Monday, September 28, 2009

Children Face the Greatest Risk

Fifteen years ago, we knew that we must abandon the model of concentrating poverty in public housing projects and move in the direction of creating economically integrated, market rate quality, mixed-income communities. We knew that the concentrated poverty of traditional public housing projects was having an insidious and corrosive impact on the lives of the residents, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the entire Atlanta community. What we had not fully comprehended was the negative impact these concentrated poverty residential arrangements were having on the neighborhood public schools and the educational outcomes of the children who attended those schools.

As my dear friend Dr. Norman Johnson, a former professor at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon and Florida A&M, and a former Atlanta public school board member, puts it, “If you concentrate poverty in the residential arrangement, you cannot help but concentrate poverty in the neighborhood school. And, if you concentrate poverty in the school, it doesn’t work.”

The nation for decades has been divided about education reform. Progressives are blamed for merely wanting to throw money at schools. Conservatives are accused of wanting to undermine public schools in favor of private education. What’s often missing in this debate is a clear strategy towards proven success. Those extremes aren’t the answer. A pragmatic approach that is based on proven, successful strategies is what is needed.

The educators, sociologists and economists who have extensively studied education issues have all concluded that concentrating low-income children as a sociological design in schools does not work. This is not a statement about the ability or capacity of low-income children to learn. It is, indeed, a statement about the sociological environment that is needed to facilitate learning and great educational outcomes for children. We all know that education is the language of life and civilization and education is the great equalizer.

While engaged in this debate, the world has changed and the educational challenges have become more urgent because we are now engaged in global competition. In order to sustain our globally competitive posture, we must resolve to better educate a larger percentage of our population.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque and one of America’s foremost urban thinkers, has written a paper titled “Housing Policy Is Education Policy." This paper should be a primer for everyone engaged in national housing and education discussions. As the title implies, it makes little sense to talk about housing policy unless you factor in education or to talk about education policy unless you factor in housing policy.

Rusk’s central thesis is that if you deconcentrate poverty among school populations, the success rate goes up. However, deconcentrating poverty in neighborhood public schools has proved to be difficult and many large urban public school systems are broken and troubled. Policies that favor concentrating families in public housing projects only exacerbate the problem of poverty-dominated schools. Sadly, academic failure under these conditions has been almost a certainty.

By contrast, in schools with a mix of income groups, we know that average test scores go up as the percentage of middle-class students increases. Ah, you say, that’s only because if you put low-income children in a middle-class school the blended rate of success, such as test scores, is likely to be higher than the average test scores at a predominantly low-income school. Not the case!

Rusk found a stunning trend in his research:

o In an Albuquerque study of 1,108 students, the average pupil from a public housing household showed a 0.22 percent increase in a basic skills test for every one percent increase in middle-class classmates.

o In Baltimore, the average basic skills test scores for low-income students went up 0.18 percent for every one percent increase in the middle-class classmates.

o A study of 186 Texas school districts showed that for every one percent increase in the number of middle-class students in a school, low-income students improved their chances of passing state exams by 0.27 percent.

Rusk also cited two schools in Buffalo, NY, to illustrate his thesis. The school with the smallest class size and greatest per-pupil expenditures was not the school with the highest achievement rate. Why? As Rusk explained, the more successful school, with larger classes and lower funding, had a poverty rate of only 7 percent of its students. The less successful school, even with its class-size and monetary advantages, had a poverty rate of 81 percent.

Put another way, in those studies the average scores of poor children attending a predominantly middle-class school will show a double-digit percentage improvement over the average scores of a poor child relegated to a largely low-income school.

“When there are significant socio-economic disparities, the effects of poverty and low parental education just wipe out other factors,” Rusk reported.

That opinion is echoed throughout academic research. A 2004 Rand Corp. study found the “most critical factors associated with the educational achievement of children … appear to be socio-economic ones. These factors include parental education levels, neighborhood poverty, parental occupation status and family income.”

The impact of socio-economic background of schoolchildren’s families on academic outcomes was first documented in 1966 by renowned sociologist James S. Coleman in “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” He studied American schools in depth and here are several of his major findings:

· “The educational resources that a child’s classmates bring to school are more important than the educational resources that the school board provides. … [T]he social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

· “Poor children learn best when surrounded by middle-class classmates.”

In Atlanta, we have studies that mirror these findings. Poor children who move from schools embedded in, or captive to, public housing projects to mainstream schools do much better because of the improved socio-economic environment. Georgia Tech’s Dr. Thomas D. Boston, in a 2005 paper, “Environment Matters,” found that “children who live in high-poverty communities do not receive proper educational guidance, and miss out on important early childhood learning experiences, recreational and after school activities, and/or other enrichment programs which help their development and lay the ‘foundation for success or failure in school’ and in life.”

As administrators of housing programs, real estate developers or professionals in related fields, we know that concentrating poverty in public housing projects or other residential arrangements leads to terrible human failure. We must never forget that a huge percentage of the people living in public housing projects are children. Thus, the toxic impact of concentrated poverty has had a disproportionate impact on our children, setting the stage for generational devastation.

When we began reshaping Atlanta’s housing policies 15 years ago, we knew that if we overburdened schools with children of poor families, the failure would spread. So, the goal was blending children of all economic backgrounds in schools where the positive sociology would support every child.

The results of achieving that goal were clear. At Techwood Homes, one of Atlanta’s worst projects, Boston found that in 1995 just 10 percent of the students at the neighborhood elementary school passed a basic writing skills test. By 2002, there was a new mixed-income community, Centennial Place, with a new neighborhood school, Centennial Place Elementary. Boston found that 62 percent of the neighborhood children passed the basic writing skills test – a level that was about 50 percent higher than all elementary schools in the Atlanta system.

With the studies of Rusk, Coleman, Boston and many others, we realize what works best: schools with a healthy mix of income groups, which optimally means that low-income students account for no more than 20 percent of the pupils.

Achieving goals for schools is a matter of sensible policymaking. By adopting and implementing policies that result in the creation of economically integrated communities, we can embrace a strategy and a sociological design for the schools that has a proven track record. With this improved sociological design (coupled with progressive school reform), our nation’s public schools have a substantially improved prognosis.

As the studies have shown, deconcentrating poverty in housing and schools is a great idea and even better public policy.

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