No institution is more central to a suburban neighborhood than the local school. People work and worship in different places, and many rarely venture beyond their property line except in a car. But they all walk their kids to the same bus stop in the morning, where they arrange car pools to pick the kids up from their after-school activities. And if one parent is unhappy about something at school, that bus stop is where the other parents hear about it, too. Next thing you know, there’s a delegation meeting with the principal or demanding action before the school board. And action they usually get.
Schools are even more important to low-income neighborhoods. In the American mythology, education is the route up in the world, the way children of today’s poor become tomorrow’s middle class. A good local school not only lifts up the children already there, but also attracts families who are a little better off, with all of the economic and social benefits that such diversity can bring to a neighborhood.
So why are many public schools in low-income areas doing so poorly by their students? You might blame the state legislature, which isn’t providing enough resources. Or blame a bureaucracy more concerned about shuffling paperwork than improving academic achievement. Or perhaps blame the unions, whose work rules allow the best, most experienced teachers to avoid the schools that most need their skills. While you’re at it, blame the victims: those inconsiderate children who dare to show up at the schoolhouse door not “ready to learn.”
Well, perhaps we shouldn’t blame the children. They didn’t choose to grow up poor, in troubled families and even more troubled neighborhoods. The baggage they carry to school each day isn’t theirs – it belongs to a society that tolerates poverty and all its effects. If schools are going to offer these children hope for a brighter future, then they will have to provide the extra time, attention, and resources that will be necessary to ensure that the opportunity we provide to the disadvantaged really is equal.
If they don’t – and let’s face it, many don’t – then the rest of us have a job to do. Improving schools is essential to community building. All our good work will suffer if the schools in our neighborhoods remain sub-par. Lenders devote significant resources to housing, including homeownership opportunities. But who would want to invest where their kids can’t get a decent education – and where property values reflect that sad fact? Community organizers strive mightily to clean up the streets, but how clean will they stay if the next generation faces the same lack of opportunity that burdens this one? And just how comprehensive is a comprehensive community initiative that says, “Well, the schools are intractable, so let’s work on something we can actually change”?
In short, every community organization needs to be a community-and-school organization, or at least to actively support school reform initiatives spearheaded by others. Our efforts should be guided by a few basic principles. First, despair is not an option. Second, whatever we do has to help kids learn. Third, there can be no preconceived ideas. We cannot reject a reform proposal because it’s being pushed by conservatives, or because it threatens the political status quo. If children are learning, then it’s a good idea. If children aren’t learning, try something else.
This edition of Shelterforce examines the possibilities and challenges facing communities as they begin to address the problems that plague their schools. A topic as broad as education demands far more attention than a single issue of a magazine can provide, however, so this is only a beginning for us as well. In the next year, we plan to focus regularly on the efforts of communities to improve – and if necessary replace – their schools. We’ll look at what works and what doesn’t, and at how to create change in an institution that sometimes seems thoroughly resistant to it. As you work to improve the schools in your community, we’ll be working with you.