have the power to be engines for stability and growth in their zip code. Instead of declaring that we must help students escape the schools in certain zip codes, why not fix the schools in that zip code so that nobody needs to escape them?