Create the Right Community Conditions

Boosting teacher and principal performance in high-needs schools is a solution to the achievement gap that’s hard to fault. But many urge a broader view and more resources to attack the stresses that contribute to unequal education, and not incidentally make it harder to recruit and retain educators.

There are at least two approaches. One is to make sure that high-needs schools and their high-needs students get more of their needs met with a wraparound array of services. Or one can break up the kind of concentrated poverty that makes it so much harder to educate in a building.

Both methods are being tried.

New funding for community schools in New York City will tackle a host of issues closely associated with poverty. Fifty-two million dollars has been allocated to serve 45 schools at the outset, with the program launching early this year. At each location, there will be a resource coordinator. Support will span a variety of services such as early childhood education, health care, free meals, and truancy prevention. Mayor De Blasio has also designated $150 million over a three-year period for “The School Renewal Program,” designed to turn around the city’s 94 most challenged schools using a community school approach.

In gentrifying Park Slope, lessening racial and economic segregation is the explicit goal at one district school. Nearly 75 percent of Brooklyn Academy of Arts & Letters students came from low-income families eight years ago, but that percentage has shrunk to below 40 percent.

According to Richard Kahlenberg, who has been researching the issue of high-poverty schools for over 20 years, student success is simply too compromised in “apartheid” environments. He was an early proponent of teasing out race from class, and he urges that education policy move forward by assuring that no students attend schools with a more than 40 percent impoverished population. He said, “The major problem with American schools is not teachers or their unions – but poverty and economic segregation. That’s what the research suggests. It’s what 80 school districts [around the country] have come to realize.”

In jurisdictions where a direct assault has been made on economic isolation, Kahlenberg says student performance has risen dramatically. For example, in Wake County, North Carolina, efforts to disrupt segregation by wealth yielded even better results than the positive results found in Charlotte-Mecklenberg after their school-based programs. Montgomery County, Maryland, offers another example, where students who were sent to schools with peers from higher-income families substantially increased their academic achievement.

However, just a half-hour north in Baltimore, eight “opportunity” schools have been beating the odds with excellent student achievement in their overwhelmingly minority and poor settings. Why? Teachers and administrators say it’s the high expectations and substantial support.

In New York, the economic and racial divide is especially notable. Gary Orfield, the co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, said last spring, “In the 30 years I have been researching schools, New York State has consistently been one of the most segregated states in the nation. No Southern state comes close to New York.” And Oldfield thinks a new path is necessary. “Decades of reforms ignoring this issue produced strategies that have not succeeded in making segregated schools equal. It is time to adopt creative school choice strategies to give more New York children an opportunity to prepare to live and work effectively in a highly multiracial state.”

It’s vital that we provide services so that children come to school ready to learn, and are in buildings with equal resources, and a feeling of safety and order. Investing in all children is key. It’s costly to meet special education and ELL students’ needs. But so is ignoring all but those easiest to teach. The open question – whether maintaining economic segregation makes failure nearly inevitable for many students, despite exceptions like the selective Medgar Evers College Prep.