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Research Round Up: Aligning Schools into the Neighborhood

Deborah L. McKoy, Jeffrey M. Vincent and Ariel H. Bierbaum, "Opportunity-Rich Schools and Sustainable Communities: Seven Steps to Align High-Quality Education with Innovations in City and Metropolitan Planning and Development," The Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California-Berkeley, June 2011

As practitioners of comprehensive community development well know, a community’s health and the quality of its schools are interdependent. This connection is also deeply and personally understood by families across the country. For those with ample resources, the quality of local schools often determines where they choose to live. And for many low-income communities, improving the quality of local schools is a top priority.

It would seem reasonable to expect, then, that city planners and community developers engaged in community revitalization efforts would work hand in hand with educational institutions that aim to improve local schools. Where cross-sector collaboration does occur, both schools and communities benefit. But such collaboration is still the exception rather than the rule.

A new report from the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California-Berkeley attempts to bridge this divide. “Opportunity-Rich Schools and Sustainable Communities: Seven Steps to Align High-Quality Education with Innovations in City and Metropolitan Planning and Development” examines strategies to link and integrate community improvement and school improvement efforts. The authors interviewed more than 50 policymakers, researchers, community developers and community leaders to identify policies and specific practices which “promote positive educational outcomes in tandem with housing, transportation and sustainable community policies.”

They used the results to develop a seven-step framework for “effective, aligned and integrated policies.”

  • Get to know your educational landscape
  • Engage school leaders, families and young people in planning and development
  • Establish a shared vision and metrics linking high-quality education to economic prosperity at community and regional levels
  • Support the whole life of learners through services and amenities
  • Align bricks-and-mortar investments for regional prosperity
  • Maximize access to opportunity through transportation
  • Institutionalize what works to secure gains and ensure ongoing innovation

The seven-step framework includes many activities familiar to comprehensive community developers, such as asset mapping, engagement, visioning and alignment. Step 4, “support the whole life of learners,” is particularly well-aligned with neighborhood-based comprehensive community development programs, and many community-based organizations are indeed partnering with local schools to deliver programs and services that support students in and out of school.

For example, the report describes how a program in Oregon’s Multnomah County delivers a range of social, health and support services to 21,000 students at 60 community schools. And in the section about Step 5, “alignment of bricks-and-mortar investments,” the authors include several examples of partnerships between school districts and other organizations to build new facilities that are jointly used by multiple local partners.

As the researchers point out, it is not always easy to overcome long-entrenched practices of public agencies and other neighborhood stakeholders working in isolation. In one community I was working with years ago, neighborhood leaders were frantic to get a new elementary school built—and with good reason. The public housing authority had recently constructed more than 80 units of new scattered site housing in a fourteen block area, adding more than 100 new students to the already overcrowded local elementary school. During the several years it had taken to acquire the lots and prepare the construction drawings, nobody from the housing authority had coordinated with school district or city planners. By the time construction began, there was insufficient time to expand the capacity of the existing school to accommodate increased enrollment, and for several years students endured extremely overcrowded conditions.

This complete lack of even minimal coordination is, hopefully, becoming less common. But achieving a minimum level of coordination—which itself is by no means yet guaranteed—sets the bar too low. As the authors point out, efforts to improve education and efforts to improve communities must be strategically integrated, especially in communities struggling with poverty, crime, substandard housing and other conditions which provide daunting obstacles to a student’s success.

This report does not provide unique and extraordinary approaches for those goals. The “promising practices” highlighted in the report are, instead, good examples of the practical, common-sense approaches already being put into action around the country. I appreciate the authors’ efforts to include these practical examples for each step in their seven-step framework. The real-world cases illustrate that better integration of school improvement and community development is not only possible, it is happening.

Eileen Figel is director of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development. For more than twenty years she has provided community planning, development, and public policy services to community organizations, municipalities and developers across the United States.


Posted in Journal Volume 2, Number 2 -- December, 2011, Education & Early Learning

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