girl and boy symbols painted on a wall.


Could Gentrification Be Changing D.C. Schools for the Better?

While gentrification's benefits and drawbacks have been discussed at length, one aspect has been largely overlooked: its effect on neighborhood schools.

Photo credit: Jodi Green via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

girl and boy symbols painted on a wall.

Photo by Jodi Green via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The transformation of previously disinvested urban centers by gentrification has become increasingly widespread over the past decade. While the benefits and drawbacks have been discussed at length, one aspect has been largely overlooked: gentrification’s effect on neighborhood schools.

Neighborhoods that gentrify usually benefit from new services and amenities like grocery stores and other retail within walking distance, better public transit connections, reduced crime, and perhaps most importantly, attention from local government. But does an influx of affluent residents and their children have a beneficial effect on local public schools?

While in many cases gentrification usually stops at the schoolhouse door, in our recent study of Washington, D.C.’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, we found that as many of the city’s neighborhoods have become more racially diverse, racial school segregation has declined. This is a promising development since desegregated schools are strongly linked with numerous positive outcomes, including higher academic achievement, a reduction in racial prejudice, higher levels of civic engagement, and a greater likelihood of students living and working in diverse environments later in life.

Our analysis of neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.’s fastest gentrifying areas showed that the white population increased in those places from approximately 5 percent in 2000 to almost 50 percent in 2015. During this same period, the white public school enrollment in the same areas increased from 1 to 8 percent. While the increase in the percentage of white students is not as large as the neighborhood level changes, it is a sign that white parents are beginning to engage with the local schools. It also means that racial segregation in these increasingly diverse neighborhoods is on the decline.

While our data from D.C. schools show that segregation still persists at high levels in both charters and traditional public schools, segregation levels have declined more substantially in traditional public schools (TPSs) than in charters. Between 2007 and 2014, the share of hyper-segregated TPSs (meaning 90 percent or more of students are of color), fell from 67 to 41 percent. During the same time, the share of hyper-segregated charter schools in D.C.’s gentrifying areas declined more modestly, from 77 to 70 percent.

While these changes present an opportunity to integrate previously segregated schools, we must ensure that the process is managed through coordinated and targeted policies to ensure that it creates inclusive communities rather than displacing lower-income residents.

As white, middle-class young adults who grew up in the suburbs are increasingly opting for city living and settling into urban neighborhoods, evidence shows they are enrolling their children in the local public schools. This prospect suggests that cities and school districts have a unique opportunity to figure out how to leverage the arrival of affluent families who are willing to bet on public schools before this diversity disappears and classrooms become majority white. The challenge requires creative policies that underscore the deep and fundamental relationships between housing and schools. In 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development engaged in dialogue discussing how gentrifying neighborhoods can manage change in ways that keep communities inclusive, affordable, dynamic, and diverse.

Most cities and districts experiencing rapid gentrification haven’t yet figured out what those policies might look like, but some are trying to develop them. Denver public schools recently launched the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a citywide effort to look at how rapid gentrification is changing Denver’s public schools, come up with ideas to combat its most pernicious effects, and integrate previously de facto segregated schools. Their strategies include redrawing school boundary lines, system priorities for socio-economic status, innovative transportation solutions, and the creation of new and specialized schools.

For schools to capitalize on the integrative possibilities of this wave of urban gentrification, they need a strategy to attract newcomers while also encouraging positive diversity. They must avoid becoming “boutique schools,” —catering to the upper-middle class which has isolated itself both racially and economically as the neighborhood changes around them.

Magnet schools and dual language programs can have strong integrative possibilities. Research asserts that magnet schools, which provide specialized curricula to attract students from a variety of backgrounds, can provide integrated, higher-quality schooling for low-income students living in gentrifying neighborhoods when compared with non-specialized public schools. School and community leaders should also focus on the development and promotion of dual language schools, as studies have found links between their graduates and future employment opportunities and better salaries.

Despite research that points toward integration as the best way to improve future opportunities for poor and minority children, policymakers have, for the most part, abandoned this aspect of schooling. Attracting the new middle-class families in a gentrifying area to the local schools has the potential to create educational integration. These families can increase financial support for the schools, and foster peer groups that accelerate educational gains and numerous positive outcomes for all students. However, successful management of the gentrification process is essential to ensure that it creates inclusive communities rather than displacing low-income residents and residents of color.

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