Education: It Takes a Community

This is the third in a series of four blogs that we will post during Connected Educator Month.

In our first blog, titled "Education: Making the Connections," we introduced the concept of a triangle with the student at the center and with the family at the top and the school and the community at either tip. We see the tips of the triangle as the pivotal points at which we need to make the proper connections in order to improve the quality of education.

In the second blog, we focused on schools. In this blog we address the community connection and in our final blog we will discuss the family connection.

In our opinion, the critical and pivotal importance of making the community connection has been consistently underestimated in the movement to try to upgrade the quality of education nationally.

The Bush administration brought us No Child Left Behind. Today, the emphasis is on the Common Core State Standards. Both have been legitimate attempts to improve student performance.

In our opinion, however, their potential was and is limited. That's because they are classroom-centered solutions to what are heavily community- and family-based problems. Approaches such as these might make a modest difference but they cannot compensate sufficiently for contextual disadvantages.

That's not just our opinion. It is also that of noted educators Jean Anyon and Diane Ravitch.

Jean Anyon, who passed away recently, was a professor of educational policy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In 1997, she wrote a seminal book, Ghetto Schooling, based upon her work with elementary schools in Newark. In the conclusion of her book, she asserts, "To really improve ghetto children's chances, we must ultimately, therefore eliminate poverty; we must eliminate the ghetto school by eliminating the underlying causes of ghettoization."

Diane Ravitch's position aligns with Professor Anyon's. Ravitch was an assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. While in that job, she was a principal architect of the shift toward stronger mandated uniform standards, vouchers and charter schools.

Over the past several years, Ravitch has been leading the charge to reform those reforms. In 2010 she authored a book titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System arguing forcefully against the standardized testing culture that has dominated the educational landscape for more than a decade.

This year she released a new book titled Reign of Error with the telling subtitle, The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. In his review of that book for the New York Times, Jonathan Kozol notes, "Again and again, she returns to this: 'Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation,' which make for a 'toxic mix.'"

Noted "urbanist" Richard Florida reinforces the perspectives of Anyon and Ravitch. In his Atlantic article, "The Boom Towns and Ghost Towns of the New Economy," he observes, "Knowledge workers benefit from living in neighborhoods with better schools, better amenities and lower crime rates while less advantaged groups are sometimes stuck in place, with limited prospects for climbing even one rung up the economic ladder and insufficient resources to move out of stagnant areas."

So, community matters to schools and schools matter to a community. There is an unequivocal interdependence. If we want to strengthen schools serving those most in need (whether in urban or rural areas), we must strengthen the communities in which they are located.

Yet, the trend across the country following the devastating and lingering social and economic effects of the Great Recession has been to close "poor performing" schools thus attenuating the community-school connection. Take Chicago as an example.

This year Chicago closed almost 50 elementary schools -- more than 10 percent of the schools in the city. Speaking against the shuttering of schools in his ward, Alderman Ameya Pawar said, "Closing a school is akin to closing a community."

We have not seen any research assessing the economic value of a school to a community or neighborhood. Redfin, the national realty broker, however, just released a study that showed that "buyers pay $50 more per square for homes in top rated school districts compared with homes served by average rated schools."

The schools that were closed in Chicago were not top rated and most probably not even average rated. Many of these schools, on the other hand, were in African American communities that were already losing population and jobs.

As Greg Hinz reported in Crain's Chicago Business drawing upon the analyses of the Grassroots Collaborative and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, "While the city lost 180,000 African Americans in the last census, the black population in the region was off only 72,000." Hinz comments that, "...16 majority-black census tracts 'lost' downtown jobs, a median 620 each between 2007 and 2011. But in 28 majority-white ZIP codes and five with no racial majority the median increase was 509 jobs and 253 jobs respectively."

There is no question that the demographics were already working against these African American -- and other impoverished -- communities. A sorting out was going on according to socio-economic rather than racial characteristics. White flight to the suburbs was being replaced by "black lack" in the inner-city neighborhoods.

These communities are "at risk." They are shells of what they once were. Eliminating public schools in them -- whether it is for academic, economic or other reasons -- hollows them out even further and makes them less financially viable and sustainable.

The question becomes can anything be done to "stop the bleeding" and to resuscitate those communities in Chicago and countless others like them in urban and rural areas across the country. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer and to date far too little attention has been paid to the community school connection. We have seen a few "green shoots," however.

Through its Promise Neighborhoods Program (Promise Program), the U.S. Department of Education has given planning grants of $500,000 to 21 programs across the country and will provide $30 million annually to these programs to support kids by "focusing on their needs outside of school" such as health and nutrition. The Promise Program is modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone program -- featured in the film Waiting for Superman -- where community leaders improved local school performance by providing "wrap around services in a 97-block area over a decade."

Drexel University and PECO in Philadelphia have established a Community Education Collaborative. The energy company, PECO, has pledged $1 million over five years to Drexel to help it improve public education in the Powelton Village and Mantua neighborhoods near the University. Drexel's assistance to those communities will include working with the elementary schools there and engaging school and community leaders in developing an educational plan.

Admittedly, these initiatives pale in comparison to the scope and size of the need. Still, they are a start and an indication that there is some recognition that to Save Our Schools we must Save Our Communities. The importance of this recognition and acting upon it in terms of the future of America and Americans can not be overstated.

In the conclusion of his Atlantic article, Richard Florida highlights the need in this way:

"But a poor person from a knowledge center like San Jose or San Francisco has twice the chance of becoming wealthy as a poor person from some Rust Belt or Sun Belt centers like Cleveland or Atlanta.

Reckoning with these deepening class and geographic divides, finding and implementing a set of policies that can build a sustainable prosperity for everyone, is the toughest and, at the time same time, most urgent challenge we face."