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.


  1. I can't help but say "WHAT" !!!

    Fifteen years ago when I was a resident of Vine City, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Atlanta, I had hoped you would come in with the mantra you are saying now.

    There were far too few of us who saw that throwing money at the "administrators" of the problem, fed the problem.

    While we tried to get you, Ms. Tunubu, who thought renaming Stewert Ave to Metropolitian Ave was the key to success, Ms. Sinkfield, who thought more TANF money was the key to success, Mr. Dean, who had a good heart and not much else, and others to RETHINK how concentrated poverty INCREASED ITSELF, it seemed that none of you were curious enough for the impoverished.

    I'm glad to see you have investigated other avenues of progress.

    I can claim no moral high ground, for Vine City is still in the midst of being poor and I have moved on, but I could not allow my children to go through their teen years in that area.

    In the end we are where we are, and I am interested in your ideas.

    If I can lend a hand, let me know.
    I'll continue to read your ideas

    Cheers !!!

  2. I read the article by David Rusk and found it to be informative. I worked as an "inner city" elementary school principal in Atlanta for over twenty years. I would characterize my overall experience as an exercise in futility. I realized early on inn my career that project schools were not good things for children to be caught up in; the cycle of poverty that existed was overwhelming. I am talking about generational poverty. I saw three and sometimes four generations of families that were raised in the same housing project. Despite the challenges, I also saw most of the teachers and my colleagues giving it their all. I think the housing plan that Ms. Glover instituted is worthy of praise. It has helped to break the project/poverty cycle. Unfortunately, whites have continued to flee the public schools as they had been way before 1995, leaving a majority black district that is still mostly poor. Gary Orfield, in 1987, of the University of Chicago at the time cited Atlanta Public schools as one of the most segregated systems in the US. It still is, and is due to racism. Most whites do not want to live around blacks.

  3. Good piece. While I don't question the thesis, I am wondering if there was any analysis conducted regarding the relative performance of the middle class students. It would be wonderful if their learning improved and their scores increased as well, but it is not clear from any of the studies cited. I think it conceivable, but it would likely take exceptional teachers to achieve this result given the disparate learning/functioning levels of the students. In order to get more of the middle class to buy into this program, you need to be able to make that case as well.

  4. I agree in theory, however, what I find most troubling is the toll taken on struggling, trying to be gentrified communites that are suddenly deluged with Section 8 families removed from highly concentrated,impoverished communities. Little real oversight has been provided to insure that an uneventful transition into an established middle/working class community is accomplished. All too often the stereotypical house w/ numerous children spilling onto adjoining property, old junk cars, drug trafficing and in general, disorderly, undesirable conduct is present. Thus, the preception that Section 8 families "bring down the neighborhood" is perpetuated.
    If the voucher program were more closely monitored to prevent additional residents who are not on the lease, and if recipients were taught and required to comply with the concepts and responsiblities of living in a community, a lot of these complaints could be avoided. Likewise,your design has failed to address the resulting decline in testing scores for those schools that have had an infusion of students from areas of concentrated poverty as well as the disciplinary problems and poor habits those students may have brought from their prior environments.


  5. If we continue to uproot these families each time the household numbers and ages change, forcing children to change schools and classmates we are disrupting the progress

  6. To Renee,
    I have a home for rent in Atlanta(AHA) and before I sign the lease to the woman with five children this is the question that I would like her oldest to answer.

    I want the oldest child of 14 years of age to write a one or two page letter on this topic/subject.
    1. Three reasons why I want to go to college/trade or tech school.
    2. And what I will do to get there.

    I can't wait to see his/her answers on this topic. I will keep you posted.


  7. Again, I regret to use this forum to beard but it seems to be the only way to reach someone high enough within the housing authority to get anything done.

    We have 2 homes where the tenants were asked to move so the housing authority could pay more rent because they were "under housed". We were not notified by the housing authority that the tenant was moving and the rent stopped unannounced. One of the tenants desperately didn't want to leave and the other is still in the unit and has not moved still. I guess the housing authority is looking for new ways to spend more on career welfare recipients?

    I made a post on this blog about this matter about a month ago and we were promptly notified by Timothy Libby and he apologetically said you will be paid for these months and we will even pay the late fee in your lease. Excellent!

    Well, we got the late fees but no rent for the units. Unbelieveable. We are now owed $3240 in rent for these two units. The mortgage payments for these homes were paid 2 months ago and we are still begging for rent. This is exhausting.

    We have a new problem. An inspector went to a third property because the tenant refuses to speak directly to her landlord and we were informed that we needed to make 2 repairs. We were told by the inspector that we had 30 days to make the repairs. We then got abated $511 for the repairs not being completed in 24 hours. The portal entry never mentioned a 24 hour item and the inspector agreed that he would update the system. Why the $511 abatement?

    We are now owed $3751 and when we call again on Monday to get the check, they will promise it will be on the check at the first of the month and guaranteed, IT WON'T ALL BE on there (they will mean too, but it will not happen). Every screw up by the housing authority takes 3 phone calls to voicemail boxes that are full and 3 attempts by someone you reach to rectify.

    We are struggling to make ends meet with 30+ City of Atlanta rental properties and we can not wait any longer to get paid.

    Again, I apologize for airing this matter in this way but the people of authority within AHA that can get us paid NOW are throughly protected by many layers of a nonresponsive organization. Call us today please at 404-918-9519. Ask for Sheila.

  8. I won't argue with the research discussing the positive impact that a mixed-income environment. I will however, argue against transporting students across great distances each morning and afternoon to achieve such diversification.

    The mixed-income community seems to me, to be the better approach. In this way, the spirit of a community is maintained, and parents are afforded the opportunity to take greater pride and interest in their local school. Moreover, parents are afforded better access (distance) to the local schools.

    A previous poster identified a potential problem with the NIMBY attitude associated with both mixed-income communities and HCV residents. Improving understanding, behavioral factors, and a sense of ownership must accompany any responsible approach to building communities.

    On another note, Malcolm Gladwell discusses in detail the outside-of-school cultivation found in middle- and upper-class families in his book, "Outliers". Those families do not allow children to be idle during the summer months, such that they begin each new school year ready to learn -- little time is necessary to refresh/relearn material from the prior year.

    Of course, a difference might be that more affluent families are able to have a parent at home to foster such learning activities during those summer months, as opposed to lower-income families that might struggle to simply find affordable daycare services while they continue to work necessary day jobs during the summertime. Here, we return to one of our key problems.

    If I had an immediate solution, I'd offer it.... I simply wanted to share my thoughts.

  9. wow this is great, what she did because other wise alot of kids will be failing faster than an average student

  10. whoa thats pretty


Bookmark and Share