Skip to main content

The links — and lack of links — between schools and neighborhoods

Related stories: Analyzing "the things that connect them" and "To what end?"


Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, and Mary Bourque, superintendent of the public schools in Chelsea, Mass.

Gordon Walek

Neighborhoods where poor people live aren't all the same.

"A low-income community in chaos is fundamentally different from a low-income community where the housing is stabilized, where the streets are relatively safe, where there's an economic connection to the mainstream," noted Paul Grogan, the president of The Boston Foundation.

And it's amazing, he said, how well community development groups across the nation have been able to stabilize the housing, improve the safety and boost economic connections in such neighborhoods — despite the presence of poorly performing schools.

"Urban school reform is the final frontier of community development," said Grogan, the former president and CEO of the Local Initiative Support Corp. (LISC).

Grogan's comments came during a presentation at an Oct. 18 meeting in Boston of the advisory board of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, a LISC affiliate. His was one of two presentations that looked at the linkages — and often the lack of linkages — between what goes on inside urban schools and what goes on in the neighborhoods.

Gordon Walek

"Bad city schools," Grogan said, "will drive upwardly mobile people out of the city.  It's been going on for decades."

"Great new hope"

However, because of the charter school movement, "we are at a moment of great new hope for urban education," he said.  The success of charter schools in teaching children living in poverty — in contrast to the traditional education bureaucracies — "is too large to ignore."  

The other presentation was by Mary Bourque, superintendent of the public schools in Chelsea, a high-poverty suburb of Boston.

The lack of affordable housing in the city of Chelsea has a direct and negative impact on the ability of teachers to educate children, she said.  Poor families end up moving from one place to another in an endless cycle.

"One girl in junior high moved 20 times since kindergarten," Bourque said, "and lived in a dozen or so states."

In the course of a year, 20 percent of the students who start in the Chelsea schools will move out of the district while a comparable number of students will move in. "Only 14 percent of the kindergarten class in the Chelsea Public Schools will graduate 13 years later, she said.

Those children who move to new schools have to start over each time.  The teachers in the new schools have to take time to get them oriented and on track.  As a result, Bourque said, the students who don't move don't get as much attention and instruction as they need.

"Student mobility is an issue that has not been addressed," she said.

"Left out of the schools"

In the discussion that followed, Anne Kubisch, director of the Aspen Institute's Roundtable on Community Change, said, "We just did a review of 48 comprehensive community revitalization efforts, and one of the things we asked was:  How well are you integrating and interacting with your schools?

"It was shocking how few of them had positive things to say about their interactions with their school systems.

Michael Rubinger, LISC's president and CEO, led the discussion of schools and neighborhoods

Gordon Walek

"They consistently said, 'We feel like we're left out of the schools. The school will not let us in to talk together about how the state of the school is dependent on the state of the community, and the state of the community is dependent on the success of the school.'  This requires a different kind of conversation than we have ever had."

For many years, community development efforts were aimed mainly at improving housing.  Over the past decade, the focus has widened, and many revitalization programs have taken a comprehensive approach.

"Housing is central"

But Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC), said the presentations indicated that, in seeking comprehensiveness, community developers shouldn't forget about housing.

"While housing may not be everything we should do, it is something we should do," he said.  "As LISC and other community developers take on these more comprehensive agendas, housing is still very important.  Housing is central to economic outcomes.  Housing is central to public health.  Housing is central to economic opportunities for families.

"The Institute might ask the question:  What would the affordable housing system look like — what tools and infrastructure would we have — if the housing system was oriented to comprehensive community development?  What if housing was in the service of comprehensive community change rather than the other way around?"

The lack of "domestic tranquility"

"There are many, many neighborhoods that ain't got domestic tranquility," noted Hipolito "Paul" Roldan, president of the Hispanic Housing Development Corp., in Chicago.

Gordon Walek

And, warned Hipolito "Paul" Roldan, president of the Hispanic Housing Development Corp., in Chicago, don't forget about the difficulty of children getting to school safely.

Gangs remain a major stumbling block to the improvement of schools and neighborhoods, he said.

"The preamble to the Constitution states that one of the main purposes for the formation of our government was to ensure domestic tranquility," Roldan said.

"Well, there are many, many neighborhoods that ain't got domestic tranquility."

Posted in Education & Early Learning

Stay connected

Stay up to date with news and events related to the Institute: